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?