RSS is Dead, Long Live RSS

A discussion that has been going on for a while among the tech bloggers and Twitterati is the idea that RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is dead.

A study published last October found that 78% of U.S. online adults did not use it and only 19% of those who didn’t had any interest in using it in the future.  Then again, as Paul Banas noted, “If I were to survey US consumers right after World War II on whether they think they would use a television, and for those who don’t, do they think they would in the future, I’d probably get roughly the same data back as Forrester got on RSS.” Indeed, recall Ken Olsen’s classic 1977 statement that “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

The more recent evolution of the debate is not so much about widespread adoption but that power users find RSS inefficient, preferring instead Twitter or various aggregators like Memeorandum or Techmeme.  Steve Gillmor proclaimed in May that “It’s time to get completely off RSS and switch to Twitter. RSS just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

I haven’t been in Google Reader for months. Google Reader is the dominant RSS reader. I’ve done the math: Twitter 365 Google Reader 0. All my RSS feeds are in Google Reader. I don’t go there any more. Since all my feeds are in Google Reader and I don’t go there, I don’t use RSS anymore.

Of course, my friends use RSS, or they used to. Pretty much every blog has an RSS feed, and aggregators like TechMeme spider RSS feeds as well as the original pages on the sites. I’ve wired up TCIT, the Gillmor Gang feed, and my YouTube feed on my FriendFeed, but that’s FriendFeed using RSS, not me. I believe FriendFeed outputs RSS, but I don’t use it.

RSS changed the way we processed information, by turning search into push and content into people. Before RSS, I patrolled the Web for news. Information didn’t exist until I found it. RSS let me identify people likely to write interesting things, and soon I stopped looking and switched to receiving. In this world, partial feeds were irritating, taking me out of my new pristine think tank and back to the hunt and peck methodology. Once back on the site, the goal was to keep me there, or link to partner sites.

But, as Dave Winer retorted, it’s rather silly to proclaim the death of RSS while instead using technologies that rely on RSS!

Sam Diaz revived the argument this week saying “Once a big advocate for Google Reader, I have to admit that I haven’t logged in in weeks, maybe months.”

I catch headlines on Yahoo News and Google News. I have a pretty extensive lineup of browser bookmarks to take me to sites that I scan throughout the day. Techmeme is always in one of my browser tabs so I can keep a pulse on what others in my industry are talking about. And then there are Twitter and Facebook. I actually pick up a lot of interesting reading material from people I’m following on Twitter and some friends on Facebook, with some of it becoming fodder for blog posts here.

The truth of the matter is that RSS readers are a Web 1.0 tool, an aggregator of news headlines that never really caught on with the mainstream the way Twitter and Facebook have. According to a Forrester Research study about the reach of social technologies, only nine percent of U.S. online adults said they use an RSS feed monthly, down from 11 percent the year before. By contrast, 50 percent are visiting social networking sites, up from 34 percent last year and 39 percent are reading blogs, up from 37 percent a year ago.

Although, again, YahooNews, GoogleNews, and Techmeme all merely aggregate information pushed through RSS.  Proclaiming RSS dead because you’re using it downstream is rather like proclaiming television dead because you never watch it anymore — you just TiVo everything.

Further, as Patricio Robles observes, “RSS may not be as popular as Twitter or Facebook, but who says it has to be? Twitter and Facebook are great for content discovery; RSS is one of a number of tools that can be used for content aggregation. Comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges.”

Steve Rubel takes that to the next level: “Think RSS is dead? Think it’s too slow for the age of streams? Perhaps that’s true for news. But have you ever considered using Google Reader as a private database? In this screencast I will show you how I do just that.”

Which is pretty much how I’m using Google Reader these days.  There’s a ton of information out there and trying to tab through and skim every post on every blog and newspaper that I want to follow simply takes too much time and energy.   So I rely in various aggregators, aggregate my own content feeds via the Firefox Feedly plugin, keep an eye on Twitter, and use Google Reader as a research tool for fleshing out posts once I’ve come up with ideas.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. odograph says:

    I’ve got about 100 sources in my Google Reader. I do scan them all, most days. I wouldn’t want to go back to a bookmark list, not at all.

    (It’s a mix of economics, investing, environment, and fishing, that I wouldn’t find at an aggregator (or even a few))

  2. dutchmarbel says:

    I read blogs (a little more than 100, incl. OTB) via bloglines and I do the less extensive communications via twitter and facebook (social remarks, keeping track of what friends do, tips for nice articles or films, etc.).

    I usually read the whole blogpost in my RSS reader (except OTB, who only sends the first few lines, grmmbl), so I can easily scan over the content and see wether it interests me enough to click and see the comments – or even post a comment of my own.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I usually read the whole blogpost in my RSS reader (except OTB, who only sends the first few lines, grmmbl),

    OTB has been providing full feeds again for a while now; I’m getting them in my Google Reader. I had shifted to partial feeds because scrapers were stealing my content and hurting our search rankings but that seems to be a lost cause.

  4. Michael says:

    So what we’re seeing is a shift away from direct consumption of RSS, back to using it for it’s original purpose, syndication. RSS was never meant to be a way to let you communicate with your friends, to let people know what you’re doing. It’s a way to automatically share your content on other sites, like GoogleNews.

  5. dutchmarbel says:

    /me slaps forehead

    That is perception in action… I was miffed about the partial feeds ’cause they make me click more, and never registered when you changed it back again.

  6. Eric Florack says:

    OTB has been providing full feeds again for a while now; I’m getting them in my Google Reader. I had shifted to partial feeds because scrapers were stealing my content and hurting our search rankings but that seems to be a lost cause.

    Yeah, pretty much. I actually provide both… mostly because I was too lazy to kill off the first feed at least initially. I finally settled on pushing the partial to the commercial rss types, and offering my own RSS feed from my site doing full posts.

    It tended to limit the scrapers somewhat, for quite a while… but now it appears we’ve hit diminishing returns after a year or so… some scraper managed to find the full feed.
    (sigh) Truth is, the scrapers are the ones who killed RSS, if anyone did.

  7. fred says:

    A public option in insurance worked wonderfully for the people of Florida after Katrina. After the storm insurance companies doubled and some even tripled home insurance premiums…and there was huge outcry in the state. Gov Bush and AG Crist instituted a public option called Citizen Insurance to compete with the private companies (All State, Progressive, etc) and premiums instantly fell even below what they were before the storm…thanks to the competion…and all the companies are still in business in Florida today. The public benefited and now the private insurers are also flourishing. This should be the model for all the country to follow in reforming health care for all

  8. Michael says:

    @fred:

    1) Citizens was created in 2002, not in response to Katrina, but in response to a number of private insurers leaving the state, leaving many residents unable to buy property insurance.

    2) Up until 2007, Citizens was not legally allowed to compete with private insurance. If _any_ private insurer would insure you, regardless of the premium they charged, you couldn’t get Citizens insurance. You would also be dropped by Citizens as soon as a private insurer was willing to write you a policy (again, regardless of rate)

    3) Even now, you can only get Citizens insurance if a comparable private option is more than 15% more expensive, so they still can’t really be considered competition to private insurance.

    4) Contrary to your closing statement, neither private insurance nor Citizens is really thriving. The housing bubble pushed insurance rates to record highs (not the hurricanes as you stated), and there is talk that a bad year like 2005 could bankrupt Citizens.