Why does Steve Gillmor want to kill my newspaper?

Steve Gillmor, an author at the TechCrunchIT blog, recently wrote an article titled Rest in Peace, RSS. The arguments in the article essentially boil down to RSS not being useful, and thus, the format should deservedly die off.

Steve Gillmor, an author at the TechCrunchIT blog, recently wrote an article titled Rest in Peace, RSS. The arguments in the article essentially boil down to RSS not being useful, and thus, the format should deservedly die off.

Fair enough. If a format isn’t useful, then yeah, I don’t see any reason imaginable that content providers should feel inclined to publish feeds in RSS. But why isn’t RSS a useful format?

Gilmour claims that the attraction back to the browser became social interaction. Comments on articles provide additional incentive to participate. Content aggregators, driven by user interactivity and submission (like Digg, or like Twitter) became the beacon of new content. Sure, you can drive RSS off of these services, but...wait.

Thats a huge “But”.

Gillmor’s post is predicated on this equivocation between RSS, which is a delivery format, and Twitter, Digg, et al., which are social interaction sites. In the case of Digg or Del.icio.us, users can single out content on the web, and there are numerous ways of breaking that down. Twitter can be used to share content. RSS isn’t in this ballpark though. It’s a structure format which can be shot around the web, or from the web down to your feed reader on a desktop.

So whats the real target of this argument?

As far as I can tell, the argument boils down to content providers. Its not that Twitter or Digg, etc. are better at delivering content. If that was the argument, he’d clearly be wrong, uniform standards are here for a reason - to make the lives of developers easier. No one out there, given the choice between scuttling content around the web as one ubiquitous format as opposed to one for each service, would choose the latter. It’s that Twitter and Digg are people-powered, and the traditional transactional relationship that RSS enforced was Producer-Consumer. I tweet articles, you tweet articles, we together create a web of articles. It’s P2P News! Wonderful!

No. This is not wonderful. This is terrible. I don’t know how your twitter feeds work, but here's how mine works. About 50% of my messages are from friends talking about the inanity of their lives. About 25% of messages are from my co-workers and people in the industry I follow, either discussing problems or solutions they’ve developed. And the last 25% are links, posted flatly or with short commentary, to interesting articles.

Is there a problem with this? Absolutely not. It’s conversational in the purest sense, and that is, at least how I feel it is, how Twitter is meant to operate. Half of the time I’m talking to friends, it’s just about the random inanity of life. And a lot of times, I’ll have conversations that are prefaced by a simple “Hey, did you see that article about [insert topic here]”, the digital transformation of which is something akin to “@awinder check out this cool link”. Twitter is awesome, it’s multi-faceted in its uses, and I certainly don’t wish it any kind of quick death.

RSS, on the other hand, is strictly content delivered by a producer. It is the digital newspaper, but unlike newspapers, it’s not just one source. I can vet sources on my own and produce meta-feeds in my feed reader. The Technology section of the Washington Post is trash now, because my RSS feed reader’s Technology section is comprised of some of the best industry commentators mixed with the quickest and most accurate tech news sites. I can even throw a little gossip in if I want by subscribing to a rumors site. And yes, I do get that fresh content every 5 minutes of the day, as opposed to just once a day.

So what do we get when we use our conversation sources as vetted news sources? We get trash. We get hysteria over the swine flu. We get posts to bunny photos mixed in with serious news articles. And oh yeah, theres a good chance those are from the same user, because when you have multiple audiences you talk to through a twitter account, you’re of course talking to multiple audiences. I would dread the day when we crowd-sourced our news sources. Your conversational sources are also much more likely to be monolithic in their viewpoints, which in terms of scope and breadth of knowledge, is another terrible ramification of using strict crowd-sourcing for news intake.

As a simple conclusion, what makes twitter great is that it strictly adheres to the mantra of KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. And if we call for the demise of RSS, and inherently call for the uprising of the social media sources to fill it’s place, then those services need to become more complicated. For Twitter to function in the manner in which RSS does, you’d need some extreme analysis of the per-tweet content. You’d probably even need more than 140 characters! No. No. No. Leave it alone!

Andy