Kill your RSS reader, and use my amazing system for browsing the Web.

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May 1 2009 5:32 PM

Kill Your RSS Reader

And use my amazing system for browsing the Web.

Google Reader. Click image to expand.

In theory, the RSS reader is a great idea. Many years ago, as blogs became an ever-larger part of my news diet, I got addicted to Bloglines, one of the first popular RSS programs. I used to read a dozen different news sites every day, going to each site every so often to check whether something fresh had been posted. With Bloglines, I just had to list the sites I loved and it would do the visiting for me. This was fantastic—instead of scouring the Web for interesting stories, everything came to me!

Over the last few years, RSS has become an increasingly popular way to consume the Web; just about every online publication, and even many non-news sites like Craigslist and eBay, allows you to read its content this way. Eventually, I switched from Bloglines to Google Reader, a more powerful RSS program, which I'd use for hours every day.

But RSS started to bring me down. You know that sinking feeling you get when you open your e-mail and discover hundreds of messages you need to respond to—that realization that e-mail has become another merciless chore in your day? That's how I began to feel about my reader. RSS readers encourage you to oversubscribe to news. Every time you encounter an interesting new blog post, you've got an incentive to sign up to all the posts from that blog—after all, you don't want to miss anything. Eventually you find yourself subscribed to hundreds of blogs, many of which, you later notice, are completely useless. It's like having an inbox stuffed with e-mail from overactive listservs you no longer care to read.

It's true that many RSS readers have great tools by which to organize your feeds, and folks more capable than I am have probably hit on ways to categorize their blogs in a way that makes it easy to get through them. But that was just my problem—I began to resent that I had to think about organizing my reader. Moreover, I hated the software's bland interface; when you read blogs through RSS, you're only getting text, not design, so every blog looks like every other blog. But I didn't want Gawker to look like the New Republic; I needed a visual difference, in the same way that I want the National Enquirer to look distinct from the New York Times.

A year or so ago, I dumped RSS and began to look for a new way of reading stuff online. Eventually I found a system that works much better for me: bookmarks, browser tabs, and the middle mouse button. My technique allows me to scour the Web for great stuff far more efficiently—and with less guilt and more fun—than I could from the dull outpost of my RSS reader.

Before I describe how it works, let me give credit where it's due: I'd been muddling toward my system for a long time, but it wasn't until I read a post by Michael Surtees, who runs the blog DesignNotes, that I refined it. Surtees organizes the sites he reads according to how often he'd like to check them. In his browser, he created folders of bookmarks with names like M1, M2, M3, and so on. The numbers represent frequency—he's got dozens of blogs bookmarked in the M1 folder, and he checks those much more often than he looks in the M3 folder. When he starts his daily blog reading, Surtees opens the M1 folder in tabs—that is, he clicks the option to load everything in the folder into a separate browser tab, filling his screen with pages and pages of posts. (Surtees uses Firefox, but you can do the same thing in every major browser.)

My system is similar, though I give my folders friendlier names. In the "8 a.m." folder, I put the sites I check first thing in the morning: Techmeme, Google News, Drudge, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Digg, and others that round up the day's news. On the "10 a.m." list, I've got less pressing daily sites—things like Kottke, Andrew Sullivan, Marc Ambinder, Josh Marshall, Salon, and Fark. I've also got folders for pages that I like to check several times a week, folders for sites I check just once a week, and still more folders for blogs that I look at only a few times a month. Like Surtees, I've also got one more folder for blogs I'm not sure about—when I encounter something new that seems kind of interesting, I put it in the "Test" folder. I look at these from time to time, and if a site continues to appeal to me, I drag it into one of my other regular folders.

All this might sound like a bit of work, but I found that after the admittedly onerous initial setup time, maintaining this system is simpler than keeping your RSS reader organized. It's faster, too—an RSS reader takes time to switch between blogs, but when you open up a bunch of sites in tabs, you can move between them instantaneously. And of course, you get to see each site in full, not in a neutered RSS version. (Some caveats: If you keep a lot of tabs open for a long time, your browser might slow down, especially if you're using Firefox. I sometimes have to shut down my browser and load it up again to make it speedier. Session-recovery add-ons like Tab Mix Plus are helpful for this; they're also invaluable when your browser crashes.)

My system also makes liberal use of one of the best, least-known shortcuts built into modern Web browsers—the tab-managing powers of the middle mouse button, also known as the mouse wheel. If you think of the wheel only as a tool to scroll with, dear friend, you're missing out; the middle mouse button does so much more. For example, it's the best way to open a link in a background tab. Try it: Click and release the middle button on this link and—in most newer browsers—you'll see Slate's home page open up in a new tab. You can use the same button to quickly close unwanted tabs, too—click and release the tab you just opened, and voila, it disappears. In Firefox, the middle button has one extra power: Click an empty space in the tab bar and you'll open up the last tab you closed, which is a godsend if you accidentally sent away something important.

Armed with the middle mouse button, I skate through my day's blogs in short order. When I open up an aggregator like Buzzfeed, for example, I scan through each link and middle-click anything that looks interesting. These pages load up in a stream of tabs to the right of my current page. And that's pretty much how I spend my day—opening up a lot of tabs, middle-mouse-clicking all of their pertinent links, and then going from tab to tab in a never-ending quest for new news. I'm telling you, it's totally fun.

But that's just me—I'm curious how you do your daily surfing. I know everyone doesn't loathe RSS readers the way I do; if you've found a way to get right with RSS, or if you've come up with some completely different method of staying on top of the news, send me an e-mail or post a note to "The Fray" to let me know. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.) I'll pop open all of the best ideas in separate browser tabs and share the results in a future column.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.