Do We Need a Simpler RSS?

I was impressed with how the presentation in my last post was able to simply explain social media. The thing that remains less than simple, however, is RSS (which stands for, oddly enough, “Really Simple Syndication”). Simple it is not.  RSS is one of the technical bits of glue that makes social media run behind the scenes.  We may know it most commonly as a news feed or a feed from a blog that we can read via a feed reader (or aggregator) such a Google Reader, but really these are not easy for the average person to understand or fully implement without some explanation. Without that basic understanding it is difficult to go beyond this to understanding other uses of RSS and help to explain them.

This issue is raised in the video below from the Vascellari Media Channel, in which the prolific Andrea Vascellari interviews Hessu Järvinen and Erkka Piirainen of Finland about how to get started in social media. They point out that at one time people didn’t understand what use instant messaging (or IM) had when we already have telephones and email, and it is just a matter of time for us to come to understand the use RSS holds for us.

I like how they sum things up: Hessu says “be open minded” and Erkka says to “demand more of the developers”. If you don’t understand how to use something, it may not be your fault; it may be a design flaw. Thus the importance of user experience (or UX) professionals!

One person who is particularly good at explaining RSS is my friend Steve Matthews over at Stem Legal Consulting (full disclosure: I sometimes do work for Stem Legal). I try to follow all he posts on his Law Firm Web Strategy blog about RSS and am trying to learn as much as I can from him.

But, aside from all of us explaining RSS to the uninitiated and creating webpages, widgets and other things using RSS without identifying it as such, is there a way to make RSS easier?

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25 Responses to “Do We Need a Simpler RSS?”

  1. Stephen Michael Kellat Says:

    What would “easier” look like in terms of end-user expectations? There can be points where matters cannot be simplified further, I fear.

  2. Connie Says:

    That’s a very good question, Stephen, and I suspect where we all get stuck. Once we understand what RSS is and how it works, it is difficult to imagine it being simpler. As they discuss in the video, perhaps it is the tools working with RSS that need to be simpler. I’m not sure–it is a dilemma.


  3. Do We Need a Simpler RSS? | Library Stuff Says:

    […] Conny Crosby - “Is there a way to make RSS easier?” […]

  4. wesley Says:

    Didn’t watch the video yet.. All that is needed is:

    a) A better name. RSS? Not a good name.
    b) Better support in browsers/mail readers. Needs to be very easy to add. I suspect this is already the case in the latest browsers, so..

  5. Connie Says:

    Hi Wesley:

    Great point! Just being an obscure acronym alone probably keeps people from trying it out. And then the acronym doesn’t have a clear genesis, so explaining it is difficult too. If it was just called “feeds” or something it might be easier. In fact, when I teach I start off by calling them “feeds”.

    Of course, there is more that we can do with them than just pull into readers. I suspect most people are not going to read feeds in readers, so finding ways to mix and filter feeds to serve up content is going to be key going forward I suspect.

  6. Time Dalkat Says:

    What I believe is that it should work like torrents. When you click the subscribe button it should drop a physical icon on your desktop with which you can drop into any reader. People like something that seems tangible. I’m technically proficient and I hate managing my feeds!

  7. Rob Blatt Says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of making RSS simpler, because it’s a specification. I think it’s a matter of making it easier to handle. For that, we have to look at our browsers. If it’s not automatically recognized as an RSS feed and handled in a different fashion than another blob of code, that’s issue #1.

    you can make RSS easier by making it easier to handle. That’s not the RSS spec that would need to change we need to look at how it’s handled.

    RSS shouldn’t change to make itself easier, as it’s a technical specification. Adding more to that spec would only make it more difficult to handle.

  8. Jim Says:

    I suspect the biggest obstacle isn’t the lack of simplicity, but the fact that most people have no idea why they would benefit from RSS until they get accustomed to it. The question is always, why use RSS instead of email? I try to distinguish them on functional terms. For example: I use email for things I need to “do”; RSS (well, blogs) is for things I need to “know about.”

  9. Connie Says:

    Time Dalkat and Rob, you both make similar and good points. I like where this is heading…

  10. Melanie Baker Says:

    I’m not sure explicit use of RSS (e.g. specifically subscribing to feeds in a reader) is the future of the technology. Sure, it’s been around for a while, and for some of us it’s important for keeping up with the world (or our company’s bread and butter…).

    But it’s not at mass adoption by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m not sure it will be, even if you make it simpler, by whatever definition of “simpler” you want to use.

