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Could RSS be poised for a ‘comeback’?

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) has succeeded as a ‘behind the scenes’ way for information to pass between websites, applications and databases. But it largely failed as a front-facing consumer technology for anyone who wasn’t a technology/information nerd and didn’t manage to find a decent alternative after Google Reader was closed.

But I think it could be due for a comeback on the consumer side. Think about the amount of people who have become familiar with the Facebook newsfeed, the stream of Twitter updates, and similar functionality on many other sites (LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest etc, etc). We’re all sat in a stream or river of information (a la Dave Winer’s River of News)

Stream of Information

The information stream is overflowing with content

More content is being created and published today than anyone can hope to consume. So generally we filter by following people we know (Family, Friends, Colleagues), or people/services that cater to our interests.

But to keep us calm and happy using their service, increasingly social networks want to filter the information by their own metrics. The idea is that we see what is most important to us, and the social network can then explain to advertisers how to best reach us. That means that we don’t see everything, even from the people we’ve purposefully chosen to follow (Facebook’s Edge Rank, refusal to let anyone set ‘Most Recent’ as the default for their newsfeed and lowering of organic reach for business pages are perfect examples).

To some extent it’s well-meaning. Trying to consume every piece of information published in even a small network takes a large amount of time and cognitive resource.

But it’s well-meaning in the same way as it would be to have your parents choose all your entertainment for you.

No context-engine is doing a good enough job. And at the same time, a lot of the things you’ve chosen to hear about are falling by the wayside.

Maybe RSS was just too early for consumer adoption in the past – and now that larger numbers of us are accustomed to newsfeeds, streams and being able to set up a feed of RSS streams. And can now see a greater benefit to seeing everything published by the people or organisations we want, rather than what an algorithm at a very early stage of evolution wants us to see?

What it needs is a simple sell.

I envision an RSS service which allows me to quickly log in, most likely with Facebook etc, and gives me a central news feed made up of sources which I can then select/deselect within the website. No running around the web to add sources as the default, and make it somewhat pretty, in the style of a social network.

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Nice post by Marco Arment on RSS, Interoperability and Social Networks

Well worth reading ‘Lockdown‘, a blog post by Marco Arment on the demise of both Google Reader and RSS – and the rise of the big social networks, which carry the belief they should try to own everything we do.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.

That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down.

The only debate I have is whether that desire is solely the financial and empire-building nature of social networking business, or also partly the result of a large number of internet users who simply either don’t care (or don’t mind), the all-reaching nature of large internet companies because it enables easier connectivity, ease-of-use etc.

I run my own WordPress installs, use RSS, and other technology because I’m reasonably aware (if not technically competent), and I have specific beliefs about what would be most beneficial for the majority of internet users and businesses.

That’s not normal for most of the world.

And it leaves me constantly wondering whether it’s inevitable that the Tragedy of the Commons will always end up undermining the efforts of those promoting open interoperability?

The internet is essentially an open, common resource for most people. But every business, government, and organisation within it will almost always be trying to do what is best for themselves. I wonder whether eventually the internet falls short of its potential not because business has corrupted it, but because human nature makes it inevitable.

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The real problem with Google closing Reader

So Google Reader will close at the end of this month, and something has really stood out for me in this article on the closure by Wired.

They quote Richard Gingras, senior director, News and Social Products at Google;

“Users with smartphones and tablets are consuming news in bits and bites throughout the course of the day — replacing the old standard behaviours of news consumption over breakfast along with a leisurely read at the end of the day.”

Unfortunately, there are significant benefits to the old standard behaviours in this case. Consuming news in bits and bites is deeply inefficient, as all the studies on multitasking have found. Check out the handy Wikipedia page on Multitasking for a number of references:

Mayer and Moreno have studied the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning extensively and have concluded that it is difficult, and possibly impossible to learn new information while engaging in multitasking.

I’m pretty sure that in a company as educated as Google, more than one person must realise that swapping a tool which allows you to focus and concentrate on accumulating learning and knowledge for odd grabbed bits of news throughout the day is going to actually lessen what people get from them.

So the logical conclusion has to be that Google doesn’t care if people get stupider, as long as they’re continuing to use Google Now/Google+/Google Search to do it.

