September 2, 2014

We need a great metaphor to explain RSS

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?

This article about RSS metaphors is republished with permission from The Intuitive Life Business Blog and is © 2005 by Dave Taylor.

3 comments for We need a great metaphor to explain RSS »

  1. The metaphor I always use when trying to explain RSS is that of a magazine subscription card. With that, you fill out your information, drop it in the mail and then wait two or three weeks to get the magazine.

    With RSS you simply copy a URL (the feed link) or hit the button associated with your reader (such as My Yahoo) and you automatically get new content that you can either skim or read in full. It’s less clunky, I explain, than email since you get each headline delivered individually and not as part of a massive newsletter-type mailing.

    That’s the best one I’ve come up with and it’s served me fairly well.


    Comment by Chris Thilk — October 18, 2005 @ 7:40 pm

  2. Automated web surfing.

    Comment by Aaron B. Hockley — October 18, 2005 @ 10:19 pm

  3. [...] Hoppas att Dave Taylor hittar den metafor för RSS som han letar efter. Det är inte helt lätt att pÃ¥ tvÃ¥ minuter förklara vad det är och vilka fördelar det innebär. Jag är i Strasbourg idag och höll under förmiddagen en workshop (om webbstruktur) där vi kom in pÃ¥ RSS. Förhoppningsvis nÃ¥dde jag fram, men visst skulle vi ha nytta av en enkel och träffsäker beskrivning. “Automatisk webbsurfning” är ett vanligt förslag. Men visst mÃ¥ste det finnas ett bättre?

    Pingback by Vi behöver en metafor för RSS » WebbrÃ¥dgivare Fredrik WackÃ¥ — March 28, 2006 @ 9:03 am

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