RSS has an identity problem

Here’s something you already know. RSS reader usage never hit mainstream acceptance despite its acceptance in the tech community. If you’re reading this article chances are you are not within the group of people that doesn’t know or has never heard of RSS. For entertainment, I conducted a quick poll of 8 coworkers who are what I consider high technology users. They work with digital and print art design and all use mobile devices regularly during their personal time. I asked this simple question “do you use an RSS reader?” Most of the responses I received were in the neighborhood of “no, and I’m not really sure what that is.” One coworker who had used RSS before said that he didn’t find value in looking at article headings and preferred to visit each site on his reading list to look for fresh content. Really?

It occurred to me that RSS has an identity problem
Most people don’t get it. Despite it’s ability to simplify and reduce the amount of time to read internet content, people haven’t made a connection with the tools or applications for RSS. The main problem is that descriptions of RSS applications are usually in techno-speak such that the mainstream won’t bother reading it. Look at the definition from Wikipedia.

An RSS document (which is called a “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”) includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship. Web feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. They benefit readers who want to subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place.

The name itself, Really Simple Syndication, is not a name to catch the attention or provide incentive for someone to understand what it is. Mix that in with a definition that includes terms like metadata, web feeds, and XML and you’ve lost most people. So despite the fact that there are an abundance of applications available, including within most popular email programs, RSS reader usage has not cracked mainstream use.

There are competing options in the market today aggregated content
Mathew Ingram provides a good analysis on RSS use with competing products on GIGOM. I agree with his thought that Twitter and Facebook organize data differently than a RSS and thus serve a different purpose. The mainstream has adopted the model of Facebook information flow because the way information is transformed and presented is hidden from the user. The user only recognizes they are communicating with friends which is the value-add for them. Tools like Twitter will take away from RSS reader usage, but reality is, it’s just splitting usage from the same people who already highly used RSS readers.

Why do I care that people don’t use RSS?
There are a couple of reasons. First, I like to help and share with people ways to make their life routines more efficient and productive. I truly believe if they knew and understood how a RSS application could collect, group, and summarize data that they would use the tool to change how they process information. Second, it’s a good marketing case study in branding and customer adoption. RSS is a good tool that serves a need. It just needs to be branded by the value that it provides, not how it works.

I asked the wrong question
So with all this thinking I’ve come to the realization that the question I originally asked was flawed. Rather than “Do you use an RSS reader?”, I should have asked something like “How do you read news or other recurring information from internet sources?” It’s likely the answers may already include products and applications that use RSS at their core (whether browser or mobile app). That’s where the identity of RSS is. It’s the plumbing that helps transport messages to various programs. The mainstream doesn’t care about XML and syndication. They care about the information they are reading.