Why RSS is Coming to an Interface Near You

As many of you know by now, I’m greatly interested in how content aggregators are changing our behaviors on the Web (and thus our design). This week I step back a bit and take a closer look at the technology behind it all: RSS. Known for its explosive growth and its inherent spam-proofness, RSS technology […]

As many of you know by now, I’m greatly interested in how content aggregators are changing our behaviors on the Web (and thus our design). This week I step back a bit and take a closer look at the technology behind it all: RSS.

Known for its explosive growth and its inherent spam-proofness, RSS technology is rapidly changing how people get content on the Web. For example, based on my web server stats I know that many of you are finding out about this post in a feed reader – perhaps even more than half of you! Six months ago there were less than 5% of you doing that.

A big reason for its growth is that RSS feeds are standard issue in almost all blog software. In most cases it’s turned on by default. Even those bloggers who don’t know what RSS is might very well have an RSS feed! But RSS is not popular simply because feeds are on by default; that in no way guarantees that the feeds will be read. Instead, the popularity of RSS hinges on the control that it transfers to users and the resulting efficiency gains over the paradigms it replaces. In a word: its usability.

    RSS is Simple to Learn

    RSS is simple because of the way that it allows people to get up to speed with feeds without having to learn a new system. Most users don’t need to know that RSS is an XML format for syndicating content, nor do they need to know that a similar format called Atom exists. Instead, they only need to know that they request feeds in a similar way to requesting a web page: type a URL into a text box and you get content. This modest learning curve, resulting in part from our familiarity with the URL, makes adoption of RSS a snap.

    RSS is Efficient

    Before RSS readers, we had to visit a particular site to know if it had been updated. Now, we simply open up our RSS reader and the answer is there. For every site we subscribe to. In the case of the Shrook feed reader, the answer is a little yellow star beside each post that lets me know this post is new since I last checked that feed.

    In the old way of checking for updated content it took about 10 seconds to visit each site plus another 10 seconds for the switch of context. That’s about one minute saved per day for every 3 feeds in my feed reader. Given that I have about 80 feeds, I save about 30 minutes a day. And this time isn’t the time that I’m reading content, it’s simply the time discovering the updated content in the first place! Dana Gardner of the Gillmor Gang has referred to this preselection of information as “content triage”.

    Under normal circumstances, though, I never visited all 80 sites on a normal day before I started using an RSS reader. It simply got tiring to visit site after site without seeing much updated content. That problem has gone away after using feed readers, though, and I only consider visiting my usual sites if there’s a little yellow star telling me to. The efficiency of keeping up on many more sites in less time is perhaps the biggest usability gain of them all.

    RSS Doesn’t Have Spam

    Email newsletters are a great way to keep up with updates on a web site – unless you use email, that is. Most of us now have to wade through dozens if not hundreds of spam messages a day to get the few emails that we actually want. I remember when it was great to check mail and get two messages at once. I felt special. Now I feel a little too special.

    The problem with email is that our addresses are public: anyone can send anything to them. Contrast that with RSS, delivered by request only, and we get to enjoy the best of both the Web and email worlds. We get content from only the sites that we request it from (like the Web), and we get notified every time a site gets updated (like email newsletters). This makes a huge difference in productivity (and perhaps emotional stability as well).

    RSS Doesn’t Have (Much) Advertising (Yet)

    I got my first RSS ad the other day, and it told me that I could register my domain name for $7.95! Actually, let me interrupt my post here and talk a little bit more about that. The text advertisement was from a company whose name you won’t remember and who offers effortless domain switching at competitive costs explained in very persuasive copy-writing. So persuasive, in fact, that if I was making money from their ad I would tell you that you should check them out.

    Cynicism notwithstanding, the ad surprised me because it was the first I had seen in six months of using an RSS reader. It was delivered via the Signal Vs. Noise feed of the 37 Signals crew, as part of a trial they are running with Feedburner. (so let’s not be too harsh) After their trial began there was some very interesting discussion about it, with a good many folks complaining about it and an equal number saying they didn’t mind. Some even unsubscribed from the feed, though.

    Every distraction, no matter how small, serves to dilute content in some way and can eventually become a roadblock. Usability roadblocks aren’t always singular and impassible. They’re sometimes the result of multiple, barely noticeable problems, like straws on a camel’s back.

    RSS Lets Us Remember Inconstant Feeds

    Remember that site you went to three months ago with the really interesting article about flightless birds? Probably not, right? Well, if you had entered the address of that site’s feed in your RSS reader, you wouldn’t have to remember. If (and when) that site updates its content you’ll know about it. So, not only do you not have to check back with the site, you don’t even have to think about it until you get a notification that something new is there. While this is happening we might not notice a big change in our behavior, but RSS is silently improving the user experience by decreasing our memory burden.

    RSS is Open

    Partly because it’s simple, but mostly because it’s open, anyone can use RSS. Developers, writers, readers. Unlike much of the software we use every day, RSS wasn’t created as a proprietary format under the auspices of a single company focused on monetizing it for their own benefit. Everybody can use it for whatever application they dream up.

    Contrast that with Microsoft Word, with a complex file format built to be difficult to decipher so that it could be leveraged by its parent company only. Problem is, over time the format has become so complex that it is as difficult for one company to maintain compatibility between versions as it is for other companies to reverse engineer. Thankfully, RSS is open and easily read by many feed readers. Let’s hope it stays that way!

One Theme: RSS Puts People in Control

The benefits that I’ve mentioned above affect people who make RSS software, people who create content for distribution via RSS, and people who use read, view, and listen to that content. The major commonality here is that these groups are in control of their experience with the technology; they are not controlled by it.

This control is not only important in terms of how users feel. Sure, users want to feel in control, but in this case their control is helping them be much more efficient in their lives. They control how much content they access, they’re distracted less, and they have fewer things to remember. The end result is that they are controlling their most important asset, their time.

In the end, the way to become more efficient is to either do more in less time or get rid of tasks that we don’t need to do. RSS, the technology that is changing much of our content grabbing behaviors, is really quite amazing: its many benefits allow it to successfully do both.

Published: December 1st, 2004

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