There are two prevailing views of the evolution of online information flow — one focuses on the arc of technology, the other on what the user wants and needs. The technology-centric view focuses on issues like RSS adoption rates and RSS vs. email. The user-centric view focuses on issues like how people can find the information they want in a sea of information.
I think technology-centric view is focusing on the trees rather than the forest. Most people don’t care what technology enables them to get the information they want — they just want the information they want.
Dave Winer has an interesting post on how RSS can break through. I think the thesis is wrong. It already HAS broken through. I asked the audience at LIFT last week (not all bloggers, either) how many use RSS and 80% of the hands went up. Maybe the question should be Ã¢â‚¬Å“how do we get the other 20%?Ã¢â‚¬Â�
If we achieve 100% adoption of RSS, that in itself will do nothing to solve the information overload problem. (If you think information overload is only a problem at the “edge,” you’re taking the technology-centric view.)
Dave Winer’s view is interesting because it straddles both views — he’s championing RSS, but with a clear understanding of what users need:
It must be easy to find relevant feeds. Too much hunt and peck is involved. The reason My.Yahoo and iTunes have been successful is that they centralize a lot of the discovery, they make it easy to find stuff you might be interested in. But not easy enough to qualify for brain-dead simplicity. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re working on reading lists, trying to drive adoption of the new practice by the industry. If, when you get started using an aggregator, it gives you some interesting feeds, and then as time goes by gives you more, without you having to do anything, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to make the finding of relevant feeds a passive thing. Until youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re ready to take over, you can ride the bus without learning to drive. I think this is going to get us another 15 or 20 percent of web users into the RSS world.
It doesn’t matter to most people whether they are in the “RSS world” or not. What matters to them is whether they can find what’s “relevant.”
RSS will replace email even if it’s not “brain dead simple,” as Fred Wilson puts it, if the average person starts to feel like it’s the key to finding the information they want. That’s what brought the masses online in the first place. That’s what brought everyone to Google — Google didn’t offer people a new “technology” — it offered people a solution to their problem of how to find information online.
If RSS can enable a solution to real user problems, adoption will follow the trajectory of web browsers, email, and Google.