Drinking from a Fire Hose: In Defense of RSS

There’s lots of talk today about how RSS is dead, and whatnot.  Let me set things straight.

firehoseFirst of all, as a practical matter, RSS has never been alive.  Ask anyone other than a hard core geek (like me) what RSS is and they won’t have any earthly idea.  RSS is probably the most useful tool on the internet, but regular people don’t use it.  Why?  Because no one has figured out how to make money pushing RSS feeds, and so the informal brotherhood of mercenary content producers (e.g., old media and big new media) don’t embrace it.  In fact, they really don’t want you to use it.  They’d rather force you to their web sites where they can serve those ads you never click on, but that advertisers still pay for.

It’s the desire for money once again screwing up something beautiful.  The environment, professional sports, our computers, etc.

This conspiracy to kill RSS is just one more attempt to prolong the death of an antiquated system.  It’s the same sort of battle the record label cartel is waging against the digital distribution of music.  In the case of RSS, the system they are desperately trying to save is the one in which the provider selects and aggregates content, either on paper or a website, and the consumer accesses that content at the provider’s place.  Where the experience is tightly controlled, complete with ads, etc.  Under the new system, which will be much better for the consumer once it matures a little, the consumer selects both the content and the package, and then accesses it wherever he or she wants: internet browser, phone, RSS reader, Facebook, etc.  Of those choices, the RSS reader is currently the best choice, by far.


It is easy to use.  It’s free.  It has archival and search features. You can organize it any way you want.  There are tons of ways to slice, dice and organize your feeds.  Only the fishy smelling partial feeds used as bait by those trying to keep control of the experience detract from what would otherwise be a nearly perfect experience.

A perfect experience that the brotherhood is trying to ignore and the attention deficient bloggerati are trying to replace.

Many are boldly stating that, while simultaneously saving the entire world, Twitter is the best way to get our news in 2009.  There’s a lot wrong with that argument, but I’ll settle for three gigantic and obvious flaws:

1. Twitter is nothing more than a shared partial RSS feed.  Other than a headline, every bit of the content one consumes via Twitter is located elsewhere.    Someone tosses you a scrap, but to get the meat, you have to take a walk- usually right back to one of the brotherhood’s sites.  If you don’t think this has something to do with old media’s love affair with Twitter, you’re not watching closely.

2. Twitter has no meaningful archival value.  The ability to save a big pile of “Favorites” takes us back at least a decade, to the era of chaotic browser bookmarks.  Nobody, other than the deeply Twitter-addicted, sits in front of his or her computer all day staring at Twitter, which means that if you aren’t staring at the screen when something happens, that something will soon drift away on a river of quotes, links, self-promotion and spam.  If you have any meaningful number of Twitter follows, that breaking news story that Robert Scoble talks about will be buried in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.  Meanwhile, your RSS feeds wait patiently for you in Google Reader, nestled in topical folders (paging Evernote) and ready to be read by you, on your timetable.

3. Twitter’s search capabilities are rudimentary at best.  You can search your feeds via Google Reader (and no doubt other feed readers) in just about any manner you can think of.

Now, about that real time thing.  I have complained loud and long that RSS needs to be faster.  But when I talk about slow, I’m talking hours.  The difference between two hours and 15 minutes is one thing.  The difference between 15 minutes and 5 minutes is another.

And about this single criteria speed assumption. . .

Why are people assuming that faster is always the goal?  That more is better?  I don’t know about you, but I’m not really in a race to find out some piece of news before anyone else.  If you’re a gossip hound and you get your news from any online source, you’ll have plenty of time to blab to those who still wait for the TV news or morning paper.  And if you’re just someone who wants to stay informed, why do you need instant?  And if you demand instant, what price are you paying in terms of the experience?

It’s like skipping the movie to watch the credits, in fast forward.  Maybe it saves you a little time, but at great detriment to the experience.

Once again, there are way too many people drinking the Twitter Kool-Aid- apparently from a fire hose.

If RSS is really dead, it’s the brotherhood that killed it, not Twitter or any other flavor of the week.  People need to wake up and realize before it’s too late that RSS is the best thing going.  It is the single best way for users to take maximum control of the content and presentation of their news, simply because the man doesn’t own RSS.  The people do.

