Newspapers, RSS for the Mainstream User

Steve Rubel started a lively discussion about how RSS adoption has peaked. I only somewhat agree with his assertion, and it is because I agree with his reasoning:

Lord knows, as someone who spends three hours a day in Google Reader, I am a giant evangelist for RSS. But I am also a realist. Feeds are way way too geeky for most and the benefit does not outweigh the learning curve. So I think RSS has peaked.

The reason I disagree with his sentiment is that RSS is not mean to be a mainstream technology. It is meant as plumbing or infrastructure. Mark ‘Rizzn’ Hopkins tends to agree with me. He wrote a post on Mashable where he argues that mainstream RSS use is much higher:

The truth is that it’s pretty difficult to hit a website these days that doesn’t use RSS in some way, shape or fashion. If you look at the average page here on Mashable, there are about two or three sections which rely on RSS to pull in information relevant to the readers. If you turn your attention to the most popular sites on the web, sites like Facebook, MySpace and Google all have syndicated content strewn all through them.

All of the web sites he mentions use RSS for various reasons. Facebook uses RSS feeds to display its “Live Feed”. Google has RSS all throughout its products. Many blogs and news sites use RSS to display recent or recommended articles as well. It does not look like an RSS feed, but RSS is definitely the source of the information.

So what is the real problem with RSS adoption? Svetlana Gladkova of Profy asks some interesting questions:

why does an average Joe prefer not to use RSS technology if the technology-aware people think it is so awesome? I believe there must be two possible answers to this question: the first one in the field of tools available and the second one in the field of the need the consumers have

She goes on to explain that although Google Reader and Bloglines are geared towards the developer crowd, the start pages provided by Google, Yahoo and even Netvibes and Pageflakes are fairly easy to understand. So why do people not use the start pages as much? Steven Hodson gets close to the real problem when he complains on Inquisitr that RSS is just too geeky and still requires special software:

The problem is that RSS is computer generation’s version of USENET and newsgroups in that it needs to be explained. As well as having to explain the whys and wherefores people need specific software in order to be able to access RSS feeds. Just as we use to need special newsreaders to be able to read USENET and newsgroup postings we need special software to read RSS feeds.

As usual, it is taking me some time to get to the point. However, I wanted to provide some context to what I am thinking. Everyone quoted above thinks that RSS by itself is just too geeky. The main RSS readers, Google Reader and Bloglines, are really geared towards the technical user. Your mother is probably not going to use Google Reader as it looks today. The problem is not RSS, because it is obviously powering a large amount of the infromation transfer on the web. The problem is tools.

Svetlana thinks that the start pages from Google and Yahoo are easy enough to understand. For technical people, sure they are really easy to use. However, mainstream users do not understand what is meant by a widget. They also do not understand how to add a blog to something like iGoogle. Using the mother example again, do you expect your mother to go to iGoogle, create a new feed widget and type in the correct RSS feed address? No, that is not happening. Mainstream users want the benefits of RSS, like timely updates to information, without the hassles of setting up a reader.

When mainstream users want information, they typically go to their favorite newspaper. Even with the “friendly” interface of a Netvibes or Pageflakes, it is still too much work to setup your preferred reading. These people want to go to a site like the New York Times and be presented with the information that has been deemed important enough. The user interface has to be simple to use, and there can not be any difficult setup. Some newspapers are starting to understand this when they started to integrate blog feeds. Alltop was built with this premise in mind, and still has some work to do to cater to the mainstream users.

People have been calling for the death of newspapers for quite some time. In their current printed form, they may be dying. However, we are already starting to see the evolution from a printed newspaper to the online version. Who is going to be leading the charge of RSS content for the mainstream user? Newspapers. Why? They understand what the mainstream user wants. I think we, the techies, have forgotten that.

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10 thoughts on “Newspapers, RSS for the Mainstream User

  1. Mark,

    Alltop is trying to be the “magazine rack”, but I think if they go further towards personalized news they could really be onto something.


  2. We designed Noovo ( with this precise problem in mind. Dealing with information overload, the key question is what is relevant to a user and that includes the notions of relative reputation and context.

    Noovo will recommend you content based on deep graph mining (where every activity is a node) and you can also manually discover relevant sources without the need to know what RSS is all about. Noovo helps you aggregate your content from your web services (just like FriendFeed, but in a more MySpacesihs way) and distribute other way around.

    Email me at nabergoj at noovo com for a test account.


  3. Rob, actually when I was talking about start pages in the post you quoted here (thank you!) as easier to understand than tools like Google Reader, my main point was that they can be easier explained as something of a dashboard to the web where you can get the instant view of everything that may be important. And the second (and most important) part is that the start pages offer a selection of default widgets that new users can easily choose from depending on their interests. I’m not talking about actually adding an RSS feed for some random blog, this I can imagine must be a really painful task for my mother 🙂

    And I agree with you that newspapers may very well eventually evangelize the RSS idea to the mainstream market – hope this is exactly what happens as I don’t see bloggers explaining what RSS is to vast majority of people and even making them use it.


  4. Andray
    I have only heard of noovo, but have not taken a look. From your description, it does sound interesting, so I will probably be requesting an account in a few days.


  5. Svetlana,
    Linking is not a problem when you provide good content. I understand the point about explaining what iGoogle or Netvibes are meant to be, but that does not mean they are easier to use. That was really what I was trying to focus on here.

    Explaining RSS is really a lost cause because there is not an easy way to use it when it comes to mainstream users. I think the newspapers and news sites could have an advantage as people already want to go to them for information. They can just be an RSS aggregator underneath and present it in a newspaper-like fashion.


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