Elsewhere

Steve Boyd on RSS “breaking through”

Dave Winer is poking at an important issue — How RSS can bust through — building on Fred Wilson’s statement that “RSS has to become brain-dead simple to use.” Fred was writing about RSS as a replacement for many sorts of commercial email — newsletters and the like. Dave is making a case for helping RSS to “break through”, meaning a more widespread adoption, I guess. But, ultimately, I think he’s on the wrong track, based on these points:

  1. It must be easy to find relevant feeds. Too much hunt and peck is involved. The reason My.Yahoo and iTunes have been successful is that they centralize a lot of the discovery, they make it easy to find stuff you might be interested in. But not easy enough to qualify for brain-dead simplicity. That’s why we’re working on reading lists, trying to drive adoption of the new practice by the industry. If, when you get started using an aggregator, it gives you some interesting feeds, and then as time goes by gives you more, without you having to do anything, that’s going to make the finding of relevant feeds a passive thing. Until you’re ready to take over, you can ride the bus without learning to drive. I think this is going to get us another 15 or 20 percent of web users into the RSS world.
  2. Subscription has to be centralized. When Microsoft invited me in, in April of last year, to hear their RSS strategy, I think they expected me to object to their centralizing subscription for Windows users; they were surprised when I didn’t. I had already come to the conclusion that subscription had to be handled in the browser, because that’s where the impulse to subscribe happens. We knew this back in 2001, when we implemented the Radio coffee mug that made subscription a one-click operation. The problem of course is that our method only worked for Radio. Any of these techniques is going to work with only one destination, that’s why there has to be just one destination, why subscription needs to be centralized.

    Microsoft didn’t go far enough. They only solved the problem for Windows. In 2006 that’s not even a very large part of the world, because a large number of people who subscribe, do it through web-based services like Bloglines or My.Yahoo, and more will over time. The Microsoft approach doesn’t work for them. If I subscribe to something using their desktop service, it only registers with software that runs on my desktop. It doesn’t inform My.Yahoo, for example. Now, Microsoft argues that Yahoo can install a toolbar that runs on the desktop, but come on, we don’t want a proliferation new stuff loading into the OS. That’s how we got in all the malware trouble. We don’t need to open that kind of Pandora’s Box. What we need is a centralized subscription public service. It’s not a technological problem, it’s a political and economic problem. In order for RSS to grow to the next level, tech companies have to stop seeking lock-in on subscriptions.

    I’ve suggested to Yahoo that they run this service. Of the top three net companies (the others being Google and Microsoft) they’re the least controversial, imho. All that would be required is that they support OPML export for My.Yahoo subscription lists, and commit to keeping it open for perpetuity. The last part is the hard part of course. Now perhaps we could get a university involved, they have politics too, but people seem to trust universities more than they trust for-profit businesses. Something to think about.

    Now once we have a single place for subscriptions, which is a real tall order, then all kinds of services can be built off that. It’s like the domain name system again, and perhaps that’s the way to implement it. We’re lucky that RSS is still a fairly close-knit community, and there is leadership that works, somewhat. The small tech companies and at least two of the large ones (Apple, Google) don’t participate, they blaze their own trails, but the publishing industry and most of the large tech companies are still in the mode of cooperating. So now may be a time it can work. And reading lists buy us some time.

Yikes. Where to begin?

First of all, the problem of finding ‘relevant feeds’ — Dave seems to implicitly believe this is an area that has matured, and that the current notion of Yahoo directories or iTunes music distribution should simply be repurposed. I don’t think so. Just take the example of music and iTunes. iTunes is a great service if you know what you want to buy, but if you are trying to find new music, a solution like Last.fm or Pandora is a lot more useful. Last.fm is a social solution, where the music playing habits of other, likeminded individuals can be used to inform you of music you might like to listen too. I have found my musical horizons greatly expanded in this way. Note that this from-the-edge solution has no center: while there is a giant directory of music at Last.fm, the most obvious way to get at music is through other people. The approach is totally socialized. So the very hard problem of finding stuff that’s good to read on subjects of interest is made somewhat easier: we seek to read what others we respect are reading. So the notion of reading lists has real merit, but why do they need to be centralized? If our writing is distributed, can’t our reading lists?

If Dave means that we are migrating to a My.Yahoo model, where we pull stuff we like onto a page, or into a reader, I opt out. I want to roam around, not be caged in, even if it is a cage of my own making.

If he is implicitly taking the stand that RSS readers are the best and only response to the “information overload” problem (a la Scott Karp’s “Focus on the User, Not the Technology”), I don’t buy it.

