Monday, January 11, 2010

Social sharing, RSS, and the news

The Internet is a pretty big place and can often be difficult to understand, especially for those who are less tech savvy. There are dozens of technologies out there that are extremely powerful and extremely useful, but are fairly confusing for the average person to understand. As such, technologies like this often have a much slower adoption rate and may never gain mass popularity.

RSS is a great example of this. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and it provides a way for websites to alert other services when information is updated. Users can set up feed readers where they only have to visit one site to read all the newest content from their favorite websites. Personally, I have nearly 150 different websites that I read through a feed reader, including mainstream sites, photo updates, and even friends' blogs. If I had to individually visit all 150 of those sites every day to look for new content, I'd obviously be overwhelmed and never read most of them.


When a website (like The Dastardly Report) puts up a new post, that post is also sent to the site feed, which allows all kinds of other services to see the new post and do various things with it. One way is to display it in a feed reader for other people to read, but RSS also allows websites to talk to each other more easily.

For example, when a new post is added to Overheard On The Scanner (shameless plug), the new post gets sent to the RSS feed. Another service, called Twitterfeed then sees the updated feed and pushes the new post to Twitter and Facebook.

So, you can see how powerful and useful RSS can be. But it's confusing and overwhelming at the same time. For the average user, maintaining a feed reader can seem like a chore and feel like just another inbox that they need to maintain, despite the benefit of being able to keep up with more websites.

However, many people are already dooming RSS to obsolescence. On a recent episode of Twig, host Leo Laporte (a very well known and respected figure in tech), proclaimed, "RSS is dead." He went on to say that he now relies on Twitter, Facebook, and the like to find out what stories are worth reading. So, he just reads the links that people share on social sites, relying on the wisdom of the crowd to determine which stories are worth reading.

This isn't necessarily a bad idea. There are entire websites devoted to this very notion. Twittersphere.com is a popular site that collects and displays the most frequently shared links of the moment. It's certainly a great way to stay up to the minute about what stories are important to the world and I definitely encourage checking it out.

But for me, it could never replace RSS. I guess it depends on what kind of news reader you are. For someone who simply wants to casually stay up to date on the big stories, then social link sharing will work fine. But for someone like me who wants to keep up with as much news as possible on a given topic, then RSS is vastly superior. There have been numerous times where Leo will say, "no, I haven't heard of that story" on a Twig episode...but it will be about a story that I read days ago. It just proves that RSS is the superior method of consuming information if your goal is to read as much as possible.

So, all that to say that RSS is far from dead. And, to be honest, I'm very surprised someone like Leo would so boldly make a declaration like that. Without RSS, a huge number of the technologies that the web relies on wouldn't work. And avid news readers like me wouldn't be able to keep up with new stories without it. So it may not be a mainstream tech, but it's certainly not dead.

I rely on RSS for my news reading. If you've never checked it out, I suggest Google Reader as  your feed reading service. And be sure to subscribe to The Dastardly Report by clicking on the RSS icon at the top.

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