RSS and Mass Usership

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Why Dave Winer's Approach Rocks

One of the very thoughts that has been crossing my mind in the past few days, which I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time, is RSS and its usership. If you have any relation to the online-tech-Web2.0-blogging world, you would’ve surely heard of it and most probably have used it. For people who are really into this stuff, safe to say “us” (generally speaking, the whole tech blogosphere), we think of it as a success. I mean, Dave Winer has been believing in this thing for so many years and for us, it’s a successful outliner or you could say a format. But what’s recently been crossing my mind is its usership (so to say).

Is it in the hundreds? Thousands? Hundred Thousands? Millions? Of course, unlike the blogosphere there is no official count of this (you could probably ask Bloglines or NewsGator for their number and get a rejection). I would say, having been a great user and follower of this format for a few years is that it’s definitely in the thousands if you look at it from a worldwide perspective. 30-100k maybe? I don’t know. Not exactly in “the mass” is the only conclusion you can draw.

But, as you might know, blogging wasn’t exactly in “the mass” (ok I’ll stop emphasizing it now) either about two or three years ago. Yes, of course it existed, and yes, most current active bloggers still used it, but what changed that bought blogging or rather reading blogs (not necessarily through RSS but the old fashioned way) was basically many controversies, politics, debates, and all this ‘CNN’ stuff if you know what I’m talking about. Certainly, the elections all over the world (even the NZ elections here) only gave it a more well known name and a meaning. People found that the blogging medium was faster, in some cases, in reporting breaking news or updates than traditional media (including television and newspapers) which really wasn’t exactly part of the hype, it was the hype.

Now, you may (or may not) be wondering why I estimated such a great number, I mean, if you think about it, hundred thousand people waking up each morning to open Newsgator (or Bloglines or NetNewsWire or FeedDemon or SharpReader?) Sounds unlikely. But wait, let me give you an “ahh” moment. Think about podcasting. iPod is a phenomenon. People know about podcasting. I would say podcasting isn’t exactly blogging yet, but it’s the closest to it. Anyway, people listen to podcasts through iTunes (most, eg. I’m talking about the average non-educated iPod/iTunes user). To do this, what most people don’t know (Apple doesn’t state this anywhere in the whole podcasting UI in iTunes) is that they are using RSS. It’s the behind the scenes thing that is making all this work and since they don’t know, quite frankly, they don’t care or have to care. This is a good thing.

Maybe RSS isn’t meant to be for the mass, and “change the way people aggregate.” Maybe, it’s much much better off as a behind-the-scenes outlining technology where since the average consumer doesn’t know and for that reason doesn’t have to care about it, they’re presented with a simple, easy-to-understand UI (“subscribe” to “podcasts”), such as what iTunes offers and hence the mass usership arrives.

Blogging is mainly based on RSS. Podcasting is fully based on RSS. Both beat RSS if you count up usage data (including the average consumer) and podcasting even more so, and the simple reason is, as I’ve stated several times, that people simply don’t know so they don’t care. My prediction is that RSS will succeed, but much less so than the things RSS itself enables. Blogging, podcasting, and now vidcasting. All of these are taking off. And even though RSS is enabling all this to happen, I’ll be lyeing if I said RSS isn’t behind.

Just today, I was watching some of the videos from the Gnomedex conference held a few months ago, in specific Dave Winer’s bold keynote, and somewhere in the middle JD Lasica raises a good question: is “RSS” really a good name for mass usership or the average consumer or would it be better off with another name. Dave Winer responds that one crappy (he didn’t actually say that) name is much much better than two names, which seems to confuse people more so than a bad name would, so we have to stick with what we have. I do agree with Dave’s point, but then again, with the point I made above, that if RSS ends up becoming ‘backend technology’ to a powerful medium that everyone “gets”, we won’t need to worry about the name. To consumers, it may just end up becoming this ‘complicated IT thing we aren’t supposed to get’.

So, in conclusion, I have to say that the future depends on now and if we realise now what RSS has the potential of doing (I’ll say it again, the iTunes Podcast feature is a great example) then maybe we can give traditional media a real battle, of course, knowing that where there is mass creating (e.g. the ability of anyone creating something) comes the question of accuracy, as we learned from the Wikipedia example.


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