How to Hack RSS to Reduce Information Overload

Information Overload Fire Hydrant

?Last week, I held a session at SXSW Interactive titled Hacking RSS: Filtering & Processing Obscene Amounts of Information, where I talked about creative ways to use RSS to manage information overload without using any programming skills.

There is more information available in the world than any one person could hope to consume (hundreds of exabytes of data), but most of that information is uninteresting, out of date, inaccurate, or not relevant for you. The key to reducing information overload is to more efficiently find the data you want among the information that you don’t care about. The tools that I talked about in my SXSW session are focused on discarding or de-emphasizing the data you don’t need, while highlighting the data that’s relevant for you. I wanted to share some of what I talked about during my presentation.

Individual RSS feeds from blogs, news and other sources are a great starting point for your information overload reduction efforts. Some individual RSS feeds from friends’ blogs or the top people in your field might almost always be relevant and won’t need any other work. But what about the blogs where one in five or one in 10 posts are relevant for you? How do you narrow them down to a manageable flow of information that allows you to keep up with at least the most important content?

While there are some simple ways to make better use of your RSS reader to manage information overload, the real magic is in filtering. My favorite filtering tool is Yahoo Pipes, which lets me filter an RSS feed using various criteria: URL, author, date, content and more. Some examples of filtered feeds in my reader right now include industry analyst blogs filtered to only find posts about online community; searches across social websites where my projects are mentioned; and my some blogs filtered for just the best posts using PostRank. The image on the right contains a simple Yahoo Pipes filtering example from my SXSW presentation.

PostRank is a great service that allows you to get the best posts from any feed based on an “engagement” ranking score that incorporates measures like comments, Diggs, sharing on social sites like Twitter, and more. The best thing about PostRank is that you can get an RSS feed of just the best posts from a particular publisher, and that feed then includes the PostRank score, which means that you can do even more hacking on the PostRank RSS feed using Yahoo Pipes. One useful way to use PostRank and Yahoo Pipes is to take several feeds containing only the best posts from a few of your favorite blogs, and filter those top posts to find only the articles mentioning a specific group of keywords using Yahoo Pipes. Because the PostRank feed includes the rank, you can even sort the results so that the highest ranked posts appear at the top of your feed. The image to the right shows an example of how you might do this.

Another technique that helps me to consume information more efficiently is to modify the format of many of my RSS feeds; I bring relevant information into the headlines of the feed to make it easier to quickly scan it to determine which posts are important enough for me to click on them for more details. By bringing more details into the title, I can avoid spending time clicking to get more information. There’s an example of reformatting a Twitter RSS feed in the image to the right.

The final trick is to use Web APIs to gather additional data that can’t be found in an RSS feed. I’ve written about using APIs before, so I won’t go into much detail here, but you can see an example of how I’ve used several APIs together with Yahoo Pipes to build an RSS feed of people posting links from Twitter to my blog posts on slides 17 – 23 of my presentation.

You can listen to the audio from my session and download the slides here.

What are your favorite RSS hacking tools and techniques to manage information overload?

Photo courtesy Flickr user SparkCBC.

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