Steve Gillmor & RSS: Out of Chaos and into Absurdity

RSS is dead.  Long live RSS!
RSS is dead. Long live RSS!

I remember the beginning of Out of Chaos, a book I read over 30 years ago.  There was a passage about the worldview of a tiny insect on a leaf, and how to that insect the leaf, and at most the tree, was his universe.  I can’t remember much else from that book, but I remember that part.

Because I keep seeing the same thing happen over and over on the internet.  Take some new online application, toss in a celebrity or two, get some venture capitalists to bait their greater fool hooks with some fuzzy math and, presto, the world is suddenly turned on its side.

Except it isn’t.  At least not for anyone who doesn’t live on that same leaf, in that same tree.

Even online applications and protocols that have been around a long time and could make life easier are often ignored by the general public.  Take RSS, for example.  I can count on two hands the number of people, of any age, I know in the real world who use RSS.  Heck, most of the people I know don’t even use the internet all that much for news.  Sure, they check their newspaper’s web site and maybe CNN for breaking news and they may check their stock quotes on Yahoo or Google, but they still get the lion’s share of their news from the paper.  You know- that wad of dead trees that some dude tosses at your porch every morning.

And now comes Steve Gillmor trying to argue, presumably with a straight face, that RSS is dead and everyone should get all of their news from Twitter.  From freaking Twitter, for crying out loud.  Why not from a Ouija Board?  Or a mood ring?  Even though I can’t get him to converse with me on said Twitter, I have met Steve and he’s a smart guy.  So maybe his article is satire and I’m not getting it.  But I don’t think so.

While RSS may very well be dead to most of the real world, to suggest that people are going to go from a technology they barely, if at all, grasp (RSS) to one they know absolutely nothing about (Twitter) is perhaps the most optimistic bit of navel gazing in the history of the typed word.  People might go look at Twitter because Oprah talks about it, but that’s a far cry from relying on it as a primary source of information.  Shoot, I go to the circus every year or two, but I don’t live there.

Not only is no one who matters going to treat Twitter as the new CNN, anyone who wants anything resembling reliable information in anything resembling an organized fashion is not going to rely on Twitter.  For one thing, no one- and I mean no one- is going to read, much less rely on, the Twitter public stream or topical word searches that capture ten spam posts for every legitimate one.  The signal to spam to noise quotient on Twitter is simply off the scale.  Just to make Twitter enjoyable, you have to manage your follows zealously.  And of course there are no archival features on Twitter.  You can only see what’s been posted recently.

It’s going backwards.  Like watching the news at 10:00 on live TV.

Let me say it again, Google News has folders, archival features, add-ons to improve those archival features, etc., etc.  Twitter has none.  This, in and of itself, is one of the fatal flaws in Steve’s illogic.

I agree- and have said so over and over here- that RSS is not perfect.  Google has tried to single-handedly kill RSS by acquiring and then completely ignoring Feedburner.  And I have said many times, that RSS needs to get a lot closer to real time.  But real time, filtered poorly can be very noisy.  If I see yet another stale post about some beat to death topic in my RSS feeds, I’ll see it five or ten or twenty-five times on Twitter.  The echo chamber in Twitter is deeper and more resonant than in Google Reader, or even the blogosphere as a whole.  Steve may not know that, because I really don’t think he uses Twitter for broad interaction.  I think he uses it as a platform for a written version of his podcast, where others get to observe him talking to a few selected people.

But he’s far from alone.  I think Steve and many others have fooled themselves into thinking that their leaf on the big old celebrity infested Twitter tree is representative of the larger world.  But it’s not.