Really stressful syndication

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

2005, on which, the year being through, we can now talk in a doctoral manner, was all about RSS, XML and Atom feeds. Wherever we went, websites were adding little buttons, blue in the Mac world and orange everywhere else, to signals their new "feeds". Along with these usually came another button or link labeled "What are feeds?" that, more often than not, took you to that page or to a custom-designed pop-up explaining feeds were a life changing technology allowing us to stay current on all our interests simultaneously.

Later that year we learnt people didn't care about feeds in the least and that, despite their being used everywhere, few users were actually reading them or even understanding the concept, much like, after years of iTunes Music Store, the general public has no intention to learn the difference between "iTunes", "Walkman", "iPod" and "MP3". How come? Is it because RSS truly sucks? No, certainly not: not only is it almost impossible to flat-out declare a technology "sucks" but RSS definitely has something ground-breaking in its blood, no matter how it is used. Because icons are different then? There may be some truth in the problems created by the lack of a unified front but I doubt only so few users are in possession of a brain powerful enough to draw a link between the orange "XML" buttons and the blue "RSS" ones.

To me, the root of the issue is not to be found in how the technology is presented but in the technology itself. What does RSS allow us to do? It allows us to keep current, up to the second, on many matters, ranging from the state of our firewall to world news. This, however means RSS puts constant pressure on us. If I know Mac Minute has published a news item, I have to go and read it because it is my job but if I can forget about Mac Minute for an hour so, I can entertain the obviously false notion that I am on top of my material and comfortable in my own work. As long as my router does not warn me of a DoS attack going on, I do not have to worry about my network and can go downstairs grab that doughnut I have been thinking about.

Irresponsible I hear you say? Consider how often the truly excellent Mac Minute is updated during a day and how many DoS attacks are run against corporate routers and you will soon see how RSS can tie people to their chairs in a constant state of hyperventilation and hypomania. Admittedly, those who have never tried RSS cannot know all the gory details I just outlined but we all have an intimately instinctive repulsion for information overload, be it through telephone, cable channels, instant messaging or even billboards in stores.

"— Hey, there is this new information techn… — No, thanks, I'm perfectly happy with how I get my news." This is the dialog that takes place in the brains of millions of users when they are confronted with the novel notion of RSS.


11 Comments

Patlaj
2006-01-02 06:11:36
People just need to be introduced to it
I doubt that people are shying away from RSS because they find there's too much information coming at once. Most people I've shown an rss reader to has taken to it pretty quickly. That is, except for the people who don't read news sites or blogs regularly anyway - there's less of an obvious benefit to them.


The other category of people who haven't taken to RSS are those who don't want to run another app for something which they see as an adjunct to a browser. What will make RSS take off among the mass market is when it's seamlessly integrated into everyone's browser. If I bookmark a site I want to read later, and my browser informs me the next day that that site has 2 new articles, then I'll be happily using RSS without even knowing it or caring what it is.

F.J.
2006-01-02 06:28:38
People just need to be introduced to it
Hi!


That is an interesting point of view and you are absolutely right in pointing out that the merging of the RSS aggregator and the web browser as we know it today will help introduce the technology to a wider audience.


The problem however seems to be the integration itself. Indeed, RSS is often added as an afterthought or a "cool feature" and most browsers do not allow the user to poll RSS feeds in a flexible manner. Safari and Firefox both have very different approaches to the question and yet, it seems neither really enables the flexibility of this technology to its full extent.


FJ

salsa
2006-01-02 15:40:07
It's all in how you use it.
When I first started using RSS, I subscribed to many feeds, at least in part to help me figure out this new technology. Very quickly, I saw that RSS feeds mirrored Usenet News and the Internet in general: a small number of gems are accompanied by a larger number of more marginal items, and these both are embedded in a large amount of junk and near junk.


I do not need instant updating on what's going on with the Mac. Hearing about new stuff within a day or two is quite acceptable to me. As a result, I quickly pruned the number of feeds I took to a much smaller number, I currently take 28 feeds, Of these, four are high volume (average >10 posts/day), nine feeds are moderate volume (2 to 9 posts/day), and fifteen are very low volume (average <1 post every five days).


There is a lot of redundancy in the high-volume feeds, and I find myself bypassing fully 75 per-cent (often 90%) of the offered posts. Since my news reader allows me to quickly toss unwanted posts, I am more or less content with these hit ratios, but I do wish that my reader had a low-cost-to-use, trainable, "junk news" filter (cost-to-use on the order of Apple's Mail.app junk mail filter or MT-NewsWatcher's news filters).


