January 21st, 2006

How to Fix RSS

by

RSS sucks. I’m with Paul Kedrosky. Let the technodweebospehere rain fire and brimstone. I could add to Paul’s rant, but instead here’s a Really Simple three-step Solution (of course, the real first step is admitting that you have a problem):

1. Call it “subscribing”

Everyone understands subscribing. You’ve got your email newsletter subscriptions, your premium cable channel subscriptions, your magazine subscriptions (call now and subscribe to 52 weeks of…remember that?)

No one knows what “syndication” means, unless you’re talking about I Love Lucy reruns. Syndication is a publisher-centric, geek-centric term. For most people, it’s Really Simple Huh? Most people don’t even know that syndicate can be used as a verb!

And “XML” — now there’s a user-friendly term. I’m sure the masses will be adopting it some time next week. (How many people were permanently turned off to RSS when they got a page of XML and didn’t have a clue what to do with it?)

As for “feed” — that’s what you give to the chickens.

As Seth Godin says on Squidoo, “For something as simple and important as RSS, it’s incredibly misunderstood.” Well, shucks, now how did that happen?

Can we please, please, PLEASE make it really, truly simple and give people an option they can understand:

“Subscribe with a reader.”

Once everyone knows what it means, a universal symbol rssicon can kick in and drive adoption — and then it won’t matter than only 4% of online consumers know what RSS (really an appalling statistic given that the term is on virtually every website).

(I’m also wondering with “Web Reader” would work better — other ideas would be most welcome.)

So the options for getting content from a site are simply: subscribe by email, or subscribe with a “reader.”

Everyone’s got email, so the next step is:

2. Encourage everyone to get a reader

RSS adoption needs to start with the reader. Yahoo users use RSS (without knowing it!) because they have a reader.

First get a reader. Then subscribe to some stuff.

Every site with an RSS feed should have a BIG link inviting people to “Get a reader,” because most people either don’t have one or don’t know that they have one. The “Get a reader” page should say things like, “Do you use My Yahoo? Then you already have a reader.”

What’s a reader for? To read stuff from this site along with stuff from other sites, all in one place.

(Google, king of simplicity, calls it a reader – we’ll worry about podcasts and video later — as for RSS in Vista, are we really going to wait around for Microsoft to make things easier? Who served that koolaid?)

So you’ve got a reader. What are you supposed to read?

3. Use the iTunes model — Search, browse, recommend, remix

Google Reader has the search part down. Yahoo at least takes a stab at browsing and recommending.

Better than “most popular” would an Amazon-esque “people who subscribed to this also subscribed to…”

These are all proven approaches, but I think the real killer app for RSS is the pre-packaged remix. I’ll quote Paul again:

“People are lazy. People are lazy. People are lazy.” And I’ll add: People are really lazy.

It’s a pain to have all these feeds and have to read this, then this, then this, then this, then this, then this. Just give me ONE subscription with everything I want, from the right mix of sources.

Where can I go for the five best health-related subscriptions (feeds)? Or the five best on sports, or politics, or basket-weaving? Or how about the best mix of all of these?

Whoever gets really good at putting together content mixes will have overloaded, overburdened media consumers flocking to their door. (Squidoo LensMasters should be bundling content feeds on their topics!)

All right, enough solutions. Here’s the real problem — RSS feeds are still static media, just in a different package. The New Media revolution will come when content is completely atomized and fully tagged, so that it can be remixed into perfectly tailored packages to suit every taste, i.e. truly what I want (when I want it).

But remember — PEOPLE ARE LAZY. They don’t have the time to put these packages together themselves. The real competition in New Media will be among content remixers. We used to call these editors — the only difference is that remixers will have a nearly infinite diversity of content at their disposal.

(Having read this, if you feel the burning desire to argue that RSS is just fine the way it is and that people need to change, not the technology or the nomenclature, you’re more than welcome, but before you do, meditate on this — isn’t life hard enough already? Still not convinced? Try reading the definitive study on the problem with RSS. If you still want to argue, well then all I can say is K.I.S.S. my RSS.)

UPDATE: I tried putting some of this “theory” into practice on Publishing 2.0 — see the top of the sidebar. Would welcome any feedback.

UPDATE #2: Should have mentioned how much Feedburner (used for the main feed on this site and many others) has helped move the ball forward.

