Step 1 Of RSS Is Broken

Searchenginewatch confirms what many of us have suspected: the awareness of RSS is still quite low among the general population of Internet users. While the article confirms that usage among the technically savvy is obviously higher, the rest of the world either doesn’t know what RSS is, or is using it without even knowing it (i.e. adding channels to their portal pages).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Despite it’s inherent power, the RSS experience is badly broken. The first baby step towards the power of feed syndication is subscribing to a feed – and for the majority of Internet users, it leads to nowhere.

Before we even consider the problem with subscribing to feeds today, it’s worth noting that even the visual indicator of a feed being available is confusing. Dave Winer has tirelessly defended the consistent use of that orange XML box. Dave is hoping that by sticking to an agreed-upon standard, people will eventually “get it.” Not so. There are two problems with that button. First, how in the world is a layman supposed to connect “XML” with feed syndication? It’s a bit silly that Dave has decided to commit to a button that, strictly interpreted, is itself misleading.

The second problem, and it’s a far bigger one, is that the XML button, like most buttons that look actionable, should do something. Ideally, it should do something useful, or at the very least help the user along towards something useful. Today, in the great majority of cases, it just leads to a blob of junk in the user’s browser. If we step back and consider RSS in the context of a use case, the very first interaction step is badly broken.

In all fairness, this isn’t the fault of RSS. Most up-and-coming technologies are introduced to the masses by a tangible product that is quickly usable. Netscape’s Navigator simplified the web for millions years ago. RSS today doesn’t have that product to “carry” users through to a point where they can more easily realize the value of RSS.

And so, we’re left with a collection of web-based readers, client-side installable readers, and some other stuff in between (e.g. Outlook-integrated feed readers & browser plug-ins). The steps necessary are simply too difficult and cumbersome for most to even bother.

I’d venture to say that the only companies positioned to really turn RSS into a fluid experience that travels from the Internet and onto your desktop are the operating system folks, namely Apple & Microsoft. From alerts, to pings, to rolling headlines in a sidebar and whatnot, they are in the best position to create a more seamless, clicking/dragging experience for RSS.

I’ll be posting again about some of the other challenges for RSS (Steps 2 and 3 anyone?), but for now, I think Step 1 is a doosie. Until we make life a bit easier for the rest of the world, RSS will remain a tech toy and not much more.


1 Comment Step 1 Of RSS Is Broken

  1. matt

    I agree that RSS marketing and usability is broken. The mess has parallels to the early challenges of connecting to an ISP back in the ’90’s – there are a lot of choices (how to link up? what reader? what’s available once I’m in?) and not a lot of push-button answers, and the proposed buttons (literally, as you discuss, the XML button) are cryptic glyphs indeed.
    Secondly, RSS is fundamentally a pass-through medium now – the majority of publishers use it to push richer content. I think once RSS syndication matures as content in it’s own right there will be much more plain sense solutions for your average user to take advantage of it. To question usuability of RSS output now is in some ways like questioning the purpose wiring electricity to your home before you hear about light bulbs.


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