There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled this week about Google’s decision to “sunset” its Google Reader RSS service, including a post from my paidContent colleague Laura Owen about how much she relies on her feeds — a sentiment I know Om shares. Unlike a lot of my fellow news junkies, however, I’m not really that concerned about Google’s decision, mostly because I stopped using my RSS feeds several years ago and haven’t looked back. For me, socially-powered news from Twitter and other services like Prismatic has not only taken the place of my feed reader but improved on it.
I should note that this isn’t the only reason I’m relatively unconcerned about Google’s decision: I also think there will be plenty of alternatives for those who wish to continue using RSS feeds as their main information diet, including Feedly — which says it has cloned the Reader API and created its own back-end for other services to use — as well as NewsBlur, and a proposed reader client that the new managers of Digg say they are working on for release later this year. Instapaper founder Marco Arment says he remains optimistic about the future of the RSS reader market for much the same reason.
An RSS reader is no longer enough
For me personally, however, the reality is that RSS feeds have ceased to play a key role in my news consumption. I still think RSS is a crucial part of the plumbing that underlies the web — and I hope the death of Google Reader isn’t the beginning of an attack on RSS, as some suspect — but for me it lacks a certain something, and that something is the element of social interaction.
Like Laura, I used to have hundreds of RSS feeds from different blogs, websites and traditional news sources in my Google Reader, and I used apps like Reeder and Feedly as a front-end for those subscriptions, and also imported them into Flipboard and other apps when that was available. But as I built up a number of Twitter lists — separated into different topics and focused on both blog sources, news feeds and individual users in those subject areas — I found I was spending less and less time in my RSS feeds.
The key difference, as New York Times editor Patrick Laforge (and others) have mentioned, is that social news distributed via Twitter and other networks is just that — social. It has a human element that automated RSS feeds simply can’t duplicate (at least not yet). This isn’t just a touch-feely thing either: From a purely informational point of view, social news carries a ton of meta-data along with it, by virtue of the fact that a specific human being chose to tweet a link, or re-tweet one, or comment on one.
That social element makes a link more valuable
The nature of my relationship with each of the hundreds of people who are in my Twitter lists is almost impossible to quantify — although I’m sure that data scientists like Prismatic founder Bradford Cross are desperately trying to do so. But my knowledge of them and their interests, and their background or behavior, and the activity in their Twitter stream, all combines to make a single tweet from them with a link in it far more valuable to me than a simple RSS feed.
So it’s not just that Twitter is good at delivering real-time news — where it is, in my experience, as good or better than an RSS reader. It is also particularly good at attaching meaning to that news, by the combination of people who tweet or re-tweet a link or a piece of information. That does as much to help me appreciate the significance of a story as a single post or scoop, and likely more.
That’s why services like Prismatic, which uses the social graph I have developed in Twitter and elsewhere as a foundation for news recommendations, are so much more powerful than my old RSS reader — because they show me things that I didn’t already know I was interested in, and that is the holy grail of information consumption. And it’s why, despite my love-hate relationship with Twitter as a platform, I continue to rely so heavily on it.