January 21st, 2006

How to Fix RSS


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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

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