It's time to bury RSS

RSS fatigue won't be solved by simply rehashing the tired old reader concept. It's time to start applying some proper network effects to RSS.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

When I wrote of the Death of the RSS reader last week, I little realized just how many people have given up on following RSS feeds. Now the slashdot hordes have had their say, it's all too plain that RSS as currently delivered is fatally flawed. Even the attention bunny's stamina wavers at times:

"The folder-by-folder approach requires you to be pretty anal about reading all your feeds and makes you mentally tired if you fall behind. Sorta like email. It’s to the point sometimes that I dread opening up Outlook."

Scoble hasn't given up on his feeds yet — in fact his comment was by way of RSS reading is mired in a metaphor that locks out network effectswelcoming news that the 'father of RSS' Dave Winer is working on a new reader that aggregates incoming feeds into a single flow (known as 'river of news'). But sadly, RSS fatigue won't be solved by simply rehashing the tired old reader concept. It's about time someone got really creative and started applying some proper network effects to RSS.

The problem with RSS readers and aggregators as currently defined is that every single one of them is designed to serve up feeds to individual users. Even a Web 2.0 darling like the web-based reader Rojo, which adds good things like tagging and social networking to the core feed functionality, still fails to leverage the community strengths of the Web.

I find this so frustrating because the better way of aggregating RSS is literally staring everyone in the face. Instead of reading their individual selections of RSS feeds privately, everyone should be encouraged to publish those aggregated feeds on the Web. Not to the extent of infringing the original authors' copyrights of course — the published material should be limited to headlines and perhaps the first couple of lines of text. But the simple act of publishing those aggregations then makes them available to others, and thus makes them amenable to network effects in a way that they never can be if they're kept private.

In a more recent post, Scoble has challenged the RSS skeptics: "You try to read 743 Web sites in a browser. Go ahead and try. I dare you." Yes, Robert, but how about if you published those 743 feeds as an aggregated 'river of news' page on your website? Then not only could you read all those feeds yourself in a familiar format, but all your website visitors would be able to read them too, without having to buy or set up any new software at all (of course, those who wanted extra functionality, or offline reading, would still be able to purchase and install specialized reader software). Now go a bit further, and imagine that you (or a third party) published your aggregated feed as an RSS feed in its own right, so that people who shared your interests could view the same material on their own aggregator page, mixed in with material from other feeds. Here's what I've written elsewhere about the network leverage that could stem from this approach:

"Maybe if this idea caught on, he could slim down his own list of RSS feeds, because surely someone somewhere would start aggregating some of the feeds that he subscribes to, and then he'd be able to subscribe to just one feed in place of half-a-dozen. And you know, with that step, we've just started to venture into the realms of network leverage, because the expert he's relying on to aggregate those feeds for him would automatically add new feeds as they became available, so [Robert] would be adding valuable new feeds without even having to lift a finger."

I wrote that in June 2002 (the original used Jon Udell as the example expert), and yet three years later, RSS reading remains stubbornly mired in a client-server, cubicled-user metaphor that locks out any scope for the kind of network effects that we're supposed to be reaping in the Web 2.0 era. The best thing of all about the web page aggregator concept is that it means users don't have to bother with any special RSS software at all. They just point-and-click at feed buttons and build a feed page.

So when I say it's time to bury RSS, what I mean is, keep using it, but keep it buried it in the infrastructure. It's a raw API feed, the lowest of the three layers of Web 3.0. It's time to build some higher-level applications that help users harness it instead of lumbering them with a new crop of do-it-yourself tools that force them to tinker directly with the raw, unfiltered material. Most of them just can't be bothered — and who can blame them? 

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