What’s next for RSS?

Wednesday September 13th, 2006 in , , , , ,

There’s no doubt that RSS has had a significant impact on how people access and discover information on the web. But to most people the experience has been bittersweet. Sweet because we no longer have to visit sites that haven’t been updated with new content since our last visit. It helps us save time, and for a while it seemed a small yet noticeable step in the right direction for fighting the information overload most of us face every day.

As time passed, more and more websites proclaimed “we have a feed, add it!”, and so we did, thinking that this feed might be the one we couldn’t live without. There was something alluring about the promise of always staying informed and ahead of the game - we couldn’t help it and just had to click the shiny RSS button. Soon, the list of feeds had outgrown the height of the screen, spanning numerous categories. The once so comforting “3 unread items” had been replaced by numbers in the three digit range. RSS suddenly made it all too clear that we will never be able to read and comprehend all the content out there.

It would seem that RSS and a feed reader displaying a list of unread items alone was not enough. Why? Although RSS effectively delivers content to us, it doesn’t help us with:

  • Figuring out which feeds we should be subscribing to and their relevance. Doing so, for example during a Google search that spans multiple websites and blogs is not easy. At the time we see the “subscribe to this feed” link, we have no way of knowing whether something interesting will turn up on that feed.
  • Prioritizing the unread items that appear in the feeds we subscribe to.
  • Discovering feeds on websites and blogs we haven’t visited yet.
  • Presenting the content in a way that is meaningful to us. Feeds are typically one size fits all, and often don’t present rich content such as video, images and podcasts in a way that makes them easily accessible.

Looking at this list it’s clear that a good feed reader has to do a lot more than just download and display the new content once it become available. It’s all about timely and relevant information presented in a way that’s easily absorbed by the user.

Let’s look at how attention and attention data could be used to achieve this goal. The basic idea is to leverage what the user is paying attention to right now, as well as in the past in order to present the user with relevant information. In addition, factors such as popularity within the entire body of subscribers can provide insights into the quality of the specific items in a feed. Relevance to a specific user however is not always directly linked to its popularity. Not surprisingly, Albert Einstein offers a relevant thought on the subject:

“I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” - Albert Einstein

What I’m getting at is that popularity as a mechanism for recommendations and determining relevance is all about who you ask. In other words, whether a specific feed or news item is popular overall isn’t nearly as useful as knowing what thought leaders, your network and other like-minded people think about it.

Attention data takes us one step closer to achieving this kind of “personalized popularity” by allowing us to share what we pay attention to with other people. What we need now is a service that makes all this possible while at the same time respecting the privacy of the individual users. It could happen sooner than you might think…


2 Responses to “What’s next for RSS?”

  1. Brent Doncaster Says:

    Bang on - you’ve captured the need exactly!

  2. Web X.0 Says:

    RSS relevancy project - updates…

    Excellent post by Jim Meyer on the attention crisis, as it relates to RSS readers. From this post:There’s no doubt that RSS has had a significant impact on how people access and discover information on the web. But to most…

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