I am on the verge of tossing one of these high-volume feeds because it is mostly junk. Anything I miss on this one feed will quickly appear on one of the other high-volume feeds I see. The answer to information overload for me is to be merciless in cutting down the incoming flow. The things that I really want to know always seem to make it through to my reader from one feed or another within a day or two, which is quick enough for me. Of course, what works for me will not work for everyone.


Jerry


michaelmckee
2006-01-02 16:18:22
It's all in how you use it.
I'm not sure that RSS is currently of that much benefit to the end user, at least not directly. I just read a report stating that fewer than 5% of users take direct advantage of RSS but that over a 1/4 do use sites that aggregate RSS feeds.


There is an incredible potential for RSS but nobody has created the killer app for it yet.


I've tried several of the excellent RSS readers of Macs and find myself underwhelmed. They are excellent programs that offer limited benefits. I do use RSS for two purposes: to subscribe to Science Friday podcasts on NPR and to add MacDevCenter headlines to my MUG site.

paulwaite
2006-01-02 17:26:21
simultaneously addictive and stressful
I've definitely found RSS to give me a bit of information overload. But I kinda simultaneously find that addictive and stressful.


I'm trying to cut down :)

samalex01
2006-01-03 10:34:33
RSS Feeds actually save me LOTS of time...
I get 100% of my news (local, world, and tech) from the Web, and RSS has given me a one-stop place to view everything at once.


I used to have a set websites (15+) as bookmarked tabs, and every so often I'd open'em up and view what's going on. Each site had its own look, feel, etc, so took time to get through everything. Every one of these sites had an RSS feed, so stuck'em in Safari's RSS viewer (I'm a Mac guy) and all my news is there when i want it and in the format I want. I can pick through, search, etc at my convenience.


Most RSS readers have pop-ups and other things that can get VERY annoying. Also some folks who subscribe to only boring blogs or every schmo's RSS feed will get some crap. I stick with Digg, Slashdot, and other sites that seem to have awesome content.


So FWIW, RSS is a huge plus in my book.


Sam

alex.bosworth
2006-01-03 12:59:15
I agree there is stress
Having tons of news feeds pouring in information all the time is overwhelming


For example: subscribing to digg.com/slashdot/reddit/engadget would be a full time job reading all of those


I switched from doing that to using a simple blog reader I wrote that doesnt' keep track of my attention or push me to visit: http://sandbox.sourcelabs.com/bozpage/?guh


when I feel like checking out tech news, I just do it, and I keep only important blogs in my regular blogreader.

brkwtzandrew
2006-01-03 15:31:20
RSS
If you want to stay up to date with the world use RSS. If you are not a geek and don't give a crap about the world DO NOT use RSS. For my website RSS is a good way to get updates and other information out. If you don't like your rss aggregator dont blame RSS!
-brkwtzandrew
teddlesruss
2006-01-03 17:23:28
... And The Readers Were Never Heard From Again ...
Sorry to take exception to the hyperventilation and plain hype in this article but come on - do you have your RSS scraper set up to check EVERY MINUTE? Don't cast RSS as the villain here, instead cast about for why some people have such a bad time with it...


I use an RSS reader and I've got it set up to check feeds every hour. And I read it on the laptop around twice a day, finis. My breakfast reading and my after dinner read. My point? I'm bordering on the greypower border, I've used computers for over 2/3 of my life, and I find that RSS is a useful tool to stay on top of some 150 newsfeeds that I skimread daily. And I keep up with all the technology I need for my job, world news, and Dilbert - and still have a life...


Anything at all can be a source of obsession. If you obsess over it, it will stress you, make you unhealthy, or ruin your eyesight. Don't be obsessed.

wesie
2006-01-03 17:50:51
I agree the market is mostly techies
I'm hoping to make it easy for "non-geeks" myself. Beta site is up at http://www.avidbeauty.com/
Michael Bailey
2006-03-23 06:17:12
Francois,


That is the same type of thing which I blogged about in August of last year.


http://bitblogs.com/?p=29


When it comes down the the "human" element, it usually fails. No matter how grand, or great, or fantastic the idea is. The underlying fact is that people just don't "get it".


Podcasting today is nothing more than techies and podcasters subscribing to each others shows. The blogosphere (another stupid coined word) is the same thing.


7 out of 10 users have a difficult time just trying to figure out where to click to begin typing in their search criteria. That number I state from my own observation. I have witnessed hundreds, if not thousands of people attemtping to nagivate their way around the web.


And while I'm on a roll...


Identity theft? It's not theft in my book since those people simply "give" their information away - look at how successful the eBay phishing scams are - try explaining that to someone, watch their eyes glaze over...see how their mind continues to hold on to "... yeah, but it has an eBay logo on the site..."