E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

The Death of the RSS Reader: Another Debate That Needs to End!

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo & Surroundings in the Spring It’s rather interesting to see how, over the course of the years, every so often, we seem to come back, time and time again, to some good old debates that perhaps we should have left behind for good, since we don’t seem to have made lots of progress over time. Just recently we have seen the one about the generations at work and the generational divide. Last week we saw it come back again with the Death of the RSS Reader debate, where a bunch of people stated, very adamantly, how the days of RSS feed reading are numbered and how we ought to be moving to something else. In this case, social networking sites, which is where we seem to be living nowadays by the looks of it. But, are RSS feeds really dead? Are we no longer using RSS feed readers on a daily basis as we used to? Have we abandoned them all to their own fortune and don’t look back? No. We haven’t. We have just changed, slightly, our consumption habits. To me, RSS feeds are move alive today than ever! And all of that, thanks to … email!! Yes, who would have thought about that, right?

It all started with the recent announcement of BlogLines going offline on October 1st and which last week made the tech news highlights for quite a bit. From there onwards, the conversation moved into stating that now that RSS feed readers are dying out a slow, but painful death, RSS feed reading will vanish as well altogether! Really? Do you think so? Really? I don’t think so! Otherwise, how are we going to consume Web content from multiple resources at the same time? I mean, are we going back towards just having 5 to 10 Web site Homepages open here and there and hit refresh constantly? Of course, not! Who would still do that nowadays? There are smarter ways of getting the information you need.

Who would just spend such a huge amount of time trying to catch up with things as they happen by having multiple Web sites open? Probably not many people, specially when those favourite links make up for total numbers in the several dozens or hundreds! It’d be almost impossible to catch up with! Stowe Boyd put together a rather interesting and thought provoking read where he stated the problem we seem to have been having with RSS feed reading all along. It surely is quite a good read, as it certainly highlights some of the various issues at play. Mainly, the fact that RSS feed readers are not integrated fully enough into people’s daily workflows, as far as how they consume their news items. And also how RSS feed readers and RSS feed reading, in general, haven’t evolved enough to provide new ways of digesting all of that content outside of the traditional concept of the Inbox.

Like I said, a great read that would help you understand what some of the potential issues are. I agree with him that RSS feeds have never been popular amongst our 2.0 habits, as we have always found it difficult to, yet again, check out another Inbox that doesn’t touch base, really, with what we do on a daily basis. However, he mentions how it looks like we have now turned into our various social networking sites to grab and digest that content as it comes across to us, pre-filtered collaboratively already by those very same networks, as part of the information flow. So it looks like we are ditching RSS feeds for social networking sites.

That’s quite an interesting thought. And I would agree with it to a certain degree, after all, Twitter has become for me what I have been calling my dynamic RSS feed reader of choice, but with that same rule, what we would then need to realise is that we are no longer having a debate about our RSS feed reading habits, but more about how some of the applications we used for that activity didn’t really meet our needs in the first place. And still don’t. Instead, we try to make the most out of our social networks. So, it looks like they are going to be our next RSS feeds eventually. If not already. Well, nothing further than the truth, to be honest. And here is why…

RSS feed readers still are rather cumbersome to make use of; as a starting point, most people don’t even get what RSS is all about. They find its explanation and definition far too complex to digest, and hugely prohibiting to make use of it fully. So eventually most people are turning back to what they are more comfortable with in the first place. Still today. Of course, I’m talking about … email! Let’s not forget: what’s the number #1 tool that we still use today to keep up with what’s happening inside our networks? It’s not the various desktop clients that I use to other social tools. It’s not the various networks that we all hang out at on a regular basis. It’s actually still our email clients where we keep receiving, more and more by the day, the various different notifications of activities that are going on inside our networks. That’s where our RSS feed reading is happening today! Right inside our Inboxes!

And, I am sure that at this point in time you are thinking how ironic for someone like myself, who is living “A World Without Email“, to eventually state something like that so categorically! Well, it’s not ironic, folks; it’s just all about taking email back to what it was designed for over 4 decades ago: a messaging and notification system of content that is stored elsewhere! And that, not sure what you would think about it, is what RSS feeds are all about: i.e. providing you with an opportunity to grab the content you need from the resources and networks you curate and nurture to help you stay informed and get the job done at the same time, but always following your knowledge flow!

And where does that knowledge flow happen? … Exactly! Right inside your Inbox! Welcome to the fabulous world of BACN!

