Twitter is no substitute for a feed reader, but Shaun Inman’s Fever has replaced Google Reader

Update June 12 2010: I’ve actually stopped using Fever for the time being, because I now read nearly all my news on my iPad and I find Fever, which I would still recommend as a desktop client, doesn’t provide as pleasant a user experience on mobile devices. An iPad client for Fever, Ashes, is in the wings. In the mean time, I’ve switched to Reeder for iPad. Find out why here.

Such is the information glut, fifteen years after the Internet came into widespread use, that if you want to find something out, the chances are very high that you will find something about it, somehwere. Yet accessing that information — and, even more crucially, keeping track of it in case you want to access it again later (possibly much later) is something people tend not to care about. They rely on their “friend” Google, clicking on whatever link appears to suit their need, and then forgetting about it until the next time they to find something out. This method of accessing information only when you think of looking for it means:

  • that you are unlikely to be able to keep track of it if you ever want to access it later;
  • you will only get information if you actively seek it, so you miss out on anything you didn’t think of looking for in the first place.

Even if you’re not tech-savvy, use a feed reader; it’ll save you a lot of time and it isn’t a good idea to assume Twitter will push all the information you need to you

Blogs and news sites now offer a wide range of RSS feeds that can be tailored to suit your exact requirements. This blog, for instance, offers a range of feeds to which you can subscribe by clicking the RSS link in the menu at the top of this page.

Yet most of my friends aren’t tech-minded. So when I point out to them that they could save time by using a feed reader, which, does all the work of fetching the information you want to receive, they tend to look at me as if I were speaking in tongues, despite the fact that setting up a feed reader is childishly simple and a huge time-saver:

This is a basic explanation by CommonCraft aimed at explaining to people who like reading new on the web but don't know about it what RSS is and how it can easily save them valuable time.

A lot of them have enthusiastically taken up Twitter, maybe started using its list feature, and think they can rely on it to push any information to them in which they’re interested and that they didn’t actively search for on Google in the first place, in real time. Some people also use Facebook for the same purpose, which has nurtured a rather absurd Twitter-Facebook cold war in this particular segment of the social Internet.

Even Robert Scoble blogged on his Posterous (he also stopped using Posterous on the same day, which made me laugh, coming just a couple of months after he announced to the world that he was switching to it, but that’s another story) that he had decided to substitute Twitter for Google Reader:

I used to be the biggest user of Google Reader. At one point the Google Reader team told me I shared more items than anyone else [comment: I wonder how useful that colossal quantity of unsifted information was to his followers or, for that matter, to him]. But lately it’s a rare month I’ve checked into it and Twitter is in the process of adding a new feature—lists —that is getting me off of Google Reader altogether.

There’s no more reason to feel guilty just because you have 1,000+ unread items in your feed reader than there is if you haven’t read every printed newspaper you receive from cover to cover

Mr Scoble complains, in particular, that he has over 1,000 unread items in his Google Reader, and that Twitter “doesn’t tell him that.”

Mr Scoble—frankly a bit of a fashion-victim in my humble opinion—clearly doesn’t understand what a feed reader is: all it is is a virtual newspaper, conveniently allowing you to read—or not—any number of news items in one place, as if printed copies of those publications had been physically delivered to your doorstep. Yet when you read the newspaper, do you really read every single word on every page? Do you ever panic wondering whether you missed that article on page 19? Unlike Google Reader, printed newspapers don’t have a badge displaying a count of unread items; but having 1,000+ unread items is hardly a reason to substitute Twitter lists for feed, especially as the glut of information from a Twitter feed can be far more intimidating than on Google Reader. And, there’s no good way of saving Twitter updates, which can be searched to know what's going on in real time, much faster than Google, but can't be indexed, because they are designed for immediate consumption and emphatically not for reading later.

Having said that, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Google Reader. It’s a typically Google application: the server-end is superb, allowing you to access your feeds from anywhere and to manipulate them in almost any way you like; but its interface, even by Google standards, is, cluttered, absolutely hideous and about as user-unfriendly as you can get. Installing a theme, the best by far being Helvetireader [i], is one way of making Google Reader less inefficient. But I’ve basically been on the lookout for a good desktop Google Reader client, or a stellar desktop replacement for Google Reader, ever since I started using it in the first place.

Shaun Inman’s beautifully-designed Fever application very cleverly takes the guilt out of reading feeds and makes it an enjoyable and efficient experience

I’ve recently found a much better way of solving the unread-feed guilt issue: I started using Fever, a feed reader developed by the very clever designer and developer Shaun Inman. It’s a niche product because you need to install it and host it on your own domain, rather like Mint, his other offering which I use to keep tabs on my visitors [ii]. Fever costs $30, whereas most other feed readers are free.

You can easily import your feed to Fever from any other reader that exports in opml format. You then need to set it up, separating your feeds into three categories:

  • anything you don’t want to miss goes in a set of items called Kindling, which contains (subdivided into categories, if you wish) the feeds you’ve got into the habit of always reading;
  • anything else goes into a second set of “dispensible” feeds called Sparks: those that nearly always end up unread, but that from which you feel bad about unsubscribing altogether; those same feeds, in fact, that are making Mr Scoble feel guilty and drowning his inbox with thousands of unread stuff;
  • in the third pane, called “Hot”, Fever, using its own algorithm, displays a list of items taken from your Kindling and your Sparks: effectively, the more references to it, the higher the hotness factor that Fever assigns to it and the more you might want to read its contents even if they were initially in your Sparks.
Within the Fever interface, every feed item display can be customized exactly as the user wants
Within the Fever interface, every feed item display can be customized exactly as the user wants

What this means is that you spend less time reading your feeds, it ceases to be a chore and, above all, you don't miss any vital information.

