Angry Robot

Fever and the Feeding Thereof

Man. I had a post ready about how I deal with feed overload.That all changed on the weekend as on Ram’s recommendation I switched to the new self-hosted feed reader, Fever.
I’ve been rocking NetNewsWire since way back in the day. I paid money for it when it first came out of beta. It’s great, it’s now free, and totally packed with features. Problem is, it hasn’t seen any new development in quite some time. I think the free Google reader took the wind out of the feed reader market. At the height of it all NNW seemed about to sprout a bunch of feed management features. Ranchero was bought by Newsgator and they had a ton of ‘other people are reading x’ capabilities and everything seemed promising and then… nothing.

To step back: the problem with feedreaders is you wind up adding too many damn feeds. You realize a feed reader allows you to check more news than you could by manually hitting all those websites. So you add more feeds. Gradually, those unread counts pile up. We’re conditioned from email to imagine missing an item as THE END OF THE WORLD, and so those unread items translate into stress.

So, inevitably, the net was awash in articles a couple years back about how to cull your feeds, sort them into priority lists, etc. etc. And at the same time, feed reader development ground to a halt.

It seemed the best way to use a feed reader was to not use it at all.

It could have gone a different way. I mean we’re sitting here using computers; perhaps the computers could step in and lend a hand and do something a little more taxing than displaying lists. The computer could determine what news is being talked about across all your feeds. Like Google News, except without the Kansas City Star and Voice of America and all the sources you don’t give a shit about.

Fever represents a step in this direction. You dump in your existing feeds, which are in typically gimmicky fashion referred to as ‘kindling.’ You are encouraged to add ‘sparks’, which is to say, link-heavy, high noise-to-signal feeds you might otherwise ignore. Fever then scans the feed data to determine which links are being referenced the most. It presents this to you in the ‘hot’ list, which is sorted by most inbound links:


The idea – and it is a noble one – is that you can at a glance get a sense of the biggest news items being talked about, sorted by priority. The other associated ideas are a) this diminishes the need for unread counts (although they can be toggled on globally or individually), and b) this works better the more feeds you throw at it. Get it? you “feed a fever”. This calculus of optimal sources to perfectly tailored hot list is actually really fun to set up. Presented with a list that was too tech video game heavy, I went looking for film and news sites. Fever isn’t a feed reader, it’s a feed management game.

Ready for the downsides? Fever, an idiosyncratic app if ever there was one, has many. It costs $30. It’s a web app that must be installed on your own server. The only portable option is a less-than stellar iPhone web view. And for best results, and for the iPhone version to be at all useful, you have to set up a cron job. I had never had reason to do that before.

I can live with all of those issues. (I’m confident the iPhone view will see improvements – hopefully its own app.) The biggest drawback though, as mentioned here, is that Fever only sorts according to links. Sure, this is the web and links are the currency. I duly note the idealism. However, actual real life feeds often fall short of our ideals. For one, find me a newspaper feed with a goddamn hyperlink in it. For two, many feeds (like the link-rich Greencine Daily) only give excerpts, and Fever sees only that and not the full post. Fever works well on tech news and the like, and falls short with real life news where there may be no definitive hyperlink.

This could be fixed. Can small developer Shaun Inman add headline-parsing algorithms that rival the goliath Google News? It would be awesome, and I hope so, but I have no idea. Frankly, I feel we need legitimate personal data sorting tools that don’t involve huge friend lists and massive privacy violations. News is not the only area of our lives in which we grapple with data overload, and Fever is an excellent new weapon that just needs a few tweaks.

Now does anyone know any good news blogs with lots of links?