RSS Is Not Dead, It Has A Usability Problem

Really, REALLY BIG RSS feed button
Image by photopia / HiMY SYeD via Flickr

Technology (and technology news) tends to be cyclical. So this week, we are seeing some “old” news resurface. I already dealt with the possible Twitter acquirers yesterday. Today is the “RSS is dead again” problem. It started with Steve Gillmor proclaiming RSS is replaced with Twitter:

It’s time to get completely off RSS and switch to Twitter. RSS just doesn’t cut it anymore. The River of News has become the East River of news, which means it’s not worth swimming in if you get my drift.

Of course, this spawned several posts in response, but my favorite comment comes from Dave Winer:

As I said in the comments on Steve’s post, with some irony, RSS is as dead as HTTP and SMTP, which is to say it’s alive and kicking. These protocols get widely implemented, are so deeply ingrained in the infrastructure they become part of the fabric of the Internet. They don’t die, they don’t rest in piece. They become the foundation for everything that follows.

The odd part about this is the whole proclamation from Steve. Steve is not a stupid guy, so we can assume that he knows RSS is used as the data transfer infrastructure for many things, especially anything that aggregates data. So, let’s also assume that he is really talking about RSS readers, which he does allude to eventually. The difficulty of using something like Twitter for blog and news reading is that everything is so time dependent. If I plan on sleeping, I miss anything that was posted during the night. I mentioned my addiction to my RSS reader before:

I am an information addict. I can see breaking news through Twitter or on some meme aggregator. However, I use RSS as my continuing education. I learn from the information in my RSS feeds. I see different opinions from my RSS feeds. I can also read my RSS whenever I want, and I do not have to depend on the time that something was published.

I can understand Steve’s point as well. RSS readers are not really user friendly. Also, do we really need to see every post from TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb? In all honesty, no. The question is really how good articles or posts float to the top. Typically, technologists have used things like Slashdot and TechMeme. The problem with those sites is that they are very technology oriented. The mainstream uses sites like MyYahoo and maybe Google News, sometimes they don’t even leave CNN.

Why does the mainstream avoid RSS? RSS feeds are “technical”, and so are RSS readers. That little orange icon is mysterious to much of the mainstream. If you click the icon, you get some odd page that tells you to subscribe to some “feed” using things yo unever heard of like “Google Reader”, “Bloglines” or “Netvibes”.  The problem is that we, the technologists have not found a good way to present blogs and RSS feeds to the mainstream.

In the mainstream, RSS has a usability problem. It is not as simple as creating some cool TechMeme-like site for all topics either. First, we need to work with the browser developers to determine a better way to display an RSS feed when someone clicks the icon. How do we get some nice display and make subscribing a simpler concept? Even if this is done well, there is still the problem of what website people will go to in order to read their feeds. Obviously, that is a much harder problem as the major sites like MyYahoo have so much traffic and people do not like change. This is a large task, with many interesting problems.

What else is needed to make RSS feeds, blogs or a new blog aggregator gain mainstream acceptance?

24 thoughts on “RSS Is Not Dead, It Has A Usability Problem

  1. Dennis

    I have not looked at PostRank’s newer offerings, but they definitely have some interesting technology. They have started grouping topics more, and their engagement metric is well known.


  2. I think, if a developer finds a way to integrate the feed site’s visual cues + comments, and maybe better aggregate posts (the way friendfeed gives you the ‘best of the day’), that will make using RSS feeds a whole lot more different and appealing to more people. Make it look like the MSN or Yahoo portal, just customized to the max could make it mainstream.

    But, even if that doesn’t work, it’ll stick around as internet architecture.


  3. I’m with the others who believe that Steve’s peculiar RSS v. Twitter comparison was written to generate conversation. It apparently worked.

    If pressed to make a comparison…
    “Twitter is an unfiltered stream of subjective sound-bites, drawn from sources of widely varying quality. It has vitality, energy and immediacy, unburdened by credibility or consistency.

    As such, Twitter is perfect for informal communication, entertainment and as a pointer to where the more serious stories are located. As a conduit for high-quality information, RSS reigns supreme.”

    For those who care, a more detailed opinion on the failure of RSS Readers is available on the MashLogic blog.


  4. Adam

    I am aware that the original post was linkbait, but sometimes the content still gets you thinking. That’s what happened here.


  5. Rohanv

    RSS is ingrained in the infrastructure of many sites now, so it definitely will not truly die. Regarding the display problem, we need to be careful with how much customization is required for usefulness. I have seen that most people want something to work first, and maybe customize a small part.


  6. Ranjit,

    The interesting part about Twitter is that some people really are dumping their RSS reader and just watching Twitter.

    One point on your blog that I agree with is discovery. I think we missed the discovery part so many times, but hopefully people will keep trying.


  7. I think that the idea that the casual consumer of information on the Web will use an RSS reader is certainly dead.

    But content creators who need to read a lot of stories to get the information to write their content will be using feed readers. Sure I follow quite few blogs in Twitter, and click a lot of links there. I also find stories for my blog there.

    But I can’t leave my RSS reader behind for the way it lets me deal with bulk information and the way, as has been pointed out, I can see the info even if I go to sleep when it first arrives. Am I going to use Twitter to monitor the several hundred photos that get posted daily, on Flickr, of my city? I could if I wanted to, but it would be an absurd way to do it.

    RSS feed-reading isn’t dead, it’s just never going to be mainstream.


  8. David,

    I absolutely agree with what you are thinking. I have started thinking about what type of application we could build to have the mainstream read more blogs. It is a very difficult problem that may not have a good answer.


  9. @robdiana, my feeling is that the technology has been invented and re-invented. Long before Google Reader there was bloglines, we have Google Start Page and Netvibes, both of which can easily import RSS feeds. It’s just that people aren’t interested in adopting the tech.

    However, one of the most important pieces of tech to let people read more blogs, IMO? The simple email update. “Click here to get an email every time I write a new story on my blog” makes sense to almost everybody – Feedburner lets you offer your blog via email to anyone, and that’s what I do.

    It seems so 1999 to most people who pay attention to what’s happening online, but I think email updates are going to remain an important part of the toolkit for attracting regular readers.


  10. I think what’s happened is that so many bloggers have discovered that Twitter is a much easier and faster way for people to find their blog posts. It’s really easy for bloggers to integrate a Twitter plugin that publishes links to their site thru the Twitter feed, and used correctly, this can generate much more inbound traffic than RSS readers.

    Twitter has become part of publishing for many, which in turn has become part of communication and social networking. Being able to Retweet articles is great, as well as adding helpful #tags along the way. RSS cannot do this, so as far as all these elements are concerns, it’s not an option.


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