The social revolution in news – can RSS keep up to speed?


23 Sep 2010

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News consumption is no longer dictated from a handful of sources for the public to assimilate. News is now redistributed and reinterpreted online among people.

It’s clear to see why Facebook and Twitter are doing well in this area. However, before this, RSS feed-reading technology was heralded as the next big thing. Right now, it is struggling.

The once-popular RSS reader Bloglines is shutting down, blaming social media for its demise. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a standardised webfeed technology that is used to publish content to frequently updated websites. It can also be used to let people subscribe to their favourite websites, which is aggregated through RSS readers such as Google Reader.

So, if a person wants to keep up to date with a blog or a news website, rather than constantly visiting the site to check if it has updated, they can subscribe to their RSS feed through their reader, which brings the update to them.

Background on RSS

RSS technology is used on most websites today. It took off hugely in 2005, with news publishing websites such as The New York Times being early adopters. Many other companies followed, from IT firms to PR agencies. However, the popularity of RSS readers has dwindled. In recent years, readers such as News Gator, Rojo and News Alloy have shut down. Now, Bloglines is following suit.

"Being locked in an RSS reader makes less and less sense to people as Twitter and Facebook dominate real-time information flow," said a representative from Ask.com, which owns Bloglines. "Today, RSS is the enabling technology – the infrastructure, the delivery system. RSS is a means to an end, not a consumer experience in and of itself. As a result, RSS aggregator usage has slowed significantly, and Bloglines isn’t the only service to feel the impact. The writing is on the wall," said the Ask.com representative.

This followed an announcement by the vice-president of Twitter, Kevin Thau, at Nokia World 2010 that Twitter is not a social networking site, but a site for news and content.

"The guy who saw a plane land on the Hudson River right in front of him didn’t think to send an email," said Thau. "He tweeted it."

The future of RSS

The collapse of Bloglines has ignited discussions about whether RSS readers have a future in the online news world. It is important to note that RSS technology isn’t going anywhere, as it still makes up the backbone of web development today. However, are consumers willing to use RSS readers to sift through huge amounts of information when Facebook and Twitter provide a more accessible and more social news experience?

Regardless of its decline, there still seems to be a lot of love for RSS readers among heavier internet users. Many use them to browse through news, find links to interesting stories and then pass them on to friends via social networks. But many casual internet users don’t want to scroll through reams and reams of news stories. As such, RSS readers in their current forms are not a rewarding experience. By locking the user away in an isolated corner of the internet and keeping count of what they still have read, its current design is more a chore than a pleasure. And if RSS readers want to regain some of the mass market, they need to make reading news on their services an enjoyable experience.

More integration with social networking is essential to this. Much of the pleasure of finding an interesting story is sending it on to friends and family who will appreciate, it too. Google has added features such as the ability to follow people and share items with followers. Yet this appears to have been rather underused so far. The problem could be that it is appealing to users within the Google Reader base. Perhaps a reader that integrates itself to Facebook and Twitter services may be more effective.

RSS readers’ appearance can also be rather bland, which doesn’t invite new users to look into them. Pulse is a critically acclaimed news reader that was released for mobile devices and combines reading articles with a visually appealing, innovative interface. It became the best-selling app on iTunes, proving that if an interface is well designed, people will want it.

That said, it’s doubtful that RSS readers will reclaim their former glory. People have simply defected to newer and better services. With some work, however, RSS readers can find a solid market for themselves, even if they no longer have the potential to be a mainstream source of news consumption.