I’m somewhat of a skeptical early technology adopter, I think. I’m always interested in seeing what’s new, but it has to pass either my “what’s in it for my business” or “what’s in it for my customers” filter before I’m interested in adopting it. So I realize that I’m not exactly the poster blogger for the “Web 2.0” phenomenon. Heck, I’m in the Microsoft Windows Vista beta group and still haven’t installed the OS on any of my computers!
More and more, though, I’m recognizing how dissatisfied I am becoming with RSS and, in particular, with RSS readers. The promise of being able to assemble my own personal newspaper just isn’t being realized and I fear that the entire world of RSS is starting to slowly sink beneath the waves of geekdom and bad interface design.
The tip of the proverbial iceberg is duplication of content, but as someone who has stood on stage and argued about the irrelevance of the “partial versus full feed RSS” debate with people like Robert Scoble, I have to say that I’m starting to see a much more insidious problem…
The real crisis brewing in the RSS world is that RSS tools aren’t letting the reader gain full control over their reading experienceand it’s crippling the potential of the “RSS-based Web”.
One example is with partial versus full feeds: Apple solved that by letting you specify just how much of each feed you’d like to see in your reader (in this case, it’s Apple’s Safari browser with built-in RSS capabilities). This frees up information providers to decide how much they want to make available in their feed, but – and this is critically important – individual readers have control over how much they view rather than being at the mercy of this full feed versus that partial feed.
Where is this capability in other RSS readers, though?
The lack of adoption of this elegant solution highlights a limitation of RSS readers more than anything else, and the fact that we still have the debate (and high-visibility bloggers are still complaining about partial feeds!) shows exactly what I’m concerned about in terms of innovation and adoption of solutions: if feed detail controls were a common user-adjusted configuration option, then there’d be no debate.
But I know, I know, partial versus full is old news, so let’s talk about something that I haven’t seen discussed before: the duplication of content in RSS feeds.
Duplication of RSS Content
Now I’m not talking about how a wire story from Associated Press appears on a dozen newspaper RSS feeds in the following 24 hours. I’m talking about how the same entry in the same RSS feed appears time and time again in my RSS reader, without any obvious rhyme or reason.
The Washington Post, Business Week’s Blogspotting, SixApart’s blog, WIRED, none of them are immune from me catching ups, then coming back and seeing the same darn story appear again in my reader even though nothing’s changed.
It’s like buying the Wall Street Journal and seeing the same story appear three days running. Where’s the new material? More importantly, where’s the promise of “only what’s new since last time you read your feeds” that’s the basic premise of RSS readers in the first place?
Is this a problem with RSS itself? I don’t think so.
The problem is with the RSS readers that can’t differentiate between an updated feed entry of an article you’ve already seen, an article that has had a typo fixed or other minor – oft trivial – correction, and a completely new article. In the first case, I do not want to see the article again. In the second case, well, I probably don’t care about corrections unless they’re major, and in the last case, well, obviously, that’s the whole reason I’m using an RSS reader in the first place.
The Path to a Solution
In keeping with my theme about user control, though, I don’t want to have a programmer solve this for me, I want a user-adjustable setting where I can tweak how sensitive my RSS reader is to changes in previously seen entries. Imagine a slider where one side says “show me everything, even if it’s just a freshened feed of ancient articles” and the other side says “minimum new content required: 100%”.
Or, better, a series of different criteria and a smart back-end content analysis system that would let me indicate “don’t show me syndicated wire content more than once” and “don’t waste my time with spam blogs: if I’ve already seen the content and they don’t add any commentary, ignore it.”
You might not like this idea, but that’s why we need to have this as a user-adjustable setting. Don’t impose your information filtering needs on me and I’ll do my best not to impose mine on you either.
What Happened to Innovation, Anyway?
There’s more amiss in the world of RSS readers than just duplicate content and feed length, though: there seems to also be less and less innovation and choice as companies like NewsGator keep gobbling up little guys to normalize them all with a shared backend. Great concept, but where’s the innovation in the marketplace?
I’m actually a big fan of NewsGator but recently switched from using Newsgator Online to competitor Bloglines as my Web-based reader because I just couldn’t deal with the incessant duplication of content (often 10% or more of the entries I was shown I’d seen in an earlier viewing) and the frequent server errors.
Let me say that Bloglines has lots of problems too, not the least of which is that it’s astonishingly easy to click on a link in an article just to have your entire session vanish: you go to the new content, read it, back up, and all the other pending articles have been marked as read. I get bitten by this at least every two or three days.
It’s not rocket science to create an “RSS reader toolkit” where we could adjust all of these different settings, but somehow I have yet to find an online reader that lets me truly gain control over my RSS experience, and that’s worrying.
With all the hype about Web 2.0 companies and all the mashups and such, are we yet again as an industry forgetting to just pay attention to the basics of usability and functionality?
I just can’t believe I’m the only person who sees these problems.
Or am I? What would you do to improve the state of RSS readers and the general experience of reading RSS-based content?
It’s not about the technology, not about XML versus Atom. But even a simple interface idea of letting me specify how many columns of content I’d like in my ‘virtual newspaper’ is something I have yet to see, let alone allowing me to tweak the semantics of the reader so that I can display or not display corrections if feeds are republished, filter out any content more than X days old so adding new feeds is less painful, have highly sophisticated search results tightly integrated into the reader, and of course, have some sort of anti-duplicate-content settings too.
Am I shooting for the sky, or is this something that we should be able to attain today?