Monday, June 1, 2009

Starring Items in Google Reader for Productivity

Google Reader is a free RSS/atom news feed reader from, well, Google. Fans of Google will certainly already know about it, more casual web surfers might not.

I like many things about Reader. I like that I can collect and read all of my News Feeds in one website. I like that I can easily add additional subscriptions as I surf the web. I especially like that the mobile version of the Reader website makes filling in a spare minute or two with a news story on the go with my IPhone easy.

There are a couple of things I do not like. For example, the concept of Shared News Items - news items that you, the user, specifically share or un-share with your 'reader friends' - does not seem practical to me. I do not have limitless amounts of time for managing how I share the news items I have consumed. Therefore the feature and its options seems to take away from the interface and make it more noisy and less useful.

Likewise I thought the same thing about 'starring' news items (clicking on a star icon to toggle a 'starred property'), but in the past week I think I can spot a virtuous work process forming that is putting the feature to good use.


One aspect of both normal and mobile versions of the reader website that is useful is the way that, by default, read news items are thereafter hidden from view. The logic is simple - if you did not hide news items you had already consumed, managing the number of news items to read would become unworkable.

A negative side-effect of hiding read news items is that often (for me at least) I feel I would like to investigate the substance of the news item story. For example, one of the news feeds I commonly get is the Google Code blog, which frequently has stories discussing new features that I want to investigate further. Since I am frequently reading news items on my IPhone or in situations where I can not immediately investigate further, hiding my newly read news item which I want to investigate further places the responsibility on me to remember what I need to follow up.

On the other hand, if I kept the story unread (a feature available on individual news items) I would end up re-reading the story again and wanting the follow up the story later (again).

'Starring' a news item is a good way for me to mark on a news item that I would like to take a later action on the contents of the news item. I star the news item when I am finished reading it - which is very easy on the mobile interface - and it then gets marked read and is hidden from me. For me to see which news stories I need to follow-up, I can open Reader and view only my Starred stories.

Once I have done the necessary follow-up on a news item I can un-star it.

Starred is the new Shared

It struck me that while I might not want to manage a separate list of news items I am sharing, maybe it makes sense to share those news items I have starred? It might not be a perfect correspondence but - by and large - the starred news items that I wish to follow-up on are also the interesting stories that I am actively thinking about. In fact, my starred stories neatly describe a 'news status', describing my status by showing which news I am reacting to. There is something in that.

How should I share this 'news-status'?

So how do you make your starred News items shareable? By default Google Reader shares your Shared items (strangely enough). That is, Reader exposes a URL that has a feed listing of the news items you have marked as shared. Luckily you can expose the same style page showing your 'Starred' news items by turning Sharing on.

To do that, log into Reader, go into Settings and click on the Folders and Tags tab. On the 'Starred Items' line, click on the symbol next the word 'Private' to toggle the line to Public. Once it has been made public a link to the public page containing the shared, starred stories will appear. Your can distribute this link or URL however you want to share the list of stories you have starred (AKA your news-status). You could post it on your blog, in your Google profile or anywhere else you have web real-estate.

Spreading the news around

Obviously distributing or posting a link to your news items of interest will not necessarily create a stampede of readers, friends or family to your Starred Items page. If you could insert a list of the news items into your blog or status page (without making the user care about your news stories enough to click a link) you would have a better chance of interesting the reader or at least letting them see news item titles.

Google makes this easy to by providing a snippet of HTML and javascript you can add to your website, blog or other internet space. This is available right next to link to your newly public page mentioned above on the settings page for Google Reader. Clicking the link 'Add a clip to your site' opens a window with the HTML and javascript you will need. For Blogger users the job is even easier since an install badge is provided.

Clean Up

If you use Google profiles you will note that your Reader account created a Shared Items link. If you are using the approach above (or Simply not using Shared Items) you will want to remove or change this link. Luckily Google Profiles are flexible enough to allow you to do this. I simply changed the link on my profile to show my shared starred items.

I will also need to be on the lookout for other areas where a Google service might assume that any news items I will want to share are 'Shared'. For the moment I am feeling productive reading news items, starring those that are interesting and worthy of further time, and sharing that changing list with anyone that goes to my blog or reads my Google profile.

Future thoughts

Is a 'News-Status' a concept with legs? Clearly Google thought it was at least worthy of any experiment by including so many Sharing options in Google Reader. I think that even if saying 'I am thinking about new story X' does not say much about which thoughts I am having, it does invite you to read that same story and think about it for yourself. If you have read the story, we are closer since we have had a shared experience that we might discuss, debate or disagree on in the future. It finds us something in common. Which is useful.

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