    At the same time, though, millions of people keep up with their friends’ comings and goings on Facebook, for example, and many of them have no idea that’s RSS, though they love the functionality. I think that’s the future of RSS and how to make it simpler — integrate it, “hide” it, make it just there.

    I think that sliceable, diceable seamlessness is where the real future of RSS lies. I think readers will always have their contingent, but not necessarily be a must-have for the masses.

    And, of course, our goal is that eventually folks won’t know that RSS ever existed without PostRank built in. :)

  11. Connie Says:

    Jim, yes the concept can sometimes take a bit of explaining. Examples help. Not everyone is going to use an aggregator to read feeds, but there are so many other uses for them.

    Melanie, I agree. It really is running behind the scenes in so many of our applications and widgets, and most of us don’t realize it.

    I like the thought of slicing and dicing feeds. In addition to seeing myself as an aggregator, as a librarian I see myself as a curator of content and feel that part of my role should be to find, mix and filter feeds to serve up content. Most librarians however barely know what an RSS feed is. We do have a long way to go.

  12. Rajio Says:

    I would argue that RSS doesn’t need to be made simpler per se, though many RSS publishers need to simplify and refine their use of it. It’s all about less fluff. What could be simplified is how we interact with RSS and that is something which we can see happening incrementally all the time. Recently, for example, google reader modified its interface for simplicity. It could be better, yes but its making progress at least.

    Explaining RSS or illustrating how effective use of it isn’t that easy but it’s been like that for a lot of things. As RSS enters the vernacular, explaining it will become irrelevant, just like explaining the fax or email is now. What will remain is how we interact with it and use it effectively. We have a LONG way to go here. I use RSS feeds extensively and still struggle with coping with them (especially the sheer volume of feeds I want to keep tabs on).

    As far as explaining and popularizing RSS goes, perhaps we need a better buzz word than the RSS accronym? Lets just call it a ‘Feed’ for now, perhaps? Just like we dont say HTTP much, or “World Wide Web” or even “electronic mail”… we abbreviate it into a nice compact buzzword which seems to help.

    So to summarize, Yes RSS needs to be simpler but no its not RSS exactly but just everything between the feed and ourselves … our interfaces need to be simpler. subscribing and reading need to be simpler. filtering needs to be simpler. prioritizing needs to be simpler and arguably content itself needs to be simpler.

  13. Phil Says:

    @timedalkat raises a good issue about having tangible objects for the user to manipulate. I think that when a feed goes into the clipboard (to be pasted into the reader) the average user is lost. I am constantly surprised to see how users are using objects in ways I did not envision.

    Example: The other day I discovered my mother in-law had no idea where her downloads were going. No big deal she just double clicked them in her browser’s download window (never occured to me - I always go to the file system).

    In the end though I think it is all in the marketing! We need to drop the acronym as it scares people.

  14. Blaise Alleyne Says:

    Great discussion here.

    I think I agree that it’s more the applications that need improvement, the stuff between the feeds and users. I’m not sure that the protocol needs revamping, but it needs to be easier for people to use and to learn. It takes a while for people to understand what RSS is, yes, that’s often the barrier.

    People don’t need to understand much about XHTML or CSS or Javascript to browse the web. We need better support for RSS in our applications and usage so that it’s more natural to follow a feed.

  15. Connie Says:

    Rajio: I can see what you mean when you said you have a “yes and no” answer. Very well expressed.

    Phil: It is surprising how people find work-arounds or even completely different ways of accomplishing the same thing. I love that our technologies allow us to work in ways that suits us individually. The trick is keeping it simple but also flexible. Not always easy to accomplish, I suspect! (not being a developer myself).

    Blaise: Yes. I do think things are getting better when people click on feeds to implement them. A lot of time buttons come up for them to add the feeds in. It will get there eventually, I suppose.

  16. Steve Matthews Says:

    The name has always been easy to critique, but the concept of subscribing to information is as old as your local newspaper. Sometimes I think if we could focus on the word ’subscribe’, things could be much easier.

    Showing RSS has always been easier than explaining it. At least that’s been my experience. I’ve always had more luck crafting a small pre-made collection of feeds, and handing off a seeded reader than, than trying to persuade someone of the value to their lives.

    Just some thoughts, anyway. Great post Connie, I’m glad to see such an active conversation stream on the topic. Very cool. :)

  17. Connie Says:

    As I mentioned in my post, I think you have put together some great examples for us of practical uses for feeds, Steve. I use some of them in my teaching when I go to show people how these can be used other than reading them in readers. Keep up the great work!