UPDATE #3: Change starts at home — kudos to Scott Francis for taking action rather than just making excuses. There’s a lot of work to do, but why not start with the low-hanging fruit?

Comments (49 Responses so far)

  1. The average person does not have much time (if any) to spend creating media and has patience for only a finite amount of choice との挑発的な主張は当然のように大きな反響を呼んだ。 さらに昨日の How to Fix RSS は、この論旨を RSS に適用し、「平均的ユーザに RSS を使わせる」方策について論じている。例の RSS を理解して使っているユーザは僅か4%に過ぎないという Yahoo の調査結果

  2. RSS rant

  3. post on bridging the gap between Media 1.0 and Media 2.0, I took a look at Umair Haque’s commentary on a recent shutting down of comments on a Washington Post blog, which spoke to other aspects of this transition. Umair cited the WaPo move as an example

  4. how to fix RSS . I’m particularly fond of his iTunes model for RSS, also his point about need for atomizing and tagging all content to enable remixing, and the idea that content remixers (i.e., editors) will eventually rule in RSS.

  5. how to fix RSS . I’m particularly fond of his iTunes model for RSS, also his point about need for atomizing and tagging all content to enable remixing, and the idea that content remixers (i.e., editors) will eventually rule in RSS.

  6. For most people, it’s Really Simple Huh? Most people don’t even know that syndicate can be used as a verb! And then there are issues at the other extreme too – the problem of abundance of RSS feeds. Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 suggests this three step solution Call it “subscribing” because ‘subscription’ is something most people are familiar with Encourage everyone to get a reader because most people either don’t have one or don’t know that they have one

  7. There are some comments from Publishing 2.0 about RSS and how to fix it. Personally, I don’t think anything is broken and I’m not a huge tech geek (though I admit I’m more techie than some that I know). When the web really started gainging speed and popularity, we learned new terms and definitions. Who

  8. There are some comments from Publishing 2.0 about RSS and how to fix it. Personally, I don’t think anything is broken and I’m not a huge tech geek (though I admit I’m more techie than some that I know). When the web really started gainging speed and popularity, we learned new terms and definitions. Who

  9. RSS has put me in a minority of Internet users, but it’s not because RSS is a complicated concept. It’s because the current methods of collecting, consuming and viewing RSS are too complicated for the average user. Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has suggested that the way to bring RSS into the mainstream is an iTunes-esque directory. I don’t think this is the answer. Right now the people that use RSS rely on one of the following methods: A portal such as My Yahoo or My MSN

  10. pointed out

  11. Интересные мысли начали появлятся в некоторых блогах, а именно тут: Publishing2.0 , Paul Kedrosky’s Infectious Greed. Мысль такая: RSS, в том виде, в котором используется сейчас и то как оно преподносится – никуда не годится.

  12. sums it up for me: “In as much as RSS sucks, it’d suck more without it.” Daniel Nerezov’s comment at Paul Kedrosky’s blog. Here are more thoughts on the matter. These thoughts sway towards the geek end of the meter. Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0, How to Fix RSS . Paul Kedrosky at Infections Greed, RSS Sucks.

  13. the way all of us share and transact in that information. Naked Conversations, right? I think it’s great that we debate whether RSS and Atom will become widely adopted . It truly is a technology of this age. But that’s not the most important point. The point is to think in “web” terms, to

  14. it in a graphical “discovery map”. It features a highly experimental interface which still needs a bit of work (very Flash heavy) but is very nice to play with for a while. ASTI-HEBDO No PDF Bean Inc. – PDF Creator, PDF Writer and PDF ConverterHow to Fix RSSRSS sucks. I?m with Paul Kedrosky. Let the technodweebospehere rain fire and brimstone. I could add to Paul?s rant, but instead here?s a Really Simple three-step Solution. (of course, the real first step is admitting that you have a problem)

  15. - select from a menu of canned 30-second spots, do a little web-based customization of the content to match it to your firm, and then away you go[IMG] XBRL – Extensible Business Reporting Language, Stock Market News and Investment Information[IMG]How to Fix RSS

  16. Publishing 2.0: How to Fix RSS

  17. pointed out

  18. For most people, it’s Really Simple Huh? Most people don’t even know that syndicate can be used as a verb! And then there are issues at the other extreme too – the problem of abundance of RSS feeds. Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 suggests thisthree step solution Call it “subscribing” because ‘subscription’ is something most people are familiar with Encourage everyone to get a reader because most people either don’t have one or don’t know that they have one