Secondly, the notion that subscription must be centralized — why, Dave? The experience of the web is managed a page at a time, as we drift around reading things and following links and searches. The RSS reader experience is a piss-poor way to experience the web, decoupling the sense of place associated with direct experience of blogs and other sites. There is an implicit assumption of efficiency, like Scoble’s contention that he would be unable to consume the amounts of writing that he does if he had to actually browse to the various locations. But that argument is something like asserting that a seven day tour of Europe that takes you to thirteen capitals is “better” than one that only involves two countries. Quantity has its points, but it is not the point.

I believe that we haven’t seen the killer app for RSS yet. It’s not RSS readers — which provide a layer of mediation into the Web that is patently bad. I don’t want all meals pre-cut into bite-sized portions. I want to see the stuff in author’s sidebars, their blogrolls, read the comments, look at the pictures. I want to feel the road, spend the extra day in Paris, check out the blog design. It’s a total experience, and the ersatz, deskinned environment inside of RSS readers is sterile by comparison.

The killer app will be the appliance — or set of appliances — that embody the metaphor of travel on the web: that will allow me to more easily stay up to date on ‘places’ and people of interest, to plan and execute ‘travel’ to those ‘places’ on the web, keep notes on my travels, and find new places to travel to.

If efficiencies are the issue, how about precacheing all the places I like to visit, based on RSS notification? Then I can still get out of the RSS reader box, but cut the time involved.

So I think RSS will play a big role in ‘active reading’ but it will not be the experience itself: it will support the experience, in various ways, but not subsume it.

I am really arguing for an esthetic appreciation of the experience of being what I have been calling the “active reader” while Dave’s focus is on the more-or-less industrial scaling of RSS as the foundation of a new model of communication. But I don’t think the centralization of subscription is needed, or even attractive. On the contrary, initiatives like memeorandum show the promise of new forms of aggregation — leveraging RSS under the hood — that reveal social connections and distributed conversation across groups of people. Memeorandum is an example of an experience made much less rich when presented in the RSS readerized format: a stream of chunks with no apparent relationships.

The web is not a pipe, streaming bits onto our eyeballs. It is a world of people, and the social aspects are the most interesting. It is people that are the best source of guidance, advice, and pointers to things worth reading. Throw away your readers, and let’s beg the app makers to come up with tools that make the experience of roaming and reading the web richer, not homogenized.

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 Del.icio.us 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.

ATTENTION PLEASE: Who decides what gets noticed?

Scott Karp poses a great question (before wandering into a maze of ideas that peter out without a solid conclusion):

[from Publishing 2.0 » Who Are the New Media Gatekeepers?]

Who decides what’s worthy of your attention — a Web 2.0 application, a newspaper columnist, a talk show host, an editorial staff, an influential blogger, a community of thousands, a community of millions?

In the perfect world, the answer would be that each person should be their own gatekeeper. The reality is that we are unequipped — we do not have the time or resources. So we are thrown back onto one of four (potentially complementary or competitive) approaches to dealing with this conundrum:


  1. Institutional authority — If you agree with the editorial stance of a particular group or company, then you allow them to decide what’s important, how many words to devote to it, and your life is easy.
  2. Individual authority — If you like what Doc Searls has to say about open source or the future of media, put his RSS feed in your reader, and ta-da, life is good.
  3. Emergent authority — If you trust in the wisdom of the crowd, then Slashdot, digg, the Always-On-Network, or del.cio.us/popular will be a good choice, as they rely on collective decision making about what is interesting and what is not.
  4. Machine authority — Various software approaches to determining what is important, like Google, Blogpulse, tech.memeorandum.com, or Technorati, mine the social gestures that people leave behind, like links and traffic, and pass it through an algorithmic blender, to yeild a metadata-based approach to what is most important.

But of course, all of these things are happening in an open universe: they all impinge on, and influence each other. It’s a dynamic system, where individual authority — good writing on a topic — leads to emergent authority (as many swarm to read a great post), which allows Technorati to mine those readers’ links, which leads to increased individual authority, and so on. Meanwhile, individuals combine into groups — like the Web 2.0 Workgroup — which confers an almost institutional authority, or are included on exclusive lists in aggregation, like the tech.memeorandum 2000 bloggers.

So, the answer is: there is no gate. There are many waypoints, many street signs, and many ways to go, but no one is barring the gate, or deciding who is let in. This is confusing if we try to apply the old map to the new territory, but not if we try to perceive the new media universe as it is.

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