Why Feed Readers and Public Comments are Cornerstone Skills

DanieVDM, via Flickr (CC license)
What makes a cornerstone skill online?

Recently I wrote about my frustration about what I perceive as low adoption rates for cornerstone skills for today’s online media — especially by people who are interested in online media.

Here’s a bit more explanation about why I think learning to use a feed reader and getting experience making public comments on blogs or forums (not just e-mail lists) are so crucial to really “getting” what’s so important and powerful about online media.

It all boils down to mindset. The catch is, changing your mind isn’t all in your head. The most effective, lasting way to adapt your online-media mindset, habits, and priorities is to actually use these skills — not just know about them in a theoretical sense…

Feed reader: If you learn how to subscribe to a feed in any feed reader, even one as simple and non-geeky as MyYahoo, you start to realize the value of being connected to an ongoing but targeted flow of information — whether from a particular venue (such as a blog) or a topic (subscribing to a saved search from a feed aggregator, such as Technorati).

Using a feed reader helps you realize how findable and connected feeds can make any kind of content. You’ll start making feeds a priority in everything you publish online, and in the tools you choose (from blogging platforms to content management systems).

Also, you’ll realize how reaching your audience or community is not just about your site, so Web design starts taking a back seat to effective distribution. (I’m not excusing or encouraging bad design; I just don’t think web design continues to deserve the high priority in terms of resources and focus that many online publishers continue to grant it.)

You’ll also realize how much easier and faster it can be to track multiple information sources via feed, as opposed to e-mail or conventional Web surfing. With practice, this can help you manage your sense of information overload. And, of course, feeds are the basis of subscribing to most podcasts and vidcasts (even in iTunes).

Commenting on blogs and forums. This is technically simple in most cases — just filling in a short online form. However, for many people actually getting involved in a public conversation that’s likely discoverable via search engines (which is often not the case with e-mail lists) is a challenging but eye-opening experience.

It can be humbling but surprisingly empowering or liberating to be on a level public playing field with your readers, sources, and other communities or constituencies.

Getting in the habit of commenting on blogs and forums, following at least some comment threads or conversations that sprawl across multiple venues, or at the very least reading and responding to comments left on your stories at your own site or blog, helps you join the participatory culture of online media. It helps you realize how much you can gain from direct public engagement, and how to use it to make your work easier in some respects and more effective overall.

This in turn influences how you plan and execute your online media efforts — especially learning to embrace and feature discussion, not just treat it as a sideshow.


For a lot of things about online media, simply understanding the basic concepts of what something is, how it works, and why it matters (or not, depending on the people involved), is enough. But with these cornerstone skills, simply knowing what they are in a theoretical sense rather than actually practicing them won’t get you very far.

That’s because in this case experience is what lends crucial insight. Whatever I or anyone else tells you about getting more connected through feeds and public conversations won’t really sink in, and won’t significantly enhance how you perceive and use all media (including online media). In my experience, experience itself — the “doing” — is what opens people’s minds enough that they make significant changes in how they use media to inform and engage with others.

That’s what I mean about really “getting” today’s online media. I know that I’ve offended some people by putting it that way. I’m sorry for causing that offense. I don’t mean to demean or impugn anyone’s good intentions, and the learning they’ve achieved so far. As far as I’m concerned, all learning about online media is potentially good and useful.

The point is, the highly interconnected, engaged, conversational nature of today’s online media is a matter of experience, not theory. This is not a spectator sport. By holding off from using these cornerstone skills for whatever reason (lack of time is the one I hear most commonly), you’re only making it harder on yourself and hiding your light under a barrel. This is especially true for people who have a strong interest in and passion for online media, and the future of all media.

The surprising benefit is that the slight effort it requires to learn and use these two skills — even just occasionally, not spending hours daily in this regard — is generally rewarded amply and quickly by enhancing your effectiveness in consuming media and engaging with the various communities you need to reach. In other words, it can make your work easier, save you time, and be more fun and effective.

I’ll be following up on this theme more, but I’d really like to hear what you have to think about this. Especially if you haven’t yet started practicing these two cornerstone skills, or don’t intend to. Please comment below.

(NOTE: This is an edited version of a post I made today to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

12 thoughts on Why Feed Readers and Public Comments are Cornerstone Skills

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  2. You’re right. This is not a spectator sport. And here’s a harebrained idea: Maybe years of excessive television watching has made all of us passive when confronted by a video monitor. Maybe we’re conditioned to sit back and be entertained or informed with no engagement on our part. And maybe it’s simply a matter of patient further conditioning before the audience realizes that it can play too.

  3. Thanks, Dave

    Yeah a couple of years ago I thought I was just being impatient about it. Now I’m actually concerned. There’s got to be a way to speed this process along.

    – Amy Gahran

  4. Hey, Amy – I followed the link from the Poynter thread and think the difference between your posts here and there is interesting and instructive. Because my experience is that the stuff you posted here but left out there – “Why Doing Matters More than Knowing” (what some spiritual practitioners call “Buying the book Instead of doing the work”) – is what working trad (print) journos most need to hear.

  5. Hi, Maryn

    Yeah, I felt the Poynter post was long enough, I’m more free to go longer on this blog.

    But you make a good point. I should recraft the last section of this post for Tidbits.


    – Amy

  6. Could it be the problem is that most of the blogs, even top ones, ultimately aren’t that useful or interesting? I write as a diligent reader of 20+ blogs and a working technology reporter.

    This sounds like heresy, but after being a voracious consumer of blogs, etc. I find I’m having a hard time persuading myself to keep reading most of them. Many that seemed to have interesting insights I’ve discovered become significantly less useful and interesting over time.

    This isn’t a complaint that bloggers aren’t journalists. I’ve found the ones that are good journalists. But blogs typically mix “news” with opinion/analysis. This works great when the opinion is fresh and innovative, but seems really hard to sustain over time.

    One dramatic example is a first rate tech blog whose comments I can predict typically as soon as I see the headline. They were interesting the first half dozen or so times I read the author on similar subjects, but after a while contained very few surprises. He’s got a valuable opinion about the excesses of the patent industry, but unless he introduces new ideas I already know what he will say. I now read more out of obligation, rarely finding something that I didn’t expect.

    Many writers produce one or two good novels, and then repeat themselves at painful length. I think this is a trap pulling down many of the best bloggers, who’ve spent a lifetime building knowledge and opinion. To retain my interest, they’ve got to go beyond what they have already done.

    It takes enormous effort to always find something “new.” But I think it’s essential to hold longtime readers.

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