  19. [IMG Permanent link to this item in the archive.]RSS rant don’t fix it. | Thursday, January 19, 2006

  20. the web you could see the advent of ugly little orange XML stickers, and then those were gradually replaced by the slick feed-icon [IMG]. But that didn’t fix what is the real deal-breaker for wider adoption of syndication or feeds. Back in Jan’06 Publishing2.0 wrote, No one knows what ’syndication’ means, unless you’re talking about I Love Lucy reruns. Syndication is a publisher-centric, geek-centric term. For most people, it’s Really Simple Huh? Most people don’t even know that syndicate can be

  21. You’re absolutely right. The killer app for RSS is an RSS registry that allows people to find RSS feeds the same way iTunes lets them find RSS podcasts. Allow for user ratings and tags on that server, and put together an aggregating client for the desktop that pulls the metadata for feeds off that server.

    The other thing we don’t want is clients that don’t aggregate- but even in clients that do, we don’t want to see a list. That list interface provides no way to tell what articles are the most interesting or the most important. Integrating, behind the scenes, with something like technorati to get the popularity of a single article, coupled with a rating/tagging system, and then presenting a news paper like display, where the top articles go on the “front page”, and the most-linked get the central position- that’s a killer app.

    I’m working on an RSS client to do just that, but now I see how important the server is for that. And really, it doesn’t need to be a desktop client- it could be a web desktop (I just haven’t worked with AJAX at all and don’t have all the time in the world to learn something new).

    As a note: at the top, you follow your own rule and offer to allow users to “Subscribe”. But for your comments, you point users to a comments RSS feed.

  22. [...] While I’m not convinced that RSS as a concept/name is broken, other people are. Suggestions on calling it “Subscribing” and encouraging people to downloads “Readers” seem pretty basic. The “Recommendation” concept is interesting as well, although isn’t that what blogging is for? [...]

  23. Scott,

    Yet again you make poignant observations.

    Real innovation with RSS has barely just begun. Most people are too lazy or too ignorant to come up with good ideas about what RSS can do.

    Its up to creative-minded developers to drive this tool into tomorrow’s technology. Expect MS, Apple, et al to screw it up. Risk-taking entrepeneurs will yet again pave the road.

  24. Great post, Scott.

    One question I personally struggle with though is around the “SUBSCRIBE” word. It makes a lot of sense, but I pay for my cable subscription and my newspaper subscription. Consumers in many ways associate that with “not free” and when I talk to newspaper publishers, they won’t go anywhere near that word on their sites (for the same reason). I still haven’t come up with a better word though, it seems perfect, except for that one nasty problem.

    BTW, your link to the research study 404s. The correct link is: http://publisher.yahoo.com/rss/RSS_whitePaper1004.pdf

  25. Unustage RSS, FEED, XML- palun kutsuge asju õigete nimedega!…

    Väga värskendav tähelepanek, et miks küll peab asju segaseks tegema igasuguste RSS, FEEDide ja oh jumal XMLiga – nimetage lihtsalt ja õigesti -> “telli enda lehelugejasse” ehk “Subscribe with a reader” (via memeorandum.com)…

  26. Scott G, I agree, that is a problem with the word “subscribe.” I guess “Subscribe with a Reader (for Free!)” is a little cheesy. Most email newsletters subscriptions are free, though, so maybe that will help. (I fixed the link to the study — thanks.)

    If you follow the link above to Randy Holloway’s response, you’ll see he dismisses these suggestions because they “sanitize the concept of RSS and remove references to the people and their ideas that have made RSS what it is today.” Said like a true techie. The average person doesn’t know who invented web browsers or email, but they are very much in their debt — that’s what happens when a technology is adopted by the masses. And is Randy suggesting that RSS remain “unsanitized”? That kind of attitude is what stymies adoption.

    ALL – I tried putting some of this “theory” into practice on Publishing 2.0 — see the top of the sidebar. Would welcome any feedback.