The best feature about Fever is that it’s easy to customize almost any way you like

A major strength of Fever is that it can be totally customized, feed by feed, something Google Reader lacks, which I have found intensely irritating. Anything pulled from Flickr, for instance, can be set to display pictures, without which it doesn’t even make sense to view it in a feed reader, while chunky Guardian articles can just show summaries, with the full text just one click away. Short keys (The ones I use are A, for instance, to mark anything as read, Z to undo, S to save, U to toggle between read and unread items) are much more logical and convenient than on Google Reader or any other feed reader I’ve tested [iii].

The HOT view shows news stories that are most mentioned in your feed
The HOT view shows news stories that are most mentioned in your feed

Like Google Reader and like any web-based feed reader, Fever does one irritating thing, which is opening linked stories in your default browser. Because I don’t like toggling between two web instances when I’m reading feed (and also because I like keeping my feed items separate from any other pages I'm browsing), I solved this the easy way, by running Fever as a Fluid application:

  • this displays, if desired, the unread badge dreaded by Mr Scoble;
  • any links I open are tabs inside the Fluid application;
  • I can add a customized toolbar to make up for Fever’s nearly inexistent ability to push news items to social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, shorten urls, etc.: effectively, if you set it up in this way there’s practically nothing a desktop feed reader can do that Fever can’t;
  • the best part of this setup, as far as I’m concerned, is that people don’t even need to know I’ve stopped using Google Reader: although Fever allows me to run a proprietary RSS feed of any items I’ve “saved” using the S shortkey, adding the “Share on Google Reader” bookmarklet means I can continue adding any news items I wish to share to my existing stock of Google Reader shared items, without anyone even knowing I’m no longer reading that feed on Google Reader.
The Fluid app for fever can display a custom icon and a badge count of unread feeds
The Fluid app for fever can display a custom icon and a badge count of unread feeds

Fever can be set to refresh in the web instance or as cron job on your server, meaning it refreshes even when you’re not online.

In Fluid, links from your Fever feed will open on a new tab in the application
In Fluid, links from your Fever feed will open on a new tab in the application

Using Fever has totally changed the way I look at my feeds. Without obsessing about it the way Mr Scoble apparently does, I didn’t previously relish the prospect of opening them after a few days’ latency. But the customization I’ve applied with Fever means (a) that scrolling through items is much faster, because each link displays in the way I want it (and, also, with an attention to beautiful design that makes the experience even more pleasant and puts the nerds who designed Google Reader totally to shame) and (b) the Kindling/Sparks/hot distinction means it’s much easier keeping up with what I regard as essential without missing any important story that might break out.

Fever’s current iPhone implementation as a webapp still lacks some essential features

Because I was so impressed with the desktop instance of fever, I was expecting the same high standard in the iPhone web app [iv]. This is true up to a point:

  • Fever includes an optimized interface designed specifically for the iPhone and iPod touch and, as you’d expect from Shaun Inman, a rather attractive icon;
  • the webapp also handles links cleverly, keeping them open in the application itself, rather than losing focus and opening them in Safari.
The iPhone webclip for Fever
The iPhone webclip for Fever

But beyond those features, Fever on the iPhone is clearly still work in progress:

  • in contrast to fully-fledged applications such as MobileRSS [v], you can read your feeds on it but you can’t share them, and the desktop workarounds obviously can’t be applied to a customized wepclip;
  • you can’t initiate a refresh of your feed on the iPhone version of Fever, meaning that if you haven’t set up a cron job on your server as explained above, you can’t really use the iPhone webapp at all.

All in all, then, I’s say it’s well worth switching to Fever if you’re irritated by Google Reader’s awkwardness and ugliness, but to do this you really need to be someone who already runs a server for his own domain, because obviously no one is going to set up his domain just to read his feeds. If you just read the New York Times, the Guardian and Pravda, you’ll still save time using a feed reader despite what poor Mr Scoble says, but Google Reader (combined with MobileRSS as a mobile client for the same feed if required) will be more than enough for your needs. From a power user perspective, however, Shaun Inman deserves belated congratulations [vi] for designing Fever, which is a truly revolutionary way of handling feed. But he’ll urgently needs to develop a proper iPhone application to complement the desktop version, although testing it for a week I’ve decided to permanently switch my feeds to Fever without waiting for this.

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  1. Helvetireader is a userscript that pares down Google Reader to what I consider to be the essentials. In particular, it’s made for looking at just unread feeds in the expanded view, using Keyboard Shortcuts instead of on-screen buttons. []
  2. The setup isn’t complicated by any standards. There’s no trial because the application is assigned to your domain once and for all on purchase, but you run a compatibility check before committing yourself. []
  3. There is a fully-fledged desktop client for Fever called Chill Pill, but it actually offers less functionality than running Fever in Fluid: links have to open in Safari and you can’t share anything on social networks from within the application. It’s only advantage over the standard Fever setup is that you can set it as your default feed reader in Apple’s preferences. You can’t do this with the standard instance, which requires a bookmarklet to add to your feed. Of course there's nothing to stop you installing Chill Pill just to add new feed to Fever and use the standard instance for everything else, which is what I did. []
  4. Fever currently isn’t available as an iPhone application, you simply connect to it using a webclip. []
  5. MobileRSS syncs with Google reader and allows you to share items using email, Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, ReadItLater and Instapaper. []
  6. The application was launched in June 2009, but I've only just discovered its existence, maybe because the news about it was buried in a load of feed I didn't read at that time. []