Subscription v Curation


The battle is drawn

I started writing this post over a week ago and in that time the argument has sprung up in many different places with advocates on both sides.

Content curation and social sharing is rapidly becoming widely established ranging from casual curation via link sharing on social networks to dedicated services such as Amplify. Its popularity is such that curation advocates are arguing that it is sounding the death knell for RSS readers (as distinct from the format) and traditional news outlets, especially now that Bloglines is being shut down, but is this really the case?

Personally, I don't believe so.

Curation is great - you can't deny that - and has been with us in one form or another for as long as the web. Sharing files or links on bulletin boards, forums, blog posts listing "best ofs" or "top 10 resources", and more recently sharing items from RSS feeds via Google Reader have all set the scene.

Getting news and links via your social circle allows you to consume things you would probably never find through your own surfing. Consuming social news also means that you don't have to manage your own news sources.

Should you wish to target your consumption you can use something like Twitter lists but it is not essential to actively play a part in the delivery of news beyond initially following people on your network of choice.

The down side

There are, however, distinct disadvantages to relying on your social circle for news. Firstly, social news is immediate - it appears in your stream and within no time at all is buried under a pile of new status updates. Recent reports mentioned that the effective life of a popular tweet was only half a day.

Could you imagine it if you could only see emails when they hit your inbox as they would be deleted within 12 hours?

We are not always plugged in to our social circles 24/7 and can even go for days without being connected (rare for us geeks but it does happen). There is, therefore, a high chance of missing items that you would normally like to read unless you are using lists to add your own level of curation to the mix.

It has been said that if news is important enough it will find you but it cannot do so if you are not there.

The second drawback of curated lists is that they invariably consist of mainly links with little explanation or guidance as to what they contain, especially within the 140 character restrictions of Twitter. You are, therefore, constantly forced to jump out to a browser or a different client in order to read the item. You may be able to peruse more tweets in a minute that posts in other places but how much value is actually gleaned from them?

The primary advantage of subscription based consumption is that your feeds are gathered in your reader and retained until marked unread just like your email. We can therefore consume items at our leisure days, weeks, even months after they were written should we want/need to. Providing the feed publishes full text you need not even leave the RSS reader.

The argument that news is just what's new and anything else doesn't matter is, frankly, wrong. In the wider context than tech journalism and the echo chamber we consume more than just news. We are not all chasing the latest and greatest. Research around a topic may rely on older information where newer work may not exist. If we restrict ourselves to the here and now we are missing out.

That perfect blend

Subscription alone means that we are limited to the feeds we have discovered thus requiring a greater effort on our part to search out new sources of information.

The sweet spot is a blend of subscription & curation: discovering sources via the curation efforts of our social circle so that we may then subscribe to those sources that interest us most. Just because one of our friends has shared a particular item there is no guarantee that they will then share further items from the same source (or that we see those shares even if they do) so the ability to then follow those sources directly is still a must.

We are entering a time where our online behaviour is altering but, as with so many other things, it is an evolution and not a revolution and our readers and applications must adapt to match this behaviour.

Perhaps RSS will alter over time but there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

Image by Lovro67

  1. At Cliqset we have a significant focus on content delivery via subscription as well as curation. I invite you to come check it out. Would love to hear your feedback!
  2. Colin says: #
    Darren, Thanks for stopping by. I certainly need to give Cliqset another try. The crux is whether it fits in to my routine better than my6sense or whether, it too, will result in the division of labour experienced by having to swicth out to another app or browser window in order to achieve what I need to.
  3. Isn't your "sweet spot" what Google Reader tries to do by adding a social network layer on top of it? I subscribe to many feeds on Reader and I aim to read all of them. But if i have extra reading time, I also like to read stories shared by the people I follow there
  4. Colin says: #
    Andre, Indeed, Google Reader has implemented a social element - especially with the inclusion of Buzz contcats - but it still doesn't go far enough in my opinion.
  5. Tony Karrer says: #
    Great post. Like the concept: "The sweet spot is a blend of subscription & curation: discovering sources via the curation efforts of our social circle so that we may then subscribe to those sources that interest us most." But I'm not sure I quite get what that will look like in practice. The problem with a lot of sources is that they are noisy and in some cases hard to find. That's a big driver behind sites like and - they can use social signals to filter. It's automated curation. Love to hear the specifics of what you are thinking when you describe your "sweet spot".
  6. Colin says: #
    Tony, It's quite like what my6sense is already building on. We obviously have our subscriptions from GReader - the static feeds we gather from sources we have discovered through our own browsing. As I say, this isn't enough so we then rely on our social circle to bring more news and sources to us - we need exert no more effort than the initial follow. The act of others to curate news for us is a great benefit but there can also be intelligent recommendation engines pulling news from sources that we don't follow based on our preferences or the extended following of our social circle. Something like my6sense could potentially add analytics behind that which they currently employ. As all of our requests pass through their servers they could then collate and analyse all of that share data in order to provide us with additional news but also, potentially, recommendations for new people to follow based our reading patterns.