Tuesday, September 19, 2006

RSS Sucks. Do we need a new alternative?

Near enough every blog you visit, every web site you visit, pretty much anything you visit on the net these days is advertising their own RSS feed.

Anyone would think people actually use RSS!

Ok so there are the hardcore bloggers, maybe a few professionals who are super-keen on keeping up to date with the goings on in their industry, but how many common or garden internet users actually care about RSS? According to a Yahoo! whitepaper, only 12% of internet users are even aware of it, and only 4% actually having knowingly used it - i.e. have actually subscribed to a feed.

I will be the first to admit that RSS is damn great for what it was designed for - sites like My Yahoo! or My MSN where news content is "syndicated" - i.e. news sources are pulled together from various sources onto one page. According to that whitepaper 27% of internet users take advantage of such sites. Thats great - RSS is doing its job and people don't even know about it.

But why are people still saying that RSS is "about to go mainstream" and how it is going to "revolutionise the net"? I am totally unconvinced it ever will, and here is why:

  1. Crap software. There are loads of RSS readers out there and 99% of them are shite copies of the basic "three pane" email client view. What is the benefit of using them? What compelling reason do they offer other than maybe sorting, searching etc? To be fair there are some interesting things like RSS screensavers, but then you can actually use them or the screensaver turns off!
  2. Information Overload. People are already complaining that their lives are plagued by too many emails that they will never get the chance to read. How will having 50, hell even just 10, RSS feeds all sitting there full of even more cruft for you to read through help with the constant nagging voice in the back of your head telling you to "check your emails", other than changing it to tell you to check your feeds now too?
  3. Its dull! So you can sit there and read about things from your favourite author or website in a plain, boring three pane email client ripoff like we used to do (and maybe still do) with usenet and ancient BBSs in the "old days". Or maybe like me, you like going to the bloody websites! I like to visit the site and really "get" the whole experience of the visit as intended by the author - they spent a lot of money or time (or both) creating the site to best reflect their personality, their style, their content, their ethos - damn it I want to experience it! We are at a point in the internet where a genuine "multimedia" (I hate that word!) experience is coming of age with embedded music, videos, interactive animations, and stunningly attractive (yet still accessible!) web pages, but people think that we would rather just ignore all this and read a boring text RSS feed? Madness!
  4. If its not dull, its full of HTML! So I said that sometimes its dull - some people have addressed that problem by using HTML in their feeds. For obvious reasons sending the HTML along with your content sucks. So you can either have dull and boring text in your feeds, or you can have partially formatted feeds with limited HTML capabilities that breaks a lot of software and devices trying to use the content!
Clearly there is no sense in boring RSS readers. However, one of the main arguments I have heard from RSS users (some of those 4%!) is "It [RSS] saves me time instead of visiting all those sites!" - fair enough, but with Firefox you can open all of the sites simultaneously into separate tabs with a single click if you have book marked them...

I think what they really mean is, "I get notification if there is a new post at a website without having to visit it." - OK, now we are talking!

Maybe what we really need is a new, lightweight alternative to RSS - something where the entire article is not pumped into a RSS file, and where there is specific and strict consistent use of attributes to better allow for machine reading and where it is actually viable to use this sort of thing on a mobile phone or a PDA? All this new format would need to do is provide details of new content (i.e. title, short description, date etc), and where it came from/is available using a URI, so a user can still subscribe to a feed and simply get small, efficient "pings" from a website when it has been updated. It doesn't even need to be XML!

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