What we need is a great metaphor for RSS

Over on my Ask Dave Taylor Q&A blog, I received a most interesting question that I believe is a good example of just what’s wrong with the state of RSS and, perhaps, is one of the great challenges facing the blogosphere too:
“I know this is a really stupid question, but how do I go about subscribing to your blog? Does subscribing to your blog mean that I would be subscribing to an RSS feed? If so, how do I get hold of an RSS feeder? I have Internet Explorer 6. Can I handle an RSS feed with IE6? Or does subscribing to your blog mean that I would receive an email from you every time there is a new entry to your blog?”
There’s a lot about this question that I find interesting, not the least of which is that it reflects the never-ending exclusionary aura of the tech savvy and “tech stupid”. But even in the more mundane world of the Web as it exists today there’s a lot here to chew on.

Those of us mired in the blogging space often forget how confusing and difficult most of the technology – and jargon – really can be for people who are coming into it without experience.
This is hardly a stupid question at all, actually, but a reflection of the fact that we, as bloggers, really need to do a better job of explaining what all of the buzzwords and confusing acronyms are to the general computer using community. And no, I’m not talking about some superficial renaming of RSS to webfeed; that won’t solve the problem either.
What I believe we really need is a strong, coherent, relevant and understandable metaphor for the entire concept of RSS feeds, syndication, subscriptions, and so on.
I’ve been trying to figure one out myself for a couple of years, truth be told, and the best I can come up with is the old AP “news wire” where there’d be a scrolling paper feed and reporters would literally “rip the story off the wire”. I can force the round peg into the proverbial square hole, but it’s not a great metaphor, I admit.
Part of the problem is that I don’t think that we, as a community, agree about what that means when we talk about “subscribing” to a site anyway. To me, the real value of RSS is the “subscribability” it offers readers, by the way, not its value to us publishers.
Remember also, RSS != blog, so any metaphor we’d come up with would need to encompass how the NY Times offers RSS feeds of its movie reviews, for example, even though it’s not a blog.
After all, conceptually, RSS is actually just a specially formatted version of a Web page that makes it easy for computer programs to “parse” and analyze. Just as we don’t “print to PCL5” even though that might well be the underlying language of the printer and just as we don’t buy “hot water poured over recently ground Arabica beans” but rather a cup of coffee, why are we still talking about RSS at all?
So, dear reader, where do we go from here? People are most familiar with magazines in this sense: what of the magazine subscription model is relevant to the Web and RSS? Business-folk are also familiar with newspaper “clipping services” but that doesn’t really describe the RSS subscription space either.
I can see the need. I just can’t quite capture that great metaphor that lets us truly communicate the essence, concept and value of RSS. Can you?

9 comments on “What we need is a great metaphor for RSS

  1. Dave…I wrote something along these lines last month. It probably is not the exact metaphor you are looking for but I did try to get to the heart of RSS fundamentals via a real world example. I put RSS juxtapose to nationally syndicated columnists. It is relatively extensive so just click on my name to read the details.

  2. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the following quote when describing RSS to Prodcuct Managers, VP’s, CFO’s and the like. I’m not sure if I lifted this out of something I got at the Blog Business Summit, or found it on Google, but it very quickly gets me past “What is RSS?” and on to “How soon can we implement this?”
    From Bill Flitter, CMO of Pheedo.com – �RSS is Santa Claus content, delivered to you by the postal carrier, via your own personal remote control ordering system.�
    I know – kinda fluffy, but people get it. If I got it from you, then uh… thanks Dave! 🙂

  3. Hi, Dave.
    Great minds think alike! Explaining feeds was the core of a talk I gave yesterday to the CO chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I posted the audio of that talk as a podcast (http://blog.contentious.com/archives/2005/10/19/pr-and-tech-my-talk-audio) and I also posted my handout as a downloadable pdf (http://blog.contentious.com/archives/2005/10/18/technology-and-communication-what-pr-pros-need-to-know).
    You wrote: “…And no, I’m not talking about some superficial renaming of RSS to webfeed; that won’t solve the problem either.”
    Being the person who held the contest to come up with a nongeeky nickname (not a renaming, just a nicknaming, mind you) of “RSS,” the winner of which was “webfeed,” may I officially say: Ouch!
    Nah, no biggie — a nickname is a superficial matter, after all. However, in general acronyms are offputting to non-geeks, notwithstanding a few very rare exceptions like “TV.” (Honestly I don’t think “RSS” makes that cut and it never will.) So geeky acronyms are indeed a real barrier to acceptance of a new technology. (Let alone that “RSS” is only one type of feed format. There is also the Atom standard, and there probably will be others in the future.)
    Terminology does indeed matter. So does metaphor.
    For a while now I’ve just been saying “feed” because that’s exceptionally descriptive of what this technology DOES: It feeds people a steady diet of fresh content.
    Personally I like your “news wire” metaphor, but I doubt it makes quite as much sense to people who, unlike you and me, haven’t worked in the news business.
    Yeah, we all have seen movies from the 1930s – 1970s where reporters rip paper stories off machines and scamper away to their typewriters, so that gives considerable cultural support to that metaphor… for now.
    But how much would the news wire metaphor mean to someone in their 20s today (who might have been born in, say, 1981)? How much will it mean to someone who’s 12 years old today? We might as well be referring to a butter churn or quill pen.
    Personally, I think the most effective metaphors are visceral in that they relate to fundamentally human roles and functions or to common real-world objects or processes. Such metaphors make the best and longest-lasting idiomatic expressions, like “sitting on” an idea, or giving someone “the runaround.”
    “News wire” is a cultural/technological artifact of a particular media. Although it’s vivid, I don’t think it meets the “universally human and visceral” criteria.
    Personally, I would like to see a metaphor for “RSS” based on the concept of “feeding” — that is, delivering a steady supply of content, just like you feed a baby spoonfuls of pureed squash. It implies the benefit of precise, timely delivery and effortless consumption. (Bib not included.)
    So I’ll think more about this. Thanks for getting my gears going. Maybe we should get an animator in on this, whadya think?
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, Contentious

  4. An Average Joe like me understands subscribing to content (e.g. magazines.) I don’t need a metaphor for that. I need the tools. An Average Joe like me says “What’s a RSS aligator? If I need one then I want the best one, but if it’s not on my Windows then I ain’t gonna go hunt it.”
    Unless you mean a “pre-digtal” metaphor– now that’s tough. Imagine subscribing not to magazines but to topics? Any topic printed in any magazine or newspaper all combined into your personal paper? I don’t think anything existed like that before…

  5. these may suck, but…
    content without borders
    email without spam
    Tivo for websites
    I think it is easier to describe by just saying the differences between it and other similar well known things.

  6. Exactly as John Kyle just mentionned I also use this type of definition for describing a RSS aggregator as “your personal automatic newspaper edidor”.

  7. You’ve probably picked up this metaphor by now as well as it’s been circling the tech blogs.
    RSS is like the News Feed in Facebook.
    People seem to love that.

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