  18. Ken Varnum Says:

    When I explain RSS to people, I always use the “syndication” part of the name as the main point: Think about the wire services most of us (over 30, anyway) are familiar with: The Associated Press, Reuters, etc. Their business was traditionally to take news stories and send them to other publications that actually printed them. Everyone recognized a “wire story” as one written by someone other than the local paper’s reporters. RSS feeds are very similar, whatever the name you call them by. As a creator of RSS feeds (through a blog, Twitter, or whatever else), you are allowing others to make use of your “news.” As a consumer, you are finding the “syndicates” that you like and signing up to be told what’s new.

    As Steve Matthews notes, tools that librarians can use to set up high-value feeds for our patrons help make the case. For example, using Yahoo Pipes to pull together a set of feeds — and filtering it for specific keywords — for a patron is relatively easy for the expert and of great benefit to the user.

  19. Billy Says:

    It seems to me that there are two categories of problems mentioned: explanation and implementation.

    At the moment, the feed button is just this unexplained orange square in the UI. What does it do? Nobody knows. So a little bit of education is necessary about the point and, unfortunately, a little education is needed about how to get a reader (although I believe IE7 has one built in, I can’t confirm that).

    You probably can’t get this education done in a single word. Maybe not even in a single sentence. Two sentences? Maybe. A series of pictures? Even better. Ditching RSS as a term is a good idea. RSS is a single technology, not the concept (for example, Atom does the same thing). The user doesn’t need to know the format of the feed.

    “Enjoy this blog? Hate having to check for updates yourself? Feeds let you read the latest updates on all your favourite sites in one place. Click the unexplained orange square or learn more.”

    As for implementation, I’m not sure it could get much simpler than it is in Firefox: click the orange square, choose your reader from the dropdown, click Subscribe. The Firefox implementation could be laid out a little better (I’d rather have a list than a dropdown) but it’s otherwise almost easy as can be. I think that whatever you do to the implementation, the subscription part should involve only the browser and the reader and only clicking (no copy & paste, typing or dragging unless you’re trying to do something special).

  20. Shaunna Mireau Says:

    It is the benefits gained by monitoring the web through syndication that is the mountain, not the functionality of RSS channel creation or feed readers. Connie and Steve and all of those commenting above have lifted us all a few more feet up the slope. Thanks!

  21. Roddy MacLeod Says:

    If you search Google for “what is rss” you get more than 8 million hits. This shows, I believe, that an awful lot of effort has been going into telling people about RSS, and yet, as a recent Forrester report pointed out ( http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/Excerpt/0,7211,47150,00.html ) RSS hasn’t, and will not, become mainstream.

    Yet RSS is very useful. One solution is to use RSS in other ways as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ service. For example, I found this discussion through LibWorm http://www.libworm.com/ Another example - the ticTOCs Journal Tables of Contents Service http://www.tictocs.ac.uk which ingests RSS, but you don’t need to know the fisrt thing about RSS in order to find, view and keep up-to-date with journal Tables of Contents.
    RSS can be a tool. We don’t need to force it down people’s throats as a techniques.

  22. RSS and The Masses | blogcampaigning Says:

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  23. Nick Holmes Says:

    What’s needed are autofeedreaders built into browsers, which would remove all the management obstacles - something like this.

    When I open my browser the default behaviour is to open a MyFeeds tab (”behind” my home page tab).

    This page is an aggregation of the most recent x items from the feeds linked in my y most visited pages with autodiscover links - displayed in classic reader style. This immediately satisfies the majority who do not currently know how to subscribe to and manage feeds.

    For the curious and power users, there is also a prominent Manage My Feeds button which allows us to change the default settings, group the feeds etc, or to specify a preferred alternative reader.

  24. Andrea Vascellari Says:

    What a nice conversation!

    First thing: sorry if I couldn’t join the conversation before but I had a reeeally intense time during and after LeWeb.

    Tons of inspiring things on this page, which basically means that I will probably record another episode about RSS.
    I’ll link back to you and to this post Connie ;)

    Keep up the great work!


  25. Connie Says:

    I’m loving this discussion, folks! And all of the ideas it has generated.

    Nick, your vision of a new browser/reader is a good one.

    Andrea, not to worry. My inspiration for this post came while you were busy with the LeWeb conference. Who knew it would hit such a nerve? I would love your additional take on all of this. I think there is lots of thinking/discussion still to do.

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