RSS Readering, Redux

Paul Kedrosky (RSS Sucks) and Scott Karp (How to Fix RSS) are tapping into the inadequacies of RSS, but they are off target.

Karp carps about the terminology, as if using ‘subscribing’ instead of ‘syndicating’ would solve the real broken parts of the whole RSS mess. Paul does a better job enumerating real problems, which can be summarized as feed overload.

But the real problem is that the entire user experience offered up by RSS newsreaders is wrong. I wrote about this at some length last year in a post called RSS Readering: Why RSS Readers Are No Good For Me (And You Too, I Bet). In particular, I made the core point:

I tried them for a time, and then dropped out. These annoy me for similar reasons: I don’t like the Pez dispenser feel, where all posts are like another, and you assume the role of a pigeon in a Skinner box, hitting the button to make the pellets roll out.

I have been lusting for something, a new solution, that actually parallels my most rewarding reading experiences. The way this generally works is like so:

I stumble across some link, or reference – perhaps in an email, or in the midst of reading a post in a browser – and I decide that I would like to invest some attention to this concept, or meme. Note: I am not just deciding to click a link and go to a specific page – which is all typical browsers do. I am deciding to investigate the theme, thread, meme, or whatever, and assimilate and collate information about it.

I then use a variety of techniques to uncover what I am interested in:

  • I might click on tags embedded in the post, that take me to Technorati, or I might simply decide to search at Technorati or for references to the piece or for tags to the topic or the names of individuals writing about it.
  • I might follow backlinks, from the post back to earlier sources: other posts, or articles.
  • I might ask specific contacts of mine what they know about the object of my interest.
  • I might write a post, summarizing what I have uncovered, and offering some thoughts on the subject

But what I seldom do is just sit there reading a stream of posts, based on their chronology, or other intrinsic factors. No, I am on a hunt, skipping from place to place, and these tools constrain me more than they free me.

So the problem is not RSS, which should be just a low-level protocol that tools rely on. The problem is the amazingly static and non-innovative way we are using RSS.

The basic metaphor of having all RSS streams converge into an app like NewsGator or Bloglines is too limiting.

I want RSS threaded into other social aspects of the web, like the Nerdvana concept I have been hawking for a long time: an integration of RSS feeds into the instant message buddylist, so that I can be notified when someone I am interested in has posted something recently, just like I can about their online presence, except in this case it is their onblog presence.

At any rate, Scott and Paul are attracting attention to a real problem, although the problem is the RSS reader model we have adopted.

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