The Importance of the Whole

by Gabriel

Social media no replacement for RSS – Hitler meme video still

(Quick initiation for those who don’t know: Google Reader was an RSS feed reader; it pulled only the content of articles from chosen websites – i.e. just the text and media – and displayed it all handily in one place.)

It’s not just that ‘All my stuff is there’, as Dr Colossus complained in The Simpsons when he got banned from Death Mountain. RSS feeds can be exported. Indeed mine are now sitting pretty in The Old Reader.

No, what I loved about Google Reader is that you could see everything.

You could look at the headlines from a particular blog, the most recent at the top, scroll down to older ones, and just keep scrolling. Back, back, back through the glorious archive of content.

I used Google Reader to keep an eye on clients’ publishing streams – for a final stage of checking and an editorial view of the output. I used it to read and research material for my own work. I used it to monitor interaction on my websites – from Flickr activity to blog comments.

I also used it for entertainment, poring over updates from my favourite sites. I used it to find something for dinner, quickly searching a whole folder of recipe feeds. I used it to follow friends’ latest blog posts, from the occasional Blogger update to daily photo journals from abroad.

In short, I used it to not miss anything.

Nothing is hidden

Reader presented you with the whole feed. From the latest posts at the top, you could scroll down to the very beginning of the feed if you wanted to.

The Old Reader, while brilliant in many ways, says this after a certain number of posts:

"No posts below this line. Probably you have read them all."

Noooo! What if I haven’t? Or what if I have read them, but want to read them again? What if I don’t want to read them again, but I do want to skim the headlines for a quick bit of content analysis for a client? What if I want a chorizo recipe that didn't come out last week (given that those from 2008 are equally relevant)? What if I want to quickly check how often I blog about user experience from my headlines over the last year?

In those cases, seeing the whole of something – or to know that I can if I wish to – is essential.

And it applies to other products too.

In your own hands

I love books, although I don't have a book fetish like Jonathan Franzen. The contents of a book are more important than its form; digital formats for writing are essential, and exciting, for the future of publishing, reading and sharing of ideas.

Yet there is one advantage that a printed book, or newspaper, or magazine, has over any electronic version. It is far easier to appreciate the whole of the work when it is in physical form. By holding it in your hand, feeling its weight, looking at the edge of the pages or flicking quickly through the newsprint, you receive a sense of the entire work that browsing on a screen can never give you.

Is that important?

With a book, I get to trust my own hands and eyes about how long it will take to read, based on how thick the sliver of pages is, bunched together in my right hand. In fact my son shows me how much Harry Potter he’s read by the inches on the side.

With a book I can scan the text, really quickly. For all sorts of reasons. The same goes for physical newspapers and magazines.

In fact with newspapers I can set a course through the pages that heads for my favourite sections and features but is entirely open to being diverted. On a lazy weekend, I might derive satisfaction from feeling as though I looked through the complete paper.

It has something to do with trust; in particular trusting that I have been offered complete work to navigate through as I wish. With RSS readers as with books and magazines, I want to trust that nothing is being hidden.

Starting with everything

I would hate to see only some of the bike lights on Amazon, or be offered only half of the clothes in a catalogue.

Starting with everything is a key principle for many of the websites we design at Fluent, from ecommerce to property search. You want to know that all the available products or houses are being shown to you, and search, filter or browse from there.

It’s a question of trust that you’re not missing a better deal or more suitable match. That you are being offered the same as everybody else, and don’t need to take special measures to keep the service equal and fair.

It’s also about an emotional connection, feeling that you’re not being left out or hoodwinked, feeling that the whole is there if you want it, like a collector who hunts down the complete set.

Gmail do it – you can organise your email however you like but there is comfort in knowing that once you click ‘All Mail’ you can access the whole ridiculous pile.

I’m absolutely sure that others will not feel the same way, that, in some contexts at least, they will prefer things of interest to whizz by, happy with only the leading articles, the bestselling products, the blogs recommended by friends, the page by page navigation of an e-reader.

But for some reason I need to know, to see, to feel, that the whole is there if I want it. To do the equivalent of weighing a book in my hand and running my thumb across its edges. To conceive the beginning and the end of a thing. To see history as well as the present.

Nothing should be hidden.

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