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The RSS Crisis

In the new Gillmor Gang, just released on Podshow.com, I remind several of the Gangsters of Robert Scoble's late great RSS bandwidth crisis.

In the new Gillmor Gang, just released on Podshow.com, I remind several of the Gangsters of Robert Scoble's late great RSS bandwidth crisis. You'll have to listen to the show for the context in which I brought this up, but here's the reason why the latest great RSS naming crisis is making the rounds. A hint: it's not because there's a crisis, except possibly for a group of technologists who want in on some very valuable real estate.

Don't let anybody kid you. When Robert raised the hideous spector of RSS bandwidth overwhelming poor little Redmond's servers several years ago, some interesting suspects jumped on board the crisis train as it lumbered out of town. At FOO camp, one such group floated the first in a series of proposals to save the network from the scourge of RSS traffic. I can't remember the name of the group--something to do with feed or ping meshing--but I certainly remember who was there.

Little came of this , for several reasons. One, FOO is a private party and as such limits attendance to those invited and authority to those not. FOO is a great party but a lousy place to generate broad support. Two, most of the discussion centered on server-side solutions that would save vendors lots of money but would also centralize the power of the RSS network in the hands of its biggest incumbents.

The problem with being an RSS incumbent is that it's a very quick ride. When Microsoft announced its support for RSS at Gnomedex, it was timed to blunt Apple's iTunes podcasting support and Google's promise of a MyYahoo counterplay. In fact it was a blast from the past, AOL, fresh from their Live8 triumph, who crossed the RSS line before Google. With Feedster aligned with AOL and Bloglines under IAC/Ask Jeeves' wing, the rumors leapt the blood/brain barrier to talk of a Technorati buyout, the Podshow capitalization, and the quick Odeo me-too.

Tes, the RSS crisis is--money. And in an RSS world where creation and distribution are solved, the money is in, wait for it, wait some more, OK put down your pencils and hand in your papers, the directory. Not ease of use. Not Really Simple Names. Not orange or blue icons or icon proliferation or ping federation or any of a million potential diversions from the reality that is RSS. The directory. Do you know the way to Times Square or should I just go fud myself?

Why would Microsoft want to change the name from RSS to Web feeds? To make it easier to do what? To move away from a decentralized model, the one the record and film cartels can't control, to a centralized directory that plays to the strengths of scale. To flip on the DRM bits and return content control to the Incumbents. Yum yum. Money.

Now there's nothing wrong with money that taking it away from you won't cure. If I have to choose between Dave Winer and Microsoft picking my pocket, I'll go with Dave every time. Give the micropayment to the mom and pop store. If it really doesn't matter whether it's called RSS or Atom, call it RSS. I'll go with the horse that brung me. When Tim Bray writes Atomic RSS you know it's the right answer.

Try this thought experiment the next time someone tells you about the RSS Crisis: If RSS is so popular, why does it need to be fixed? If it's too complicated, why is it so popular?

Here's another: Steve Rubel quotes the Neilsen/NetRatings report thusly: “The majority of respondents to the survey were less familiar with RSS feeds. Among the other respondents, 23 percent understood RSS but did not use it, while 66 percent either did not understand the technology or had never heard of it." Understood it but didn't use it? My head hurts. If someone understands how RSS saves time and gets you rich, and doesn't use it, send them to me; I've got some great ideas for vacation time-shares I'd like to discuss with them.

A third thought experiment if you have any brain cells left after the last one: If the goal is to make RSS simpler (remember, it's called Really Simple Syndication), then why have different names for it? OK, we have this cool thing called RSS, but it's complicated. Let's create a different version, call it something different, change the graphics to, let's see, 10 random implementations, and then attack it for being needlessly confusing. Then let's take a technology whose hallmark is ease of use (go to web site and tell web site to let me know if anything changes) and commission surveys to find out how many people are confused by what it's for. Me, I'd fix the confusion problem by complaining when people try and change the name. Or conduct incomprehensible surveys. Or hold invitation-only summits to create standards.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. When you look at the people who are upset about the RSS Crisis, as Richard MacManus does here, you find good, but confused, people. It's not RSS they're confused about, it's how to get the money. And the ironic thing about it is that if they really wanted to solve the problem, they'd work it out and set up a common feed with one simple answer. Oh wait, that won't work. Dave Winer already did that.