RSS feed readers will come and go; just like with any other Internet (social) tool available out there. We have seen that happening for years, and plenty more to come!, specially if those tools are not capable of evolving accordingly to meet our current needs. However, that’s not where our focus should be. Our focus should be on the behaviours; on the task at hand; on building the good habit of ensuring people understand and comprehend fully, so they can adopt it successfully, key concepts like aggregation of relevant content or subscribing to the content that matters to them. Regardless of where it may well be: rather on Web sites, or social networks or even their mailboxes!

That’s where the key challenge and the debate should be happening, in my opinion. Yes, we all get to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. etc. to grab our feeds nowadays, but have you ever thought what would happen if one of these days any of those social networking sites disappears altogether without leaving a trace and without allowing you to make a backup copy? Gone! Zipped! Nada! Nothing! What would you do to keep up with your aggregation and subscription needs? How are you going to supply them? Well, with the easiest RSS Feed Reader ever designed for us all: email!

That’s right! To me, that’s the lowest common denominator that still tells me that RSS feed reading, as a social networking activity, is today healthier than ever. That habit of subscribing to updates happening in our networks is slowly, but steadily, turning our Inboxes into the next generation of RSS feed reading. And it surely is quite interesting to think along those lines, when email has been with us for over 40 years. Looks like we are reinventing ourselves, once again, and, at the same pace, we are reinventing our very own habits of how we would want to consume relevant Web resources that would matter to each and everyone of us without going crazy with the attempt.

Do I still use RSS Feeds personally? Have I given up altogether on RSS feed reading? Well, no. Not at all! Right at the moment that I am putting together this blog entry I’m currently using about 6 different feed readers: two of them mobile and the other four on my Mac. A good combination of both online and offline feed reading I have learned to grow over time load balancing what are essential key resources for me, and those others I know I will eventually come around them at some point. And, if I don’t, that wouldn’t worry me much either, because if it is something that I really needed, it would eventually come around to me. Are you still obssesed with keeping your Unread Marks down to zero?

That’s, essentially, the shift that we are going to see with our very own RSS feeds consumption habits: how we are no longer going out there to hunt down for the content stored in our feed readers, but more that very same content is going to be presented to us, pre-filtered collaboratively by whatever the filtering mechanisms (Human or not!), through those tools we feel the most comfortable with at the moment: for some folks it would be Facebook, for others it would be LinkedIn, for me (And plenty others, I am sure!) it would be Twitter, and for the vast majority the place where they all still live: their mailbox!

Finally, another interesting part of this so-called debate is, if we are all rather keen on relying on our social networks to provide us with those feeds and whatever other interesting Web reads, because that’s where we are going to spend more and more time, how we are going to possibly manage it all in such a way that we can draw some sense into it without going crazy? I mean, how are people going to have access to those critical resources when your networks may not be there ready for you? Because, whether we like it or not, that’s going to happen at some point in time? … Sooner or later, it’s going to hit us, whether we like it or not. And that’s, on its own, the whole use case for having your favourite RSS feed reader (Whatever that may well be!) at hand, so you can add it to your existing Personal Knowledge Management tools suite (and strategy!) you just can’t live without, even when you are offline, in a plane, for the next 9 hours! Where will your networks be when you are offline for an extended period of time? Think about it… You may as well need to have a good solid backup plan, or Plan B: your RSS feed reader of choice!

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  1. @elsua I made the switch to RSS a while ago … and read your blog post from inside Google Reader. While I would prefer to use an offline reader with online replication, I find the current design of products of this class not up to the refinement of e-mail on fat clients with a webmail option.

    Unfortunately, we seem to be in an age where a large majority of people are satisfied with working in the cloud (i.e. webmail), so perhaps there won’t ever be a sufficiently large market for geezers like me.

    1. Hi David! Thanks for the feedback! Yes, I, too, have been using RSS feeds for a while and wouldn’t want to have it any other way. I use a combination of both offline and online feed reading in order to get the most out of both worlds. It’s interesting to see how our demands for the perfect RSS feed reader have never been met and instead we keep saying how our email systems seem to be doing the trick! Funny, eh? After all of these years!!

      I agree with you that most folks out there are content with working on the cloud, but, to me, the biggest challenge that social networking has and RSS feeds for that matter is the ability to work offline, when you are disconnected. Because not everyone has got a steady Internet connection at all times. That’s going to be one of our main challenges in the next couple of years! For sure! Specially, for those folks on the road! 🙂

      We shall see how that challenge paves out eventually, but it surely looks rather interesting!

  2. Luis, I am not completely clear what you are saying here. RSS is alive, certainly. But are people really slurping their feeds into their email tools? Or are you saying that nearly all RSS Readers fail because they act just like email clients: inbox, unread counts, folders, pressure to catch up?

