The Google Reader shutdown and the twilight of inboxes

I dislike inboxes, like those in email and RSS clients. They are based on a number of premises that don’t line up with the way my mind works, the way the world works, or both.

  1. The primary organizational principle is the time the email was sent, as opposed to how important the message is or how close I am to the person sending it. Yes, I know that it is difficult for an email client to figure out those metrics, but so what? Just modeling things based on what is easy is a cop-out.
  2. Likewise, all the items sitting in an inbox are presented in the same way, with the same size font, for example. Why?
  3. Fussing with things in an inbox is a pain. I would rather have them file themselves when they are obviously irrelevant to me. I know this is hard, because for some emails it should happen even before they are sent to me, with some others after I read them and reply, and with still others much later.
  4. Last, I dislike the implied necessity to read everything in the inbox and the effort involved in getting things out of the inbox.

My problem is that I want things in piles, like on a desk, not in a neat and tidy list.

At any rate, those might be totally personal perceptions, based on my inner scruffiness. But for whatever reason, while I have managed to contain my dislike of email enough to actually continue using it, my dislike of RSS inboxes (or RSS readers) is so pronounced that I have avoided using conventional RSS tools, relying on wandering around and the occasional use of ticker-style RSS tools like Snackr or Ambient News.

So the deadpooling last week of Google Reader doesn’t hit me in the same way as if did others, since it wasn’t taking away a trusted tool I had been using every day. Others see it as the newest effort to eradicate RSS as a useful side of the hackable web. But I see in it, and in the release of the new tabbed Gmail user interface, a movement away from the inbox metaphors of the past.

Let me contrast the impersonal banality of the RSS reader inbox with the curated streams within Tumblr. In the screenshot below you see the curated Tumblr topic “tech.” Tumblr has asked about 40 odd people to serve as editors, and they are curating — through a special editorial interface, not shown — their own stream of inputs and then recommending posts from other Tumblr users in the tech category.

tumblr.com

The editors do a great job of finding things I find fascinating and leading me to new people to follow.

Looking at my own Tumblr stream — where I follow 528 blogs and have 167,890 followers at present — leads a great deal of what I find interesting every day, along with a regular walk-through topics like “tech,” “design,” “urbanism,” and so on. These are often very rich communities connected through the central topics and communicating in the limited semaphores available in Tumblr: reporting, replying, and Liking.

In a similar fashion, the algorithms and human curation at Techmeme do a good job of showing me what is considered hot at any moment, and the stream metaphor there is self-policing. I don’t have to mark things as read: They simply march off the screen through an aging mechanism. I can dip in, suck up some links, and leave, all in a few minutes.

I also use Flipboard as a filter on top of my Twitter stream. I follow 1,345 people now on Twitter, so Flipboard is a necessity.

Perhaps most importantly, I never acquired the mindset of wanting to see everything that some group of people was writing. I have always been willing to see what posts found their way to me instead of beating a path to them. This is entirely the opposite of others’ thinking:

Conor Friedersdorf, Ezra Klein’s Case Against Getting Your News From Twitter

As Kevin Drum once put it:

The reason I use RSS is that I want to be able to scroll quickly throughevery post from a particular set of bloggers, and I want to be able to do it when I want to do it, not only in real-time when it happens to pop up in my Twitter feed.

[...]

In this era of time-shifting, Twitter is an anachronism. I love the platform for the conversations it enables, and the great links I’d never otherwise see. But it definitely requires a particular mindset to enjoy: an ability to just not worry that you’ll never see everything in the stream.

In a completely different fashion, Google new AI-based folders UI provides me freedom from the tyranny of the inbox. I was able to delete 184 filters, and I have only had to retrain Gmail on the appropriate folder to use for a handful of senders. I am gaining a lot of value from the rethinking of the email inbox, and it almost feels like a self-policing stream.

I rely on using Asana (and in the past other task-management tools like Any.do and Todoist) to turn real emails — ones from real people who require me to respond or take action — into tasks linking back to the emails, after which I archive them. In essence, I move them from the inbox into my to-do list, which is organized in a work-centered fashion, very unlike an inbox. But with the streamlining of the new Gmail, this happens even more quickly. It seems almost like a stream, if only I could create a filter where an email is automatically archived after I create an Asana task linking to it.

My feeling is that we are moving — not smoothly but in a zigzag fashion — from the inbox user experience toward a more fluid and faster streams metaphor. I paradoxically feel most grounded when I am in a fast-moving stream, and I feel most out of place when working in an inbox where every action taken comes from me. Perhaps a future version of Gmail will take the final step and treat email in a stream fashion. It’s almost there.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

researcher-at-large Stowe Boyd

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