September 15, 2010

RSS or RIP, the Results Always Trump the Methods

The last few days in my RSS readers have had me feeling like we are in the middle of blog post reruns - the best of 2009 edition. Within the bolus of hundreds of new items welcoming my every visit to Google Reader, the debate flared up again this week as to whether the very act of consuming content within an RSS reader was a dying one. For the dissenters, the growth of social sites like Twitter and Facebook, and the announced closure of Bloglines is enough to say the tide has turned.

Meanwhile, the application developers and their active users swear any rumored decrease is false, and the RSS reader remains one of the most efficient ways to consume content.

The premise of the entire debate is broken. These are tools, and it is not a zero sum game.

My Own RSS Usage Is Still Insane

In the same time as we have seen a general falling away of activity with Bloglines, once the most heralded competitor to Google Reader, we have also seen considerable innovation in the RSS Reader space. In 2008, we saw the debut of Feedly, a magazine-style Web-based RSS reader - and that service now sees hundreds of thousands of unique visitors per month. In 2009, we saw the addition of Lazyfeed and smart RSS-based filters. In 2010, Pulse debuted on the iPad, iPhone and Android and is selling many licenses to feed-hungry mobile fans. On the Web side, there is also continued development from edge cases including NewsBlur and Punching Soup.

Google Reader Reports Continued Growth

Meanwhile, Google Reader reports usage is growing, and never stopped.

Those who have turned their backs on RSS readers often subscribe to the theory that news will find them no matter what, and to some degree, that is of course true. Twitter's press conference from Tuesday said 90 million tweets are being posted daily, and a full 25 percent of those tweets contain links - so there are more than 20 million links being thrown into the service, at the rate of more than 15,000 per minute. Subscribe to any prolific link sharers or news sources, and you're bound to get the opportunity to get some links thrown your way, and the news will find you.

Twitter's Buzz Has Eclipsed Blogging and Dominates RSS

Twitter has become such a force for news dissemination that the concept of discovering Tweets that "only contain links" and hiding the more mundane status updates is becoming commonplace. Even the new search built into Twitter's updated interface allows the option to search "Tweets With Links". This is a great step forward, making Twitter even more similar to RSS for full content.

The long-held advantages of RSS readers over Twitter are still there. You pick your sources, and you can come to a "full" in box of items at your leisure. Almost all feeds are full feeds, without truncation, something impossible to do in 140 characters. But new apps are not just discovering tweets with links, but some are unpacking the URLs in advance of your clicking, so you can get a full preview of the story to indicate in more detail if it will be of your interest.

The New Twitter Searches Tweets With Links - Cool!

For me, one of the major reasons I can not foresee walking away from an RSS reader in the near future is how closely tied into my own behavior something like Google Reader is for the act of curating a shared items feed (or link blog). My shared items play a key component of my downstream activity on social networks like Google Buzz and FriendFeed, and these shared items also hit Twitter on a dedicated account (@lgstream). If I turned my back on the thousands of people who have connected to this shared feed, I would need to restart it in a new place, and see if I could manipulate Twitter lists to be as strongly organized as my RSS folders. So long as I want to play the role of human curator, this will be a big activity for me, and RSS is the foundation for this activity.

On the iPad, Flipboard is a good solution for extracting news from Twitter and Facebook in a visually appealing way, with each link displaying much of the article underneath (via RSS). On the iPhone or Android, my6sense offers a mixed view, whereby I can see updates from Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz and RSS all in one place, agnostic to the stream. This is a great equalizer, putting each source on an even playing field, not forcing me to pick a favorite.

Debates over tools, applications and personal consumption preferences are short-lived, and not very useful outside of a small niche of update obsessed infovores. The tools we use today are significantly evolved - and much faster, with upgrades from the world of real-time and impact from our social streams. We are consuming more information from more sources than ever, and we are doing it on more mobile devices.

The important focus is to make sure that we are able to ensure the information finds us wherever we are - at the right time, at the right speed, and from a trusted source. For many people today, RSS is the best tool for the job, one with reduced noise, and personal focus. For others, the process of serendipity, personality and discovery trumps the reader experience and they are moving elsewhere. But the debate is not a debate. It is evolution. One company's closure when more and more are getting in the game doesn't indicate the closure of the market, but instead, a milestone.

Disclosures: I am VP of Marketing at my6sense. Google Reader, Flipboard, Feedly and Pulse are players in the information consumption and sharing space, and may be considered competitors or potential partners now or in the future.