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Summary:

The shutting down of Bloglines and the decline of traffic to Google Reader has led some to predict (again) that RSS readers are dead, killed in part by the real-time nature of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. But the truth is somewhat more complicated.

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Updated: This past weekend saw the birth (or rebirth) of a “meme” about how RSS readers are dead, killed by Twitter and Facebook. At first I nodded my head in agreement, because I’ve gradually stopped using my RSS reader as much since I became an active Twitter user, and I know many friends who fall into the same camp. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the two serve different functions for me, and while they overlap to some extent, I am still using both and will probably continue to do so. In that sense, RSS isn’t dead, but merely evolving — much like the web itself isn’t dead but just evolving.

How it started

The “RSS is dead” battle cry got its start with news last week that the owner of Bloglines — IAC InterActive Corp. is shutting the service down. Bloglines was one of the first popular standalone RSS readers, before Microsoft and Mozilla built RSS support into their browsers (which I’m not sure anyone uses any more either, come to think of it). But is the death of Bloglines really proof that RSS itself is dead, or that RSS readers are in decline? As more than one person has noted, IAC more or less ignored Bloglines after buying it, and it probably deserved to be put out of its misery.

Adding fuel to the debate is the fact that Google Reader visits are also down by about 27 percent year over year, according to recent data from Hitwise. It’s important to note, however, that these numbers represent just visits to the Reader website rather than access through various mobile apps such as Reeder, or through services such as Feedly, which I expect growing numbers of people use. External apps and services such as these are arguably a necessity for Google Reader, because the website itself isn’t what you would call user-friendly, despite a number of enhancements over the years. (Update: Google has published a post showing continued growth in the number of users of Reader).

It’s also worth noting that RSS readers and RSS itself are two very different things. Even if the readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader are being used less, the content-syndication protocol itself continues to be a key part of the plumbing of real-time publishing (along with newer standards such as PubSubHubbub), and is connected to Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms in a variety of ways. So many people are still getting news via RSS whether they realize it or not. And on top of all that, RSS readers — like many other tools that appeal primarily to geeks — arguably never had a hope of going fully mainstream in the first place.

Rebooting RSS

Dave Winer — the guy who actually invented RSS — has a thoughtful post about how RSS can be rebooted, and why RSS readers may not have taken off with a mainstream as some hoped they would. The big reason, he says, is that readers such as Google Reader aren’t real-time enough, in that they don’t give people the newest news in an easy-to-consume fashion. Twitter is more popular, says Winer, because it is real-time, and so in order to compete, RSS readers need to adopt something more like what he calls the “river of news” approach, which he has built into a number of experiments such as the New York Times river.

Although I respect Dave’s opinion, I actually think there is a place for both approaches. I may use my RSS reader less, but I still use it, and I think I will likely continue to do so (although Stowe Boyd may be right that they need to be rethought. While Twitter may be more real-time — and built for consuming news in a way that relies on the principle that “if the news is important, it will find me” — there is still a place for moving outside of Twitter to look for alternative sources. In fact, many of the tweets with links that I wind up reading and saving come from either RSS itself (from people’s blogs published to Twitter) or via someone’s RSS reader.

Stock and flow

If those people weren’t using their readers and posting the links they came across, we might have a lot less interesting content to pass around on Twitter. In that sense, the network is really a redistribution system, rather than a content-creation system — it needs input from a variety of sources, and RSS readers are one of them. The debate over real-time vs. non-real time reminds me of a blog post that Robin Sloan (who now works at Twitter, somewhat ironically) wrote about the concept of “stock and flow”. Sometimes we want to let the river of information flow over us, and other times we need to stand outside it and make sense of it, before we plunge in again. Both are valuable, and necessary.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): How Twitter is Re-engineering to Address Always-on Usage

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Steve Gatto and Steve Chatfield

  1. I agree that RSS needs a reboot. Still, XML is a powerful way of content delivery! Now that we have push protocols we just need decent readers.

    And here is the good example of a next-gen reader with a best-of-class UI, for both geeks and mainstream. Good Noows – Your personal news stream http://goodnoows.com

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  2. Totally agree, I was a bit surprised, I think Mashable wrote the story about RSS dying.

    Editorial/opinion: I recently unfollowed Mashable on Twitter because it’s easier to filter out their useless content via RSS and am now considering unsubscribe to their RSS because it’s 90% junk. I visited their site the other day for the first time in a while, it looks more and more like AOL from the ’90s every time I see it.

    I use twitter and RSS for different things. RSS is news and blogs while twitter is still a communications tool for me (old fashioned I know).

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  3. By definition RSS feeds and other XML based content publication is meant for machine reading. Indeed it is the basis of Semantic web which aims to add extra knowledge to any piece of information that is available online. RSS feeds in their singularity might not be popular among people but they are essential tenets in publishing and automatically analyzing content on the web. Inasmuch as traffic from people to individual feeds is dropping, I believe that those consuming the feeds (typically machines) consume large quantities of the feeds. For example My Nucleus ( http://www.mynucleus.org ) takes advantage of RSS feeds and other API based publication mechanisms to collect content and mash it up with social media input to recommend popular stories to people while eliminating crap and bias. There are a variety of implementations for services like My Nucleus that consume feeds and that should be evidence to the fact that RSS feeds are more popular to machines than humans and therefore feeds in their self right are still popular if not more popular than in the past.

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  4. [...] Great post from GigaOm that came in after mine and makes the same points, and a few new ones.  Recommended [...]

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  5. i was a big RSS user early on, but than it seemed full stories started getting replaced with links to the stories. this started to turn me off in a big way and i found it just as easy to bookmark the sites and visit directly instead going to the reader only to have to click the link and be back sent to the regular page anyway.

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  6. I use RSS daily (1,000 or so headlines/day). I run Boulder and Denver Open Coffee and use it to curate the topics for those events. I also use it for topics for my three podcasts. Thing is, the concept of RSS is harder than it should be to explain to a novice. I could use improvement, but the fact of the matter is that the infrastructure is there… it just needs innovation on top.

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  7. Hamranhansenhansen Monday, September 13, 2010

    It is the idea that regular consumer users are going to use RSS directly that is dead. It was always the nerdiest 10% who used RSS. Those 10% are going to continue to build it into apps like Flipbook and that is how regular users will “use RSS”. But they won’t know they are using it any more than they know they are using TCP/IP.

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  8. The key is to look at RSS as a technology. The technology is alive and kicking. Just that ppl use it in different ways. News aggregators like ours, at http://fo.unta.in are examples of this.

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  9. It’s easier to search Twitter for particular words for late-breaking unfiltered news, and easier to use Google Reader to follow blogs and Twitter feeds. It’s harder to filter out non-relevant items with Twitter, and Google Reader is alot easier to organize and share items, using email, and redistribute through feeds

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  10. One of my jobs requires me to look at about 20 web news sites each day and monitor the new stories that have appeared over the last 24 hours. I can do this the hard way, visiting each site in turn and ploughing through folder after folder looking for new stuff or I can look at 20-odd RSS feeds to see what’s new. Twitter and Facebook simply don’t have similar functionality.

    Likewise with the 40-odd sites I follow as part of my other work, sure Twitter and Facebook post items from these sites, but I want a comprehensive view and to date ONLY RSS provides that.

    My big problem is keeping the two distinct lists separate. I had one in Google Reader and the other in Bloglines – any ideas what to use instead of Bloglines now it is dead?

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