Ramblings on Twitter, Tweet Marker, RSS, and the cloud

Preface
Last month while reading an interview with Jason Kottke, a blogger I’ve been following for many years I noticed this question and answer:

What’s your online reading setup look like these days? RSS? Twitter? Multiple devices?

For discovery, Twitter and Stellar. No RSS…stopped doing that a few months ago and I feel like it dramatically improved my success rate in finding interesting things (although the addition of Stellar has helped with that too). For reading long stuff, Instapaper.

The fact that he dumped RSS and uses Twitter (and his web application Stellar) gave me pause and I started to think that maybe the way I’m using my aggregation tools needs to be reconsidered. Granted, his response seemed to be about mining the internet for things to post on his site, less about getting news, but many of us mix these two things together and my guess is he does too.

Part of me hates change, especially when I’ve got things working well, but part of me enjoys the evolution of these tools and seeing how things evolve is fascinating. Couple that last thought with the idea that people seem to be skimming rather than reading online these days and you have part of the recipe for the success of a service like Twitter, where posts can be no more than 140 characters long.

Keeping Twitter in sync
Twitter is a service that allows registered users to post (tweet) to their subscribers and subscribers to follow the feeds of people and/or services that interest them. It’s incredibly popular the world over and it runs on computers, tablets, smartphones, and almost every connected device out there.

If you only use Twitter via your web browser on a single computer or device keeping things in sync isn’t an issue for you but if you use Twitter with client software (not a web browser) on multiple devices, have you ever considered that there is no way to keep your feeds in sync? In other words, if you read (skim, browse, scroll) through a bunch of feeds on your computer and get to “now” (a tweet from 1 minute ago) then pick up your iPhone and run your Twitter client there, it has no clue that you’ve already read the feeds you have on your computer, you’re back hours before “now.”

I use Twitter via a client for the Macintosh called Twitterrific and a client for iPad and iPhone called TweetBot. These happen to be popular and excellent Twitter clients in the Macintosh and iOS worlds but I chose them for another reason, they make use of the Tweet Marker service. While Twitter is a cloud service it doesn’t seem to have a way to keep track of the position of your twitter crawl across multiple devices. This is what Tweet Marker is all about and it works quite well with Twitter clients that support it. You don’t need to make an account with Tweet Marker, you simply turn it on in the preferences of supported client applications.

With Tweet Marker enabled, if I update my Twitter feed on my Mac when I pick up my iPhone my Twitter feed automatically scrolls to the place I left off on my Mac, and visa versa. The bookmarking is still awkward on both Twitterrific and Tweetbot but it does work and it makes Twitter infinitely more useable to me.

Frankly, I have no idea how most Twitter users deal with looking at dozens, some with hundreds and some with thousands of feeds across multiple devices. I have no idea how people can deal with more than 100 feeds even on a single device coupled with their RSS and no doubt Facebook activity, but that’s another post. Twitter can be a useful tool and if you want keep things in sync between multiple devices you might want to try Tweet Marker.

I’ve used Twitter for a while but (Kottke aside) prefer my RSS feeds to my Twitter feed for the content I like to track and read. However, an individual can get a Twitter account without having a web site and tweet away while RSS requires a web site that puts out an RSS feed. They’re both useful technologies and there is overlap, it’s up to us to sort it all out as both publishers and readers.

Backstory on RSS
Simply, RSS is a technology that allows a web site like this one to put out a feed and for users like you to subscribe to it. If you subscribe to it and track it along with other feeds in a newsreader application (aggregator) it’s a simple way to see which web sites you visit regularly have updated their information. RSS is useful to a publisher (me) in that it lets me notify you that I’ve posted this piece of writing and it’s useful to a reader (you) because it allows you to see that I’ve posted this along with other feeds you track, all in one place and/or application. It remains my favorite networking technology although it is quickly being replaced by Twitter (Kottke seems to be supporting this) which I’m less than happy about.

The content management system that powers this site, WordPress has RSS capabilities built in so all I have to do is hit “post” on this post and the site will send the headline out to anyone who’s subscribed. In other words, everything I post here is also sent out to my RSS subscribers and if they want to read further they can click on the feed headline and come here to get more information. I could also send the post to my Twitter account automatically so that anyone subscribed to my Twitter feed (an overlapping group) would see notice there. I do this manually now as I update posts and permalinks and don’t want to be posting to Twitter until things are done on this end so that I don’t create dead links for subscribers.

Almost every web site I visit I visit through a headline I’ve clicked on in my RSS newsreader. I have only a few sites I visit daily that I visit by way of a browser bookmark. RSS has been the core of my web experience for many years and I can’t imagine it any other way.

For those reading here who have never used or learned about RSS, look at this old post What is RSS and/or this entry: RSS.

The need for cloud services
In the old days when NetNewsWire was the only game in town for managing multiple RSS feeds on the Macintosh and we didn’t have to deal with multiple devices, life was simple. As people started attempting to manage RSS feeds across multiple computers the need for cloud-based services became apparent and around this time Google started offering RSS feed aggregation with their Google Reader service (there were and are many others). One could use a web browser or a dedicated client application on a computer to read feeds on one computer and log into the same account on another computer and see where one left off. This is the beauty and importance of having this stuff in the cloud but also having the service keep track of activity. I can read some feeds on the train with my iPhone and when I open my computer when I get home I don’t see those feeds as unread, they’re read and gone.

The world of RSS aggregation and reading has remained like this through the transition to iPhone and iPad and at this point I have a Google Reader account that I read on my Mac, my iPad, and my iPhone with a great application called Reeder. There are Windows and Android equivalents of all of this stuff although Reeder is so good I’m not sure what’s quite that good in the Windows and Android worlds. No doubt there’s something. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that you find a client application you like and use it to manage the ever growing stream of information coming our way.

For those new to all of this let me be clear: Reeder is a client application that is not stand-alone, it requires that you have a Google Reader account to store your RSS feeds in the cloud. It taps into that account and displays the feeds and allows interaction with the account more elegantly than Google does in a web browser. Reeder is the killer RSS aggregation app for any Macintosh or iOS using, Google Reader using user.

In the same way I find it difficult to understand how people who use the web for news and information can get along without a newsreader subscribed to RSS feeds, I can’t understand how anyone could use Twitter and keep up without a service like Tweet Marker and I’m amazed that Twitter doesn’t have a service like this built into their API. Twitter the company should buy the Tweet Marker capability from its author and embed it in their Twitter back end.

Will Twitter kill RSS? I hope not. They’re different technologies with different capabilities and I find them both useful, now that there’s Tweet Marker.

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