Friday, 21 November 2008
"If there is a flaw, it's human. It always is."
Shane Richmond, communities editor at the Telegragh, told us this week the internet is causing newspaper readers to become increasingly fragmented. People no longer want to be pigeon-holed as a particular kind of 'reader', be it Guardian, Telegraph, the Sun, whichever. And this is essentially a good thing. On balance stereotypes are always unhelpful and it tackles the notion of straight forward poltical affiliations. People may hold a range of opinions and ideas; left is not simply left, right not only right.
So the fact reader loyalty is on the wane and people are selecting their material not just by topic but down to the individual article is giving them more choice. You might not buy multiple newspapers but you probably will click on a couple of websites to get your politics at the Times or your reviews at the Independent. And it has also made RSS central to many web users' daily routine.
Really simple syndication, or rich site summary depending on what you read, has taken off in a big way. Microsoft acknowledged its arrival in 2005. In the same year a white paper produced by Yahoo predicted the number of RSS users in the US and UK was 72.8 million. And that was three years ago.
Although I am a relative late-comer to RSS, I am a fan. But one thing concerns me. No matter how many different view points you source on a subject using feeds, you still have particular interests. Whether it's British politics, American sport, or Brazilian film, one advantage of RSS is:
"It allows you to easily stay informed by retrieving the latest content from the sites you are interested in".
But this could be limitng. Is there a danger that RSS is the virtual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "I can't hear you!" to the stuff you're not interested in? Science is not really my thing, but the advantage of reading a newspaper or using a news homepage is whilst heading for the stuff you would normally go for, you might come across an important story that catches your eye. A recent example for me would be CERNs large hadron collider. This would probably never come through on my RSS because its not covered by the sort of feeds I subsribe to, but it's a pretty significant scientific event. And while I understand RSS feeds are probably rarely used in isolation, Amy Gahran points out the effect they are having on websites as well as newspaper sales:
"Web sites are becoming less important for online content distribution as RSS feeds are enjoying increasingly mainsteam usage."
Although Gahran provides a great discussion about how online entities can market and forward traffic from RSS feeds, my point is that there are things people should know which could be missed using RSS. When Shane Richmond speculated about Web 3.0 as a mass of free floating information tailored especially for your needs I was reminded of everyones' favourite Scientologist, Tom Cruise (no offence to Shane). In sci-fi thriller Minority Report, advertisements are specifically tailored for you. Spyware on Amazon and iTunes already use this kind of technology with "others like you bought..." mechanisms. If this happens with the internet at large, where does this leave exploration and discovery?
RSS is an extremely useful tool and there are some really interesting discussions about its advantages regarding privacy and control. Rob Alderson flips my argument on its head looking at what My Telegraph bloggers are talking about- many of their posts centred on topics that weren't making the news. But I think Anthony Mayfield's point from last week can be used here too: utilise the technology, don't be lead by it. The technology is great, but it presents the very human temptation to be lazy. Keep thinking outside the RSS box.