The problem with RSS

Is it still “really simple” when it involves choosing among 35 options?

RSS Buttons

If the object is to baffle, annoy and repel the masses, then what we have here is a remarkable success.

28 thoughts on “The problem with RSS

  1. Steven Chabot

    I don’t understand what your confusion is.

    Is it confusing from the perspective of a blogger? All blog software does feeds automatically now, without user intervention.

    Is if from the perspective of the possible subscriber? If they already understand what RSS it doesn’t matter what all of those buttons mean (I haven’t even heard of half of them). All that matters is there is ONE button that they know (“Hey, Bloglines! I use that” *Click*).

    You’re really reaching on the pessimism with this one. “The masses” can handle 300+ television channels but can’t pick a feed reader?

  2. Doug Karr

    This is not a complication with RSS, it’s simply a large volume of startups that are fighting for turf. As they continue to enhance their offerings, Darwin’s theory will apply – the weak will die off and the strong will survive. This is a product of every new business idea.

  3. Steven Chabot

    “In a one click world, nobody wants this amount of vacuous choice.”

    I would disagree–the influence of the Free Software movement on the way the Internet is going is emphasizing choice.

    But it doesn’t matter in this case. As I noted before, the choice has already been made. If I am a reader, I already have a feed reader. It is not a matter of making a second choice, but implementing the first one.

  4. Jim Dermitt

    It’s like lightbulbs and batteries. A lamp is simple enough but a lot people develop the lamps around everything but the bulb. Make it more difficult so it doesn’t screw in, it then screws up. Batteries are more of a problem and people develop better products and the batteries blow up. We could have one battery that fits 100 laptop models. That would be too simple, so you have all these choices you don’t need and batteries that don’t work or worse. You can replace your AC adapter with a universal AC adapter but the product doesn’t come with that. Everything has a different connector and a standard AC plug with two prongs and a grounding lug. If PC makers built houses, all the AC outlets would be different. In this world you would have one plug for your toaster and it wouldn’t work with your coffee maker or Cuisinart. You could buy an adapter and upgrade to firewire or something. Somebody will be writing code to make it easier and it will get more difficult while being marketed as really simple. It’s a conspiracy to make everything incompatible with everything else and frustrate the average user who needs to search the Internet just to figure out what works with what. My laptop has connectors I’ll never use. It’s nice having them in case I ever find the need to use them. The thing is obsolete, so I doubt anybody is selling hardware that still uses them. They all should still work since they were never used.

  5. eas

    The bigger issue here is that we don’t have great ways for end-users to tie web apps together. If everyone used desktop aggregators the soulution to this problem would be pretty simple and there would be, at worse, few competing mechanisms for subscribing to a feed. As it is, each web based aggregator requires its own little annoying button.

  6. Graham Hill


    As Doug Karr suggests, this is just a by-product of living in a market economy where anyone is free to copy and improve upon someone else’s idea. The number of RSS feeders will most likely shake-down as user favourites and/or profitable business models emerge from the masses.

    On the other hand…

    You know Nick, although I feel that you are a free marketeer at heart, sometimes, I can’t but help wonder whether a bit of you actually is more comfortable in a socially-democratic, planned economy, particularly when it comes to who controls access to information.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Nick Carr

    “Is if from the perspective of the possible subscriber? If they already understand what RSS is …”

    But that’s the point: the vast majority of people do NOT understand what RSS is – just 9% of Americans have “a good idea” what an RSS feed is, according to last year’s PEW internet survey – and when they confront this tower of branding babel, they end up even further away from understanding what RSS is – they just assume it’s another arcane geek tool.

  8. Nick Carr

    “this is just a by-product of living in a market economy ”

    True enough, but there is such a thing as ruinous rivalry – when instead of creative destruction, you get mutually assured destruction. I think that’s what’s going on here, when competition over the wrong thing (branding a commodity) slows the adoption of a useful technology by sowing confusion in the marketplace. I have no doubt that the people who are creating this cacophony will moan and whine when a big Microsoft-type company comes to dominate the feed market by incorporating RSS into an existing platform, but they’ll have only themselves to blame.

  9. Phil Ayres

    Take the problem away from the end users, and outsource it to a service like Feedburner. It certainly works for me – one button, and the user makes the decision once which is their reader of choice. For me, I always prefer the simplicity of a blog that shows a Feedburner button.

    We have no problem outsourcing our Blogrolls or Linkrolls to Bloglines or, so why not make the reader problem go away by just using another service.

    But maybe soon we’ll all be using IE7 and the issue will go away! One click to subscribe to the only reader anyone will use – ‘Windows’.



  10. Steven Chabot

    “But that’s the point: the vast majority of people do NOT understand what RSS is – just 9% of Americans have “a good idea” what an RSS feed is”

    And for how many thousands of years was writing confined to the small 9% at the top? Sure, people thought it was a geek tool, then printing spread writing beyond the geeks.