  27. “if you feel the burning desire to argue that RSS is just fine the way it is and that people need to change, not the technology or the nomenclature” –

    There are certainly technical issues with RSS (most of which are fixed in Atom). But what you’re suggesting in the list above isn’t about changing the technology –

    1. Call it “subscribing”
    Call it what you like, it’ll still be the same stuff under the bonnet. (And what exactly do you call the thing you subscribe to?)

    2. Encourage everyone to get a reader
    I’d say that’s “people need to change”.

    3. Use the iTunes model — Search, browse, recommend, remix
    I don’t know about iTunes, but that’s pretty much the web model. RSS search is less than perfect, true. Browsing is pretty sub-optimal, recommendation is still pretty random (although I know of tools in the pipeline), remix is growing but issues like copyright can be problematic. But none of these things are actually related to technical issues with RSS (aside from those Atom solves ;-) They’re about what you do with the stuff.

    People are lazy, sure. Things could be easier. But people are also willing to put effort in when they see the potential of personal benefit. As you suggest, one thing RSS offers is an improvement in personalization of information. But your “five best health-related subscriptions” may be completely different from mine. “It’s a pain to have all these feeds and have to read this, then this, then this, then this, then this, then this.” Any half-decent aggregator will allow a merged view. Prepackaged lists are already available from toptensources along with loads of other places.

  28. I’ve got to agree here. I’m not exactly ignorant of modern web technology, but after using a few RSS readers, I uninstalled them all and have no desire to bother with it again.

    Why would I want another interface when I can go to Technorati or Memorandum, and get all the stories, articles, and posts I probably want to read, without going to the trouble of subscribing to them and then sorting through the posts? Plus, this way I’m not limited to only the information sources I already know about.

    Once structured blogging, tags, etc. is firmly entrenched, I agree there will be a new way of building remixes. Something a bit like Yahoo’s homepages (or whatever web desktop you’d like), where you tell something out on the web what you want to see, and it goes out and finds it for you. All in the browser.

    People are lazy. As soon as they can go to Google, click a tab for Google Reader and click a button for “tech news” then you’ll get the majority reading blogs instead of the edge.

  29. Danny, good points about toptensources and the copyright issues with remixes. I also agree that “Get a reader” is still asking people to change, but at least it tries to make it easier.

    What really strikes me, though, is that I didn’t say a word about there being a problem with the technology “under the bonnet,” but every time I talk about technology, I get defensiveness from techies. I don’t know enough to have an opinion on the current state of the underlying technology (RSS vs. Atom, etc.). I’m just trying to be a consumer advocate. The “call it what you like” attitude is precisely why RSS is such a world of confusion for most people.

    Let’s figure out the right user experience first, then adapt the technology

  30. Ok Scott, fair points. I’m honestly not sure about “right user experience first, then adapt the technology”. There’s a huge amount of unexplored space around the technology, and potentially user experiences we haven’t even dreamt of. The majority of development seems hopelessly unimaginative (RSS is quite different from email, yet how many aggregators look like Outlook Express – circa 1995…). But yep, ok, I certainly agree that for the tech we have got, the user experience leaves an awful lot to be desired.

  31. I agree there should be an industry-standard way of linking to and explaining how to use RSS and Atom feeds, plus OPML feeds for that matter. That you link to Feedburner suggests that Feedburner has solved part of the problem already, by inserting instructions at the top of the associated CSS file. Now if the industry could band together to work out a reader-agnostic, simplified CSS header for all the various XML feed flavours (cross-language too), then we’d have something.

  32. You should check the definition for “subscribe”. Last time I checked it’s FREE! and lets hope it stays that way!

  33. [...] Scott Karp has some interesting thoughts on the faults with RSS, and in general, I agree with him. Definitely, anyone who thinks that the term “RSS” is going to sweep the nation is smoking something that I really need to get my hands on. [...]

  34. People are NOT lazy. I find exactly what I want. People will search out the music, the content, the RSS, whatever. The name is not the issue.
    I am a non geek and I figured this all out. Why are you making a discussion out of something that is a non-issue?
    I guess it drives eyes here. I’m here.
    Dave Winer worked hard on this baby, he named it, he can, because he’s the father.
    Good reading however.

  35. [...] Scott Karp and Paul Kedrosky apply the cluestick to those of us who live inside the techno-bubble. First Scott says Call it Subscribing: Everyone understands subscribing. You’ve got your email newsletter subscriptions, your premium cable channel subscriptions, your magazine subscriptions (call now and subscribe to 52 weeks of…remember that?) [...]

