Chris Peters's Blog

Death of RSS (not really)

December 2, 2011

RSS icon

There has been a wave of Internet folks bemoaning the death of RSS. They’re getting it wrong. RSS is not dying exactly, and its fate is expected and appropriate.

For those of you who need a refresher on what RSS is, see my post on RSS demystified.

Why RSS sucks

There are some big reasons why RSS sucks. Most of it actually has to do with RSS readers.

On the surface, RSS seems really kind of awesome. “I can get updates from all of my favorite sites all in one spot.” Many people in fact do want to browse less so they can get on with their lives.

But many of us do not know our limits and find ourselves hoarding information through RSS readers like Google Reader. There is no cost or immediate consequences involved with subscribing to RSS feeds for everything that the Web has to offer. But then we find ourselves with an RSS reader list so long that it’s paralyzing to try and keep up.

Lastly, an RSS reader is yet another inbox. Lately, I’ve found it to be stressful to have so many inboxes to check up on: email, Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, Netflix queue, podcasts, DVR queue, voicemail, text messages, OmniFocus, and the physical inbox on my desk. Enough is enough.

Seriously, all of these queues have turned my life’s purpose into unbolding all of the new shit.

Problem: RSS has been about the technology, not the user

RSS to this point has been about the technology, not necessarily about the users of the technology. If you have trouble understanding that statement, look at what RSS widgets used to look like:

So confusing. Sure, most sites didn’t show that many widgets, but many of the icons on their own are confusing unless you understand what RSS or XML are.

What does RSS mean? What about XML? What does it have to do with coffee cups and pills? Really, the only good buttons have said “Subscribe,” but I can imagine how confusing it would be to click that button and get a bunch of XML back. What do I do with that?

Good uses for RSS

Here are some valid uses for RSS. Notice that none of them really involve adding a little RSS icon to your interface. All of these uses are really about masking the technology behind the features. RSS enables the feature but isn’t the feature itself.

1. “Subscribe by email” option

RSS at one time was a hopeful attempt at replacing email (or at least minimizing it). Google Wave was also an attempt to replace email. But people love their email! It’s not going away anytime soon.

Services like FeedBurner allow you to send daily emails to subscribers with a digest of the latest items from your feed. You create a post on your blog, and people receive notification about it via email within a day.

The user doesn’t know or care that RSS is powering this mechanism. They just know that they’re receiving updates from your site.

2. Automatically tweet links to your new articles or blog posts on Twitter

Services like Twitterfeed and FeedBurner (again) can watch your site’s RSS feed and tweet links to your new articles automatically. People following you on Twitter see your tweets, not an RSS feed.

Again, the user doesn’t know or care that RSS is powering this. They use Twitter, not Google Reader.

3. Podcasts

iTunes podcasts icon

When you subscribe to a podcast in iTunes, you’re technically subscribing to RSS. There’s a chance that you may not have even known that, dear reader.

Again, people call that a podcast, not RSS. Heck, podcasts even have their own icon that I bet more people recognize than RSS’s.

4. News and link streams on your site

With some programming, you can mash up any number of RSS feeds and display the latest headlines on your site. Use an interface like Yahoo! Pipes, publish that feed, and use it to power a news stream on your site.

Again, visitors will see the news stream, but they won’t know or care that it’s powered by RSS.

Again, notice a theme here?

All of my suggestions above are about using RSS for what it is: a technology. RSS as a technology is only a means to an end. It is not a feature.

The users of the Web have spoken. Highlighting this particular technology just isn’t effective with your normal everyday person. So stop it.

Written by Chris Peters, your friendly neighborhood digital marketing professional with over 20 years of experience of web design, programming, SEO, and marketing.