    Forget writing, people can’t even program their VCRs, but it doesn’t stop them from watching videos. People adapt, that’s part of what change entails. I think we need to give people more credit, and I find your argument a little aristocratic.

  11. vinnie mirchandani

    Nick, I would hate to see what you have to say about cereal choices. Or global beer brands. This is the sign of a New reniassance and consumer perferences, vendor viability will shrink this list over time – may be. Would you rather be the consumer faced with vendor consolidation moves of IBM, Oracle etc?

  12. Lee Odden

    Great thread and I’m glad to see our little tool has generated some discussion.

    However, the premise and the image displayed at the top of this post is outright misleading.

    The image above is a snapshot of a tool for blog owners to use when creating subscription options for their blog. It is not what blog readers see.

    What blog visitors see is a single, orange RSS icon that folds out the RSS reader buttons selected by the blog owner to display. Visit and place your cursor over the RSS icon to see how this tool is actually presented to the blog-reading public.

    The genesis of this tool came from a study by Yahoo and Ipsos-Insight regarding RSS, that found more users were likely to subscribe to a feed if they were presented with a familiar graphic representing their RSS reader of choice.

    This applies whether there are 9% or 90% of users that understand what RSS is.

  13. Nick Carr

    Lee, Didn’t mean to dis your tool, which seems to make the best of a bad situation. I just borrowed your graphic to illustrate the problem. Nick

  14. Hendry Lee

    It is the feed publisher’s reponsibility to explain what RSS is to readers.

    Providing the one-click subscription method is a convenient method for those who already know what RSS is, to subscribe to the web feed using their favorite RSS readers.

    Users who know RSS will try to locate the button, the problem is how to make the process easier. Feed publishers are not asking them to choose which RSS readers to use.

    So, IMHO, they are two different problems.

  15. Todd Moy

    To piggyback on Phil’s point, the issue doesn’t seem to be the varieties of newsreaders out there. Let people use whatever: it’s good and wholesome for them to have choices. The problem seems to be the transparency and ease of use of “just subscribing.”

    I’m partial to Feedburner because it takes the one button approach. Click it and the software intuits the reader you’re likely use (provided that you use one, of course).

    As a designer, I can abstract out the unnecessary choice. I also don’t need to continually provide individual affordances for the growing population of aggregators out there. It also keeps me from taking the lazy approach–the dreaded raw feed. The counter-argument, of course, is that I lose flexibility since I’m now subject to the number of readers that Feedburner supports–but that’s a decision I’d make using Lee’s service anyway.

    As a user, I’m typically concerned with just subscribing. That’s my task. I don’t really care about wiring it together correctly so long as it works. Here again, I shill for Feedburner. I get the option that is relevant and less chaff that isn’t.

  16. Loek

    This is a remarkable discussion. We should not blame the underlying technology (RSS) for things that are placed on top of it (35 buttons to choose from). It would be like the same to blame satellite transmission protocols because we have 300+ TV channels to choose from (to piggy back Steven Chabbot’s point).

    RSS is and was never meant to be understood by end users, that’s why RSS readers were invented and first created. RSS is a wire format meant to be read by mcahines. I do agree though that the “really simple” in its name is somewhat misleading.

  17. Chris_B

    A tad OT, but what cheezes me off is that these RSS clients got called “newsreaders” when for years that meant an NNTP client.

  18. tish grier

    But that’s the point: the vast majority of people do NOT understand what RSS is

    when many people are befuddled by Blogger, and feel like they need a 3-week workshop before they can even type in a url, it stands to reason they’d have a bit of trouble with RSS too…

    So, here’s how it will shake out:

    the geeks will go for the geek tools–the geekier the better….

    the business people, when they figure out they really *need* RSS readers will hire a geek to figure it out for them….more jobs for geeks….

    and those of us who tinker with tech as a means to another end will keep it simple go with readers that work *for* us at our particular levels of non-tech non-expertise.

    it’s just that simple guys. there’ll be winners and there’ll be losers. no sense getting your knickers in a bunch over it.

  19. Vincent van Wylick

    I completely agree that it is ridiculous to have these many options on your page. Particularly since I thought that any feed-aggregator can recognise the regular RSS-feed, and blogger used “special” RSS-feeds to measure their effectiveness, insert adverts, etc. So allowing for so much diversity just creates more overhead for the blogger.

    That said, it’s probably more visually appealing to have all these options in a pull-down menu, than sticking all these icons next to each other like self-awarded medals on a person’s chest.

  20. abeach

    having options available to you, doesnt mean you have to implement them – why is this so hard to understand. give me a million little RSS buttons, i’ll pick the three i want and skip the rest.

  21. Tony

    All you have to do is to click on RSS buttons that you need. What is so complicated? You have the right to choose. It is in your hands.

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