When Google announced that they planned to close Reader on July 1, the online community’s reaction varied from surprised approval, to shocked horror. Google’s decision was based on the flagging number of users who still use feeds in preference to social media.
But as any self-respecting RSS aficionado will know, flicking through your tweets, or browsing your Facebook timeline, isn’t the best way of finding interesting content. Until now, though, there have been very few services providing a halfway house between feeds and social media.
Rockmelt, which was once a socially-orientated web browser, has been reinvented as a social media-based, feed-reading network. But is Rockmelt‘s new course bound for being accepted as a great new way to read the news, or is it heading more in the direction of the doomed FriendFeed? Let’s see.
Hungry for Feeds
The irony is that Rockmelt doesn’t actually support the direct input of RSS feeds, preferring instead to provide its own feeds via a search function, in a similar vein to Flipboard, Prismatic or Google Currents.
Additionally, if you sign in to your social accounts, Rockmelt will serve up content from the people and publishers you follow and like on Twitter and Facebook.
Upon arrival in Rockmelt’s interface proper, I find myself looking (for the second time in a week) at a Pinterest-like arrangement of cards, with each card containing a news story. I can’t say I’m a massive fan of the card style, but it works okay here.
One notable aspect of Rockmelt’s stories is that, wherever possible, they are accompanied by a photo, giving a pleasing look to those posts with a heavy visual bias. This method of display, however, along with Rockmelt’s uncomfortably small excerpt font, doesn’t flatter text-only tweets, status updates and articles.
On the Browse
Given the laborious nature of adding feeds via the search function, it is likely your initial selection of stories will mostly be derived from Twitter and Facebook sources.
As a form of quick-start, Rockmelt provides a list of subjects to choose from, each containing popular posts relating to your chosen interest.
Click on a story, and you enter a pop-up view of the full text, along with a featured image.
Thankfully, the font here is larger, and far more readable. Easy access to Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest sharing (among others) is on offer in the top-left of the reading window, and there’s always a link back to the original post at the bottom of the page.
One distinctive feature Rockmelt has to its advantage is that the timeline it provides you with is live. As new stories come in, the “back to the top” button lights up and keeps count of the stories waiting for your attention. This makes Rockmelt work well as a way of browsing your social networks visually, although, again, it isn’t suited to browsing longer reads.
A Social Reading Network
It’s not initially obvious that Rockmelt has its own social side, but it does, and it works very nicely. The right sidebar alongside the reading view is where you’ll find Rockmelt’s in-house sharing functions.
At the top are the one-click reactions – an array of colourful buttons marked with exclamations such as lol and aww, which provide a lazy way of commenting on the story you are reading. Stories marked with these expressions are collected into the Explore menu, along with a complete list of the pre-defined subjects. So if you fancy a laugh, you’ll enjoy the lol section, and there are plenty of kittens, puppies and ducklings to be found among the awws.
Below the reaction buttons is a multi-use text box; here, you can add a comment, @-mentioning other Rockmelt users and adding tags as you go.
Note that you can also follow other Rockmelt users in the same way you might follow publishers. When users interact with stories in either of the two ways mentioned above, their followers will receive those interactions in their timelines.
I couldn’t talk you through the new Rockmelt without mentioning the new Rockmelt apps – whilst this is a web-based review, mobile apps are worth considering before going all in with a news-gathering system.
Currently, Rockmelt offers native iPhone and iPad options, with an Android version in the works. The iOS apps are, judging from my brief testing, well-made and easy to use. The reading window is particularly praiseworthy, providing a clear, Readability-like view of the article’s text.
Rockmelt presently feels quite raw and early stage. There’s nothing specifically wrong or missing from this social reading platform, but it currently seems to lack a killer feature, or a reason to choose it above its competitors.
The design is colourful, and very image-based. This makes it attractive to look at, but it also encourages the kind of frivolous, visual content often found on Tumblr. If that’s the kind of thing you like to browse through, then the Rockmelt network will suit you, but it’s quite hard to use Rockmelt for serious article browsing.
As an alternative, visual way of browsing your Twitter and Facebook updates, though, Rockmelt works very well, serving up tweets and updates in realtime. For this use, many will find Rockmelt to be a fine, unique, social media browser.
A competent news reader, which works best as a social hub.7
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