Over on my Ask Dave Taylor Q&A blog, I received a most interesting question that I believe is a good example of just what’s wrong with the state of RSS and, perhaps, is one of the great challenges facing the blogosphere too:
“I know this is a really stupid question, but how do I go about subscribing to your blog? Does subscribing to your blog mean that I would be subscribing to an RSS feed? If so, how do I get hold of an RSS feeder? I have Internet Explorer 6. Can I handle an RSS feed with IE6? Or does subscribing to your blog mean that I would receive an email from you every time there is a new entry to your blog?”
There’s a lot about this question that I find interesting, not the least of which is that it reflects the never-ending exclusionary aura of the tech savvy and “tech stupid”. But even in the more mundane world of the Web as it exists today there’s a lot here to chew on.
Those of us mired in the blogging space often forget how confusing and difficult most of the technology – and jargon – really can be for people who are coming into it without experience.
This is hardly a stupid question at all, actually, but a reflection of the fact that we, as bloggers, really need to do a better job of explaining what all of the buzzwords and confusing acronyms are to the general computer using community. And no, I’m not talking about some superficial renaming of RSS to webfeed; that won’t solve the problem either.
What I believe we really need is a strong, coherent, relevant and understandable metaphor for the entire concept of RSS feeds, syndication, subscriptions, and so on.
I’ve been trying to figure one out myself for a couple of years, truth be told, and the best I can come up with is the old AP “news wire” where there’d be a scrolling paper feed and reporters would literally “rip the story off the wire”. I can force the round peg into the proverbial square hole, but it’s not a great metaphor, I admit.
Part of the problem is that I don’t think that we, as a community, agree about what that means when we talk about “subscribing” to a site anyway. To me, the real value of RSS is the “subscribability” it offers readers, by the way, not its value to us publishers.
Remember also, RSS != blog, so any metaphor we’d come up with would need to encompass how the NY Times offers RSS feeds of its movie reviews, for example, even though it’s not a blog.
After all, conceptually, RSS is actually just a specially formatted version of a Web page that makes it easy for computer programs to “parse” and analyze. Just as we don’t “print to PCL5″ even though that might well be the underlying language of the printer and just as we don’t buy “hot water poured over recently ground Arabica beans” but rather a cup of coffee, why are we still talking about RSS at all?
So, dear reader, where do we go from here? People are most familiar with magazines in this sense: what of the magazine subscription model is relevant to the Web and RSS? Business-folk are also familiar with newspaper “clipping services” but that doesn’t really describe the RSS subscription space either.
I can see the need. I just can’t quite capture that great metaphor that lets us truly communicate the essence, concept and value of RSS. Can you?