I Don’t Want No Stinkin’ RSS (or Why Normal People Don’t Understand Feeds)

Filed as News on June 22, 2006 8:22 am

We’re not normal. I mean, come on, let’s face it. Most people still don’t understand RSS,feeds and the concept of web syndication. Some people think RSS is the email killer. Others don’t. Chances are, if you read this blog, you’ve got a feed-reader chock full of subscriptions. If you’re like me, you even subscribe to searches on your own name.

But there’s still a real barrier for normal everyday people to fully grok RSS and its benefits. Devin Reams mourns this barrier:

So why don’€™t we have a .rss file extension? Oh wait, we do, it’€™s called .xml. When I visit nytimes.com/’€¦/Busines.xml I have a pretty good idea of what I’€™m about to open. In theory this file extension will open an XML file allow me and my browser/reader/whatever to open the feed the way I want. So why the hell doesn’€™t it work that way? I open a .html file in Firefox/IE and a website loads. I open a .doc file in Firefox/IE and a document loads. But when I open my .xml file I’€™m suddenly greeted with the most unfriendly looking collection of symbols, tags and words I’€™ve ever met. This is exactly why RSS hasn’€™t taken off yet. It lacks the consistency.

And you know what? He’s right.

RSS is not mainstream because it’s XML and XML by its nature is unforgiving. If anyone expects to invent a protocol/standard and want widespread uptake, the barrier to adoption must be low. Like it or not, the internet exploded because it was easy to generate webpages with FrontPage 98, and places like Geocities gave grandmas the ability to publish with no thought. Fast forward to today and WordPress is so huge because it is simply easy and a no-shit experience for someone with even basic understanding of web publishing.

It doesn’t surprise me that RSS remains in the hands of the tech-savvy – it is not easy to understand and despite plenty of RSS readers, most of which are free, the RSS community has not done a good job of getting the technology into the hands of Great Aunt Mae.

And until they do, RSS readers won’t be in widespread use. And until a more forgiving technology besides XML supports syndication, there still won’t be widespread adoption. If early adopters want a technology to take over the mainstream, they must provide a natural and easy route for the average user to go from no understanding to widespread use.

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  1. By Darren McLaughlin posted on June 22, 2006 at 8:29 am
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    Aaron,

    RSS is pretty easy to understand. Even the dumb people should have no problem picking the usage up. They need to just be exposed to more hype.

    All the big companies are promoting their RSS now, so I feel it’s a matter of time until the masses adopt it. It IS far superior to email, IMHO.

  2. By Aaron posted on June 22, 2006 at 8:36 am
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    I agree that it is easy, but the adoption is what I’m referring to. Yes, more companies are adopting it and I agree that this will help propel it. IE7 should help that too as most people still use IE and once Windows Update pushes it to everyone then more people will have “on the desktop, so to speak” RSS reading capability.

    However, when an average reader clicks an RSS link (because users still see links as things to be clicked) they see mumbo jumbo. It means nothing to them. And translating that mumbo jumbo into “Go get a free bloglines account” is a tough thing to get an average user to grasp. In my opinion, of course.

    Awhile ago, I had a plugin installed at Technosailor that was preventing users using IE behind corporate proxies from viewing my site. I had a dozen emails on this and before I could figure out what was the issue, I was telling people to subscribe to my feed or go get a bloglines account. More than one reader balked not knowing what the heck was involved.

    So my point is that, while RSS is fairly straight forward for us it’s not necessarily a bonehead decision for the average mom or pop.

  3. By Devin posted on June 22, 2006 at 9:11 am
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    Haha, someone said I’m right… I’m documenting this!

    But seriously, I think we’re in violent agreement. When we say we have a file extension for RSS that’s only half true. When I think of a true ‘extension’ I think of something that’s linked to a program. As mentioned in my comments, XML is too abstract for the average user to use. Just have a .rss load in my Firefox/IE bookmarks or open up FeedDemon and I’m set.. I’ll be subscribing left and right!

    Thanks for the write-up, Aaron.

  4. By Michael Clark posted on June 22, 2006 at 11:03 am
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    I thought RSS feeds would open up in your feedreader. Or is that only another subtle advantage of Safari and NetNewsWire? Wow, you’re right. IE 6 on Windows XP shows an XML page. Wow, and Firefox under XP handles the RSS differently if the RSS link is a regular link in a page, or is referred to in the page header (it created a live bookmark).

  5. By Grokodile posted on June 22, 2006 at 12:18 pm
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    Heck, I think we need to realize half the population is still afraid of computers. Why don’t we work on getting them comfortable using the Internet, able to run their computers for more than half a day without catching a virus, and for the love of God let’s get them to stop forwarding chain mails and chaim IM’s.

    Thump!

    That was my forehead hitting the table in defeat. I know it will never happen. Hey, look at it like this…

    As a programmer, I used to tell people that only some percentage of the population could ever be a programmer. Some percentage of that could be a C programmer. Some percentage of that could be an object oriented programmer. This isn’t exactly true, especially with the dearth of tools which make any idiot a programmer since they can cut and paste things they have no hope of understanding into a somewhat working system, but you get my point, right?

    Hello? Does anyone care? Click…. bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  6. By Gomer posted on June 22, 2006 at 1:47 pm
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    Yes, I have often thought about this same thing, when will rss adoption become mainstream.

    I see a few things causing this. First, the message has not gotten out properly. Right now, people have a hard time understanding the difference between a forum, a chat room, a blog, and rss. I have spoken to people who have read blog but don’t know what rss is, or that they can keep updated with the blog using rss and a reader. There is much confusion out there and the message has not gotten out clearly.

    If I were the big-boys like Yahoo, I would design a simple commercial, about 1 minute long showing what rss is and how they can use it in My Yahoo. There would be about 10 million light bulbs going off in people’s heads and they would think Yahoo is just wonderful (and that they invented this).

    I have told friends and family about rss and readers and while they think it is very cool, none of them use rss on a daily basis. For some reason, they just prefer surfing around and looking at stuff. I can’t figure out why.

    In a way, I think rss needs to be made easy for the masses and I don’t think that has happened yet.

  7. RSS - are the masses ready for it?June 23, 2006 at 9:44 am
  8. By Brian Clark posted on June 24, 2006 at 8:03 am
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    Hmmm… that headline structure looks awfully familiar for this topic. :)

  9. By Aaron posted on June 24, 2006 at 8:27 am
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    Heh, Brian. Are you talking about this entry of yours? Actually, every entry I’ve written on BH have had similar headline structures. :) I did notice that yours looked similar to mine the other day though. :)

  10. By Vincent posted on June 24, 2006 at 2:03 pm
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    I agree with Gomer!

  11. Getting Wider Adoption For RSS » EninventJanuary 25, 2009 at 12:51 am