The man doesn’t like RSS because it’s disruptive of the establishment.  We can kill it, but if we do we’ll be sorry.

So what’s it going to be, the man or the people?

9 thoughts on “Drinking from a Fire Hose: In Defense of RSS

  1. Oh, good lord. What a bunch of navel gazers. Oooh, RSS isn't the latest, greatest, shiniest thing on the intertubes now!!!! Gah.What I have in my RSS feed? Blogs. Lots of blogs. And comics. And fluff. And when I have the time, I can sit down with Google Reader and cruise through my blog buddies' latest posts, read the latest installment of Girl Genius and Abstruse Goose and xkcd.I don't use RSS for news, so it works just fine for me. For news, I go to MSNBC, and my local newspaper's website, and follow links in Twitter.

  2. Kent, you're in denial. All this noise about what RSS is good for v. what the hose is good for misses the fundamental point. RSS created the disruption that is now being mined by micromessaging. There is no RSS app capability that can't be rendered via realtime, and the only difference between fast and faster is that one gets adopted and the other fades. Why would Dave reach back to respond to PSHBB if he didn't understand that speed wins. The rest of the argument is a push. The numbers are moving one way not back and forth.

  3. Steve,I'm all for faster, but what I'm also concerned about about is the RSS experience, not just RSS as the underlying pipe for other stuff.From an infrastructure perspective, speed wins, no argument. I would really, really love it if new content showed up in the pipe (regardless of destination) immediately. Ironically, the fact that it doesn't pushes us back to good old fashioned web browsing (as noted by OmegaMom above).But faster only works well if the destination works well. Faster to where? Twitter? Maybe, but only if the content originates at Twitter. Otherwise, it's the same slow pipe. And even if it gets to Twitter faster, the design, limits/features, etc. are just not robust enough to suit me.My desired result: faster to the pipe, regardless of destination.My acceptable result: a recognition that the destination has a material effect on the experience.

  4. Steve- Real-time has not been the issue for most users. The issue has been the organization of knowledge around content. Faster content means faster mess. It's what you do with content that matters, whether it's via RSS or Twitter. The irony is that micro-messaging is getting messy, and instead of managing RSS feeds, now you have to manage Twitter feeds,- so we're back at managing feeds. Instead, we should manage content- and let the feeds be totally invisible. The best solutions will insulate the user from RSS, while it might be there in the background doing its job of piping content in.

  5. I agree with you, RSS isn't dead at all (but I think it almost went alive : my father knows what RSS is… not yet my mother though ;)). However, I think that RSS is returning to where it belong : in the back. Behind all these fancy interfaces. RSS/Atom is the only ubiquitous API. What's in common between a blog, Twitter, flickr, craisglist, ebay, google news? RSS!We built superfeedr because RSS is a great technology to abstract data and decouple it from applications themslves. I'd love to have your input on that, as I see some of our users left comments already 😉

  6. When Google, the biggest new media player in the game, owns the most popular RSS reader around, I find it hard to buy the idea of a conspiracy against RSS.I think the answer is simpler – most people simply don't follow enough blogs to make them look for a solution like RSS. I agree that Twitter is a bad way to follow lots of info sources – but how many people really do that?RSS was the "next big thing" for at least three years before Twitter hit the big time (2006-2009) and never got picked up in a big way by anyone other than power users. That's not a conspiracy, that's just people using the tools that suit them. Note that despite all the hype around Twitter at the moment that far more people use Facebook – people are quite capable of ignoring hype and using the tools they find most useful.

  7. David,The conspiracy (and I was obviously using that term loosely) I am talking about is by the same old media who are also fighting with Google over the Google News/AP business. These are two battlefronts in the greater war over the future of media in general.My theory is that had old media embraced RSS and pushed full feeds, more people would have embraced RSS. The fact is that RSS isn't even an option for traditional news because old media only pushes partial feeds, which are only slightly more useful than spam.I agree that people haven't embraced RSS- for blogs or anything else. And most people who use Twitter don't care enough about the underlying technology to know that RSS is even involved.

  8. There are tons of ways to slice, dice and organize your feeds. Only the fishy smelling partial feeds used as bait by those trying to keep control of the experience..fire extinguisher

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