May 29, 2009

Today's Real-Time Web Makes Blogging and RSS Seem "Too Slow"

Thursday evening, I had the opportunity to attend one of the semi-regular open houses held at FriendFeed headquarters in Mountain View. (See pictures from Brian Solis, who also attended) While on other occasions, I may have taken the chance to pick the brains of the small team, yesterday I ended up spending the bulk of the time talking to others in the industry, including Edelman's Steve Rubel and TechCrunch IT's Steve Gillmor on what they thought the future of communication, information discovery and blogging would be, amidst the dramatic expansion of microblogging and real-time updates and alerts. And while we all had our own viewpoints on the future of RSS, we agreed that what has been status quo for the last five to ten years is changing underneath us, moving toward a world that is faster, driven as much by what will be our preset queries and searches, rather than through subscriptions and static pages.

Gillmor famously argued earlier this month that RSS should "rest in peace". Gillmor's summary started off by saying, "It’s time to get completely off RSS and switch to Twitter. RSS just doesn’t cut it anymore," and continuing onward, making a case that the immediacy of Twitter made it the source for news discovery, not tools like Google Reader, which I use to find all the data from my sources on a daily basis. As he told Steve Rubel and me yesterday evening, the post "went global" faster than anything he had ever written before, and judging by the more than 500 comments received on TechCrunch, as well as the many follow-on pieces I've seen, it stirred up a great deal of controversy - which is to be expected when making such a black and white claim.

Meanwhile, Steve Rubel, author of MicroPersuasion, who has been blogging on that site since early 2004, said that to him, blogging seemed "slow", when contrasted with the lightning fast communications seen from tools like FriendFeed and Twitter. He made the analogy that when you take the time to compose a blog post and you launch it over the wall, that readers have to look it over and make a choice as to whether they will respond, or if they will simply hit 'J' in their RSS reader and move along. In contrast, he said sending a note to Twitter was like introducing ants in someone's house, making them immediately take action.

Gillmor's unique writing style no doubt stemmed much of the confusion around his "Rest in Peace, RSS" story, which I fundamentally disagreed with the first time around and ignored. But in yesterday's discussion, it became more clear what he was trying to propose - not so much a full-fledged abandonment of RSS readers for Twitter, but instead, pushing for a reader-like tool that would follow microblogging services, decode shortened URLs on the fly, and then deliver the option to read full text of a piece.

In essence, rather than waiting the 20 to 60 minutes it can sometimes take RSS to propagate, thanks to latency from FeedBurner, for the most part, Gillmor's approach would take seconds - where a blog publisher or news distributor could post an update to Twitter or FriendFeed and have the same type of result, only a lot faster. This comes at a time when Gillmor and others are saying that referrals to blog posts are decreasing from RSS readers and increasing from microblogging sites, as readers do their link discovery outside of the reader.

Although Gillmor said we should just "switch to Twitter", he isn't even waiting for Twitter to bring back his much-beloved 'Track' to monitor keywords. Instead, he expects that FriendFeed will more quickly arrive at a tool that delivers realtime alerts to e-mail or instant messaging tools than Twitter - which makes sense as the aggregator has already set up e-mail and IM tools for lists and has delivered saved searches, two of the three components needed to make 'Track' a reality - and not just across Twitter, but across the more than 50 social sites FriendFeed supports.

As Gillmor told us both, he sees posts from "immediately" when I add them to FriendFeed, even if it takes much more time for them to enter Google Reader. And yes, that's because I, as a publisher, follow a specific process when posting, to author it and immediately afterward send it to Twitter and then pull it into FriendFeed, all before I manually ping FeedBurner. It's a conscious decision on my part, but one that helps his case.

RSS is not dead. Far from it. We're all using RSS every day, powering our Web portals, and helping to distribute blog and news content everywhere. But if it is about getting things discovered most quickly, and getting a response from readers very quickly, there's a reason you see people looking elsewhere, just like there's a reason I use a tool that pulls comments from FriendFeed into on my blog posts. I know some people will get to my content somewhere else faster. And if an enterprising software developer, like Nick Bradbury, can make a tool that turns links on Twitter into the same type of tool we see in RSS readers, maybe we'll be onto something new.