RSS: not dead. More like Doritos.

Sam Diaz over at ZDNet recently posted his death knell for RSS, claiming that it was “a good idea at the time, but there are better ways now”:

The truth of the matter is that RSS readers are a Web 1.0 tool, an aggregator of news headlines that never really caught on with the mainstream the way Twitter and Facebook have. According to a Forrester Research study about the reach of social technologies, only nine percent of U.S. online adults said they use an RSS feed monthly, down from 11 percent the year before. By contrast, 50 percent are visiting social networking sites, up from 34 percent last year and 39 percent are reading blogs, up from 37 percent a year ago.
Sam kind of misses the point about RSS. RSS isn’t a technology designed or implemented for the non power-user. RSS is an aggregation tool, designed to make it easier to blow through the Top 10, 20, 50 or 100 sites you visit daily, weekly, so on. That’s not really in line with people who use the internet as a communication tool, not as an information or entertainment one.

The common complaint with RSS as a technology is a valid one. RSS is a massive firehose; the sources never turn off, the reading never ends. I’m reminded of the Jay Leno Doritos commercials: crunch all you want. we’ll make more.

Reading RSS can be disheartening, because no matter how much you crunch at it, content providers will make more. Eventually, you will get full, and sick of checking. Many RSS users (Sam Diaz and me included) dread those high unread counts because they don’t symbolize what we have accomplished (staying informed) but what we have yet to accomplish (read the ninth article in a row about duck fat).

This is a problem not with RSS, but in the readers that use the technology. RSS readers universally have one major fault: they present information like it’s e-mail. There’s subjects, tags, folders, filters, and (worst of all) those unread message counts. Here’s a popular email client side by side with a popular RSS reader:

rssreader outlook

RSS is not e-mail. Thus, the successful RSS reader will present the information in a way that does not make it look and feel like e-mail. Unlike work, or even personal, e-mail, RSS doesn’t have to be read. Sure you might miss a fun recipe, or insightful political argument, but if your blog or friend network is robust enough, and the content is “important” enough, you’ll probably catch it later. And, unlike your bosses or clients missives, if you miss it, it’s not the end of the world.

Here’s a fun thought: since it’s got the potential and ability, why not make RSS the real replacement for the daily newspaper, with emphasis not on news, but on daily. Every morning at, say, 6 AM (customizable for early or late risers), your RSS readings are generated and aggregated from the sources you define. You can print it out, read it, ignore it, do whatever you want with it, but that’s all you’re getting so don’t come back until tomorrow.

There are all sorts of tremendous advantages to this: a bit of time delay allows authors to get the story right and make those post-publish edits. You eliminate the firehose feeling and can, if you do it right, present the information in a scheme that feels more analogous to RSS’s newpaper cousin instead of its e-mail one. You could also, I suppose, have some sort of algorithm to pick the “best”/”most popular”/”for you” stories up front, instead of the chronological layout of current RSS readers.

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