Having used Reader for several years, I decided to use the closure announcement as an experiment to see how I could potentially function just by other information sources (mainly social networks and email). My conclusion is that although I’ve been able to still keep up with a superficial overview of my interests, it requires wading through a lot of social updates (which may or may not be of interest) to try and find something relevant. And that’s further cluttered by recommendations from each network which are blatantly a load of old cobblers.

At the same time, there are 2-3 email newsletters I really value, but these are collated links which can be weeks or months old. Great for discovering hidden gems I missed at the time, but not so helpful for keeping up with the latest news and articles on a subject.

In short, as someone who works in an information-heavy industry as a content producer as well as consumer, there is no adequate substitute for a decent RSS reader of relevant feeds, and the options for replacing Google Reader with something that does the job as well are sorely limited. It makes it harder to focus on learning, harder to maintain my own sites and point people to great new articles, and removes the pleasurable experience of a relaxing Sunday morning spent with great writing from around the web.

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Taking an RSS Holiday…

There has been plenty of outcry over the decision by Google to retire Google Reader, which came as a sudden confirmation of something many people had suspected for some time.

I’m one of those affected, and I’ve read quite a few good articles on potential replacements, why it may have happened, and the positive and negative outcomes. I’m hoping that the positive predictions will come true and we’ll see great new products in the RSS space.

Dan's Google Reader Stats

My Google Reader Stats

But rather than rushing into importing my list of 270 feeds straight into a new service, I thought it was a good time to take an enforced break from reading RSS.

I was curious to see what effect it would have on my creativity and productivity – having spent probably an average of 30-60 minutes per day in Google Reader for about 5 years equates to around 900 hours of reading. That’s a little over 38 days of my life spent browsing headlines, hitting J for the next item, and reading through interesting articles before tagging and sharing them.

I’m around 1 week in, and at first I didn’t notice it much.

I was quite relieved to escape from a daily notice that I had 100s of unread items requesting my attention. I still received some interesting articles via email, and some via Twitter etc. I was also able to devote a bit more time to the equally imposing number of emails I’d set aside to respond or act on when I had time.

But after a few days, I started to miss certain feeds.

Not the mainstream tech publication feeds that churn out endless identikit stories on the latest Apple or Google news etc.

But the niche publishers and bloggers who are sometimes completely unrelated to work, but to which I subscribed because they’re just fascinating, or have a great writing style, or I met them somewhere and chatted.

And the feeds I’d set up via Google News Searches etc to feed me content suitable for some of my personal projects.

 

That’s why we need RSS Readers:

A few of the people I missed are connected to me via Facebook, Twitter or Google+, and some of their content still serviced. But real-time is fleeting, and their latest blog post may have appeared while I was working, sleeping, or in the toilet. By the time I came back, their link has been submerged under pictures of their family, the latest memes, or other updates from other friends.

Growing up, a regular ritual was the Sunday broadsheet with a relaxing breakfast as we’d exchange the sections we wanted to take a look at. And Reader replaced that by allowing me to schedule my blog reading for times when I wasn’t in the middle of work or family life, and could spend an hour or two relaxing and enjoying reading great articles.

Real-time updates are great for breaking news, or responding to customers etc.

They’re rubbish for being able to relax and enjoy lengthy meandering articles about the favourite passions of a writer. Or a complex debate over the merits of a particular issue. Or anything that requires you to stop multitasking.

Email updates are fine, and some work fairly well. Percolate does a reasonable job of highlighting some articles I find interesting, for example.

But I don’t want what’s popular on social networks today as my sole source of information.

I want the hidden niche gems I’ve somehow discovered and collected like a digital scrapbook. And if I’ve been away, I want to go through the last few posts to catch up, without having to run around 200 urls.

RSS obviously hasn’t worked for Google as a proposition to make enough money to justify continuing – hence the demise of Google Reader, Adwords for Feeds, and likely Feedburner sometime soon.

But after taking stock of my RSS holiday, trimming down the number of sites I really need, and getting used to the idea I don’t need RSS Feed Zero, I want my Reader back. I don’t want a flashy magazine style application, or other responsive, skeuomorphic mobile first bells and whistles.

I just want a clear, simple, and quick way to automatically collect the content I want in a place where I can visit when I want to be inspired.

I’ll let you know when I’ve settled into a new RSS home.