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six weeks with Prismatic

by Rob Friesel

About six weeks ago, I started using Prismatic and entered it into my daily1 routine. It’s like your own personal “best of the web” that gets smarter about your interests as you go along. I’m still feeling as positive about it now as I was after the first 24 hours. Ever since that post, I had been meaning to do a follow-up bit after about six weeks or so, just to check in and level-set my experience. Turns out that the timing was perfect, because yesterday they opened the service up to everyone.

Now without further ado… Prismatic: the first six weeks.

If I tweet something2 does Prismatic “know” that I did this?

Certainly Prismatic knows when I tweet or otherwise share a story from within the app, but what about from outside? Is it like some benevolent opt-in panopticon, monitoring my every public share? It knows what my friends and followers (and followees?) are sharing, right? That’s how this thing works, right?

Is it really tracking the times I click the “X”?

Seriously, I dismiss every story about soccer and cricket it has ever shown me. How many more times do I need to “X” stories about FIFA before they stop showing up in my feed?

The “Read” list.

This one took me a while to figure out. Probably longer than it should have. Let me paint the picture: I would read something, opening it in a new tab, and through happenstance and compulsive tab closing, I’d close the original tab that had Prismatic open. Now, I had wanted to tweet the link (now that I’d read it and concluded it was worth sharing), but I would find that, after re-opening Prismatic in a fresh tab, that the headline had disappeared from my feed. This bothered me for two reasons: first, it felt like the app was unpredictable; and second, I felt like it was preventing me from giving credit back to where I’d seen the article in the first place. Now, the second point is a courtesy. But the first point was… more complicated. Given Prismatic’s nature, I actually want it to have different content every time I visit the feed. The “Read” list is actually the right solution, but it’s missing from the tour, and I had to stumble upon it more/less by accident.3

Give me something different.

To follow up on the sentiment of wanting to see something different every time I hit the feed, for the most part, this works great. I feel like I’m constantly seeing new things–blog posts and news articles from unique sources, and on interesting topics that I might never have seen before otherwise. But every once in a while it seems to get… fixated on something. The perfect case study was that Bacon Sundae from Burger King. I click through on one story and suddenly every third item in my feed is about the damn Bacon Sundae. And this went on for like a week. Settle down, guys.

I could use a snooze button for certain topics.

There have been a few times where I wish I could “snooze” a certain subject. The Bacon Sundae from Burger King (vide supra) is a good example, but the perfect example is Prometheus. As soon as I’ve seen it4, I’m going to want to see all those posts praising it and/or disparaging it. But in the meantime: Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.

Giving credit.

In my original post about Prismatic, I ever-so-slightly bemoaned the sharing options as not fitting my particular sharing style. And for the most part, this remains true. I have tried to get over that and share more of the links directly from Prismatic, but as I discussed above, I have a tendency to close tabs and/or (just the opposite) get too many tabs going at once.5 So what does this have to do with Prismatic? As I mentioned above, if I’ve read a given story, and I know that I came across it via Prismatic, I’d like to give credit back. “Via @Prismatic” and all that. But it’s hard to keep track. I would hate for them to inject a “ribbon” into a given site6 but at the same time, it’s a pain in the ass to be constantly going back to my Read list. Oh well.

It’s getting really good at knowing what I want to read.

The signal-to-noise ratio has been great with Prismatic. That is to say, there is very little in my feed that is unwanted.7 To support this, I offer two illustrative examples.

First: io9. I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with reading io9. For me, its signal-to-noise has always been pretty bad. There’s about 5% A+ material, and 95% junk. With that kind of ratio, I was missing a lot, because I just didn’t have the patience to sift through the junk, and I relied heavily on seeing the interesting bits come across in tweets or blog posts etc. However, somehow Prismatic has managed to figure out which stories I’m actually going to read, and I find myself clicking through to io9 constantly these days.8

Second: on the flip side of that, I have always been a loyal (??) BoingBoing reader, even though it tends to be a bit noisy as well.9 After about two weeks with Prismatic, I noticed that it was doing a pretty good job of filtering those titles for me. The posts on BoingBoing that I was reading were showing up in the Prismatic feed. And/or, I would see BoingBoing posts in my Prismatic feed, and then bounce over to their site and… those were the exact same posts I would end up reading. The most uncanny example of this was the morning of June 1st. I went to BoingBoing and saw a post about China MiĆ©ville and thought: this will appear in Prismatic, and then sure enough, when I switched over to the tab that had Prismatic, it was the first item in the list!10

Sum of its parting thoughts.

Prismatic has become a part of my daily routine, for sure. I’d go so far as to say it’s entrenched for me. It had so many things working in its favor right from the start. That it taps into my existing social networks, and I didn’t have to go building a whole new one on top of those? Smart, and convenient. That it brings such a diverse array of topics, from such a diverse array of sources is also huge. It has not yet completely replaced NetNewsWire for me, but it has also been a couple weeks since I fired up that RSS reader. My click-through rates on individual posts has declined; on the first day I was probably clicking about 50% and that’s probably down to about 10% now. But I also think that’s OK. Prismatic is learning about me, and I’m learning about what I want out of it. (And what I don’t want. And one thing I don’t want is to read everything–that would feel like a trap.)

So if you’re not already on there, you should go get on there. Invites are no longer required. I can’t recommend it enough.

  1. ”Several times a day” is more like it. []
  2. Or share something on Facebook. []
  3. Looking back over my notes from the first day, it seems that I did know about this pretty much from the start. But something is obviously still amiss there if (six weeks later) I have the impression that it took me that long to find it. []
  4. As of this writing, I still have not made it to the theater to see this film. []
  5. Including tearing them off from their original windows and moving them around to make the right “collections” of stories in a given window. Yeah, I know: Chrome makes it easy to be weird. []
  6. A la StumbleUpon. (Was it StumbleUpon that did that? Do they still do that? Didn’t Facebook do that for a while? Doesn’t Digg do that?) []
  7. Except the aforementioned soccer and cricket. Also rugby. And the whole bit about wanting to “snooze” a topic. []
  8. I have no doubt that io9’s writing staff has improved since the days when I formed that original opinion. However, I checked it out one day independent of Prismatic. My opinion stands. []
  9. Nowhere near as noisy as io9, but I’d say my interest in BoingBoing posts tends to be about 3 in 10. []
  10. For the doubters out there: my usual morning routine involves firing up Chrome, hitting “Open All Bookmarks” on a given folder in the Bookmark Bar, and then sweeping through those as I eat my breakfast. What this means (in the context of the story) is that the Prismatic and BoingBoing tabs were opened at roughly the same time. I had not actually viewed BoingBoing and clicked to read the post about MiĆ©ville when the Prismatic content was delivered/rendered. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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