4 December 2006

Dreaming of people-centred RSS feeds

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To write a professional blog like Putting People First, one needs to scan a lot of material. In fact, Putting People First would be impossible to compile without the help of RSS. I am subscribed to a great many of them. 331 at the moment. You can see them here.

RSS helps me a lot of course. With one click, I can see what has been updated on 331 websites without having to go any of the 331 websites involved, or without having to scan through material that I have scanned or read already before.

But RSS is not yet a mature technology. Much could be improved to make it more helpful, more practical and more pleasurable to use. In fact, if an innovative tech company were to embark on a qualitative, ethnographic study of 10-12 people who use RSS regularly (with both more and less intensity than I do), I am sure that a great many design opportunities would arise. When carefully implemented, prototyped and tested, this could quickly position the company as the leading innovator in this very handy and practical technology.

In its current incarnation, RSS is a simple and blind technology. Through a feed reader (or “aggregator”), I can check a list of feeds (which are basically XML-versions of a blog or website) and display any new or updated articles on these feeds directly in my feed reader.

RSS is not “Web 2.0″ in and by itself. There is nothing particularly social in the experience of using it. RSS feeds do not become better because more people read them.

So let me set out five areas for improvement, which are based on using Bloglines but also largely apply to other online readers such as Rojo and NewsGator:

Feeds are dumb
Most news websites provide thematic RSS feeds. For instance BBC News has a feed on technology-related articles that I am subscribed to. I now receive all the BBC News articles on technology, including many that I am not at all interested in. I cannot refine my feed through the BBC, nor can I benefit from the shared intelligence of the many others who are also subscribed to the same BBC technology feed and have similar interests as I do. We all have to keep on going through the same weeding process and we cannot benefit from each other’s weeding. Yes, there are services as Digg, del.icio.us and others, but nothing that allows me to fine-tune my various feed subscriptions. I am stuck with having to read large amounts of material that I am not at all interested in.

Aggregators are dumb
I have my particular RSS behaviour: I click on certain titles to read the full post or go to the original site that it was posted on. So I portray a certain behaviour through my choices and selections. But this behavioural pattern is not registered and cleverly used to fine-tune my RSS feeds and to gradually supply me with more articles that are relevant for me and weed out the ones that are not.

The way feeds are displayed is too standard and too rigid
The way a reader shows the RSS feeds s not very sophisticated: I get to see the title, an excerpt, the first 50 words or so, or the full post, and it is often not even I who decides on that. When people publish full posts via their RSS feeds (as I do), some things tend not to show up, e.g. YouTube video links. I also loose any graphic sense of the originating blog or site, even though that is sometimes relevant. For instance, BBC News (again) has leading features and smaller stories. In RSS this qualitative difference disappears. I cannot see when a blog undergoes a graphic redesign, unless the author writes about it. I don’t even know when a feed is no longer working, unless I go through convoluted steps, like opening folders, scrolling a lot, and looking at tiny exclamation points. The graphic style of my feed reader is not customisable. I can make the text bigger or smaller, nothing else. Flexible use is also not supported: I cannot choose to be selectively updated on the comments of one particular blog entry, without having to read all comments on all other blog entries of that feed as well. I cannot sort my feeds or my feed results in some meaningful way. I cannot create hierarchies within my feeds: as I may want to read all posts from some blogs but only some from others.

Who are my RSS feed readers?
I have no idea. I know a great deal less about them than I know of the people who access the blog directly. Any free web analytics programme (e.g. Statcounter, Google Analytics, Logdy, MeasureMap, etc.) provides me with much richer insight on my regular blog readers, than dedicated services such as FeedBurner provide me on my RSS readers. I have no insight at all. I only know how many there are and which aggregators they use. Luckily about 10% my RSS readers read the RSS updates every morning via e-mail, so I know those people’s email addresses. I review them sometimes, and it is nice to recognise a company name, a country code, or even a person’s name. It makes it all a lot more human. But I know nothing about the other 90%.

Restricted RSS
RSS is limited to public blogs and websites. We at Experientia use a lot of password protected blogs to manage projects and share their results but these protected blogs don’t provide functioning RSS feeds. I can also not subscribe via RSS to password protected Yahoo! Groups. There is no real clever integration yet between email and RSS, which might be nice given the amount of email spam these days, redirecting POP3 emails to RSS is just for geeks, and sending an email directly from RSS is still impossible.

There is a lot to be done. I didn’t even talk about the process of subscribing itself, which has its own set of problems.

Note that this article is but the point of view of one person, and other people will have other issues and other needs. Yet it’s worth understanding them.

It may also be that some of these functions already exist, that some companies are working on them. I hope they do. But I have not yet heard about them. And this is the problem. After all, I am a heavy user and write every day about people-centred use of technologies. So mine is still the mainstream experience of using RSS.

And frankly, it is just not good enough.

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