    I’m a Google Reader guy, not because it is a great app, but because it is good enough. I’d love to have something like SharpReader back – it actually tried to show how articles were threaded together. I loved that.

    1. Hi Jack! Thanks for dropping by and for the feedback! What I was basically saying is that RSS feeds are alive and kicking, indeed, because most of the social networking sites where we usually hang out nowadays to grab our feeds nowadays use email as the driver of those notifications, so traditional RSS feed readers are leaving their way to those tools, like email, that don’t seem to be as much complex as some of those readers are. So, eventually, people decide to just stick around with those tools that do the trick for them.

      Which is also part of the second part of the blog post where I think that RSS feed readers failed to deliver new ways of providing us with the information we need as they all try to be pretty much like our inboxes, but fail, because of how complex they seem to be. Nothing to do with the habits themselves, but more with the technology itself.

      SharpReader surely was one of those exceptions that tried to do things different, but then again didn’t make it that far. And, instead, we all default it rather to GReader, which, as you say does not provide the user experience we would hope for, and email, which is what we are comfortable with all along…

      That’s why I wanted to put together this entry to add my two cents on the debate itself, as I think we are focusing on the wrong thing, as Dave Winer has nicely put together under “How to Reboot RSS”. I think he is on to something …

  3. Aside from reading the content in a feed reader, the value of RSS feeds is far more prevalent when you look at the consumption of the content by application entities (I.e mashups, etc). *That* seems more valuable to me as a developer than the way I use them in GReader. My .02 USD

  4. Great comprehensive post Luis.

    I abandoned my RSS Reader about a year ago, and only use it for back up…I still subscribe to sources and use it as a search engine.

    Rather than following blog sources, we are following people…in one way Twitter is just link blogging (delicious missed out on this…I always thought they should have enabled a tumblr type curated view of your personal bookmark database)

    Once you are subscribed to 100 or so blogs an RSS reader becomes unmanagable because posts are sorted by most recent…there is no way of knowing which one’s to skip without looking at them (there are plugins that filter by social activity on the web, so this helps).

    Twitter is a network where you discover people and the topics they post about…you can amass a network in no time at all. Whereas RSS Readers like Google Reader have to do their best with techniques like feed bundles and machine recommendations…otherwise it’s you alone on the web finding blogs in directories and blogrolls (nothing better than a blog you like recommending other blogs…a bit like my previous point on amassing a Twitter network in no time).

    RSS Readers are just consumption tools and not connection and interacting tools…you can’t comment from most RSS Readers, and connect with people.

    Twitter beats RSS Readers with breaking news and next to real time…if people want to know what’s happening right now, they don’t use an RSS Reader.
    Twitter is a network and if something is worth reading in a network it will surface again and again. Sometimes I ignore links (thinking maybe it’s worth a read, but I don’t have time so I’ll skip it), and then it surfaces a couple of more times, and I think OK maybe I will read it.

    The real difference is engagement, on Twitter not only is it a place to do reading (what we do with RSS Readers) and posting and commenting (what we do with blogging), but we can do other things like sharing links (like bookmarking), and discussing (like forums) and chatting (like IM) and private messaging (like email)…all via the one window and network. So it’s not just RSS Readers that are fallling victim, it’s also forums and perhaps a few other platforms of exchange…Twitter is certainly a disrupter.

    In the end RSS Readers have their value, but also their shortcomings…but people also leave them because Twitter handles reading information and lots of other stuff too like connecting…it’s hard being an RSS Reader vendor in a Twitter world.

    Like email, people want one place to do everthing, and Twitter has become that in a loose unstructured way.

    My dad would not start a blog or use an RSS Reader, but he’s on Facebook.

    People that blog also tweet, but people that tweet don’t necessarily blog.

    PS Just had a related thought.

    Lots of people including myself in the early days tried out every new RSS reader that came out, until I settled on Google Reader. Which means I subscribe to many of the same blogs multiple times, which inflates the subscribe numbers us bloggers think we have.
    Sure we may have 3000 subscribers but half of them may be from abandoned RSS readers, so how many fans do we really have.

    And I think the same thing is happening on Twitter. Currently I use filttr. I have made about 5 topic lists with about 20 sources in each list. And I filter each list by enabling it to display only those tweets that have links in them.

    2 things: I follow hundreds of people on Twitter, but only read about 100, and out of those 100 I’m only reading some of their stuff.

    So those people that have many Twitter fans, think again.

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