  36. [...] Paul Kedrosky (RSS Sucks) and Scott Karp (How to Fix RSS) are tapping into the inadequacies of RSS, but they are off target. [...]

  37. Great post Scott, as was Paul’s original. These are all great ideas. I think if the universal feed icon you’re using here and the verb “subscribe” become widely associated, then the notion of “this is something i probably have to pay for” will start to fade as people begin to recognize it as just a better/another way to get this same free stuff.

  38. Dr. Fran, if it’s a such a non-issue, then why all the attention? I could rant about the hole in my sock, but I don’t think anyone would care. Look at your blog name — do you really think you’re representative of the average person? We’re deeply in Dave Winer’s debt for the technology, but with all due respect, it’s an open source technology, so the community will rename it whatever it darn well pleases to make it more useful.

    Stowe (/Message), how can you say that it’s not a “real problem” that no one knows what RSS is? I agree (if you read to the end), that the static nature of RSS is the real problem. But why not go after the low-hanging fruit in the meantime — like getting all our sites to be more user-friendly?

  39. [...] This post is kind of cool. Even though the techie in me recoiled when I read the first sentence “RSS really sucks”. But it got my interest. The author is right. Here are his recommendations: [...]

  40. You had me going there, and I was about to subscribe to comments on this post with my reader. I clicked on the o))) icon and was presented with raw XML.

    bzzt, thanks for playing.

    You need a stylesheet for your RSS feeds (like Feedburner does) that gives you one-click to add to the reader of your choice.

  41. Thanks, Edward, I’m quite well aware that the comment feed is still raw XML. The main feed (if you tried it) goes through Feedburner. Once I figure out how to put the comment feed for individual posts through Feedburner or other stylesheet I will — wasn’t obvious how to do it in Feedburner, but would be great if someone could add to the conversation by explaining how.

    Thanks for your helpful comment anyway.

  42. [...] I made some UI updates. These updates are inspired by this Publishing 2.0 post. [...]

  43. Change starts at home — kudos to Scott Francis for taking action rather than just making excuses. There’s a lot of work to do, but why not start with the low-hanging fruit?

  44. [...] Scott Karp on how to fix RSS [...]

  45. [...] RSS is the ink and paper of the future. It the most important technology on the web right now. For me it has surpassed email and web browsing in importance because it brings me the highest quality information in the fastest way possible. I realize that living and breathing RSS has put me in a minority of Internet users, but it’s not because RSS is a complicated concept. It’s because the current methods of collecting, consuming and viewing RSS are too complicated for the average user. Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has suggested that the way to bring RSS into the mainstream is an iTunes-esque directory. I don’t think this is the answer. [...]

  46. [...] Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 suggests this three step solution [...]

  47. [...] truly what I want (when I want it). by Scott Karp – February 2nd, 2006 | Email | Print | Article Link Article Tags: RSS, Subscriptions, Blogosphere, Syndication, Internet Explorer 7,Favorites [...]

  48. [...] Web feeds work a little like email newsletters. The main difference: Newsletters are a “push” technology and feeds are a “pull” technology. You have to download and delete newsletters that you don’t want to read. Feed readers initially display just topics or headlines. You simply don’t click the link to skip an item in a web feed! [more] [...]

  49. [...] For the public, I think we should follow the advice on: [link] [...]

  50. [...] The Academy Awards broadcast is one of the most powerful “content-remixers” around, with the archives of the film studios at its montage disposal. Interesting things to consider for prospective editors of the Internet info-glut. [...]

  51. I consider myself a pretty techie person and it took me awhile to get use to RSS Feeds.

    When I talk to my non-techie friends about it they get the deer in the head lights look on there face. But just like any new technology it’s just going to take time before it goes main stream.

    With Internet Explorer 7 coming out that is suppose to support RSS Feeds I think this will be a big step in the right direction to informing people on what an RSS Feed is.

    I totally agree that people are lazy, and until the day someone puts together an easy to use system it will continue to be an under utilized feature.

  52. [...] Publishing 2.0 [...]

  53. [...] The Academy Awards broadcast is one of the most powerful “content-remixers” around, with the archives of the film studios at its montage disposal. Interesting things to consider for prospective editors of the Internet info-glut. [...]

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