RSS is in a bad state and it’s possibly in danger. The rate of adoption seems to be slowing down. There are blogs, but new forms of information are being created, and they aren’t using RSS. Even the people who love it are resigned to its demise. It’s really hard to even make a business case for why your service should have RSS. Best argument we have right now is that its a greater good argument. Even though it seems like RSS is having a tough time, I think there is a way to save it.
First we need to fix the verbiage problem. When we talk about RSS, it could be interchangeable with Atom, but even that isn’t the root issue. When we talk about RSS we are really talking about an aggregated stream of information 1. Usually this stream is an aggregate of RSS, and ATOM feeds, but that doesn’t mean we should talk about this issue in terms of its format. The medium behind the format is what we really should be talking about. So, feed reading is probably okay, or aggregated stream of information whatever, but we should stop thinking about this purely in terms of formats. For our purposes Twitter is actually an aggregated stream of information, and so is Facebook, but I am sure that what most feed readers want is something a little more custom, a little more whitebox then what Twitter, and Facebook provide.
Which isn’t as important as the idea. Lets leave the technical part of this aside for a moment. It’s important, and the next generation of feed reading will require some new fundamental tech, but it shouldn’t drive the conversation. It’s dry. I could spend all day talking about the tech, but this is where RSS and friends went wrong. They failed to inspire people. I mean the idea of an aggregated stream of information doesn’t sell itself it needs something, probably at least two things.
We need some new people. “Nattering nabobs of negativism” 2 comes to Mind when I think about the level of discussion around RSS. We all, my self included, can get hamstrung by the details. We have also accepted some form of the idea that RSS is dying, or dead. This continues right down to the core. Dave Winer has probably pissed so many people off that he can’t really be the standard bearer for RSS any longer. So, new people okay, or at lest lets try and energize the current crop.
Also we need to get a crystal clear idea of whats going on here. We are talking about the creation of a brand new medium, not just RSS feeds. Let’s put it up on a pedestal so high that we might fail, but it would also be freaking awesome if we made it. We are talking about the next TV, Radio, or Newspaper. Let’s take this idea, and rebrand the aggregated stream of information as the next big medium.
Why a medium?
Here are two pieces of media that came down through my stream in the last week or so.
The first is a video of at talk given by Wilson Miner, ‘When We Build’ 3. It’s for a bunch of designers, but its not about design. It’s about how our rituals, our activities around consuming media can change the world. His thesis is ‘We shape our tools and our tools shape us’. He uses some ideas from Marshall Mcluhan4 to make his point 5. Watch the video, its good, but here are the highlights that I saw. The medium through which you access information is a strong force. It can re-shape the way we live our lives. We will meld our world around that medium. His most dramatic example is that of a light bulb. By creating light at night, there are a whole host of activities we can now do at night. Activities we weren’t able todo before. It utterly changed our world.
Chiefly, though, I make sure I don’t rely on other people to find stuff for me to read. I mean, I do, of course; everything I’ve described so far is powered by other people. But I feel strongly about also hunting for material on my own, which is why RSS remains a huge part of my life.
Seward likes to use feed readers because he likes to find news. I think many people look at it in the reverse. I want news, so I am going to use a feed reader. It doesn’t seem backwards, but it is. News is always available, really to anyone who wants it. CNN, NYTimes. All these places have websites where you can get the news, but why stop at websites. Walk down to the cafe and talk to someone. They will probably have some news for you as well. The TV, the Newspaper, the back of the cereal box; all these things have news.
The news isn’t changing, the medium is changing. When the medium changes, so do we. Here is a journalist who’s ideas of receiving news has changed to gathering news. I understand that because he is a journalist it’s more likely this would happen to him, but all big change needs to start somewhere. Newspapers are something that changed our world, but they have always been written by a proportionally smaller group of people then those who use them.
We’re here on the precipice of monumental change. Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader were all just baby steps. I don’t really know where we go from here, but the aggregated feed isn’t dead. To give it a kick in the pants we just need to refresh our idea a little of what they are, and we need some new people to carry on the idea.