Friday, June 25, 2010

The RSS Myth

There is a broad misconception that RSS is the answer to all your information problems. "Don't lock your information in web pages," they say, "that's so old-school. Set it free in RSS feeds, so intermediating web sites that are groovier than yours - or even your end-users directly - can 'mash it up' anywhere and in any way they choose." It's an easy get out. No need for information architecture. It'll all be mashed up anyway. Just stick RSS buttons on every page you can think of, and it's job done. I beg to disabuse this cosy view. RSS may be a great standard that has support across the web, but this may be masking the fact that in most cases RSS just isn't good enough, for these reasons:
  1. For public information, it's far better to use social networking.
  2. For private information, it's insecure.

Lets deal with RSS for public information first. How do end-users consume RSS feeds? Well non-techies probably try clicking on one of those RSS buttons on sites and following one of the plethora of buttons and sign up procedures for RSS reader services that follow, before getting quite confused. Perhaps their browser or mail reader will try to help them keep track of RSS feeds too, but then moving to a different computer will leave them confused all over again. So most people fall at the first hurdle. Even those who choose a great reader have to be pretty disciplined to stay in the habit of following most feeds, and that's because they're usually much too narrow. The typical RSS feeds that universities expose include departmental news stories, custom search results, new books in the library, etc. It looks good, but the results for even the most assiduous RSS consumer is a river of unexciting, unconnected, over-machined news that quickly begins to feel like a millstone around their neck. Much of this information would be better framed as pithy updates to be consumed in a timely way via (shudder!) email, or displayed in context in a web page (gasp!) that is connected to the content.
Perhaps the most intelligent use of RSS for public information is to use it to disseminate and collect must-read articles from quality blogs like this one (!). Meaty articles that you're happy to dip into in a different context, even offline, away from the bustle of your email inbox and your social media streams. This is the podcast model, where the easy collection of free radio or TV programs, say, via your RSS reader (e.g. iTunes) for consumption on your favourite personal device does lead to a great experience. With the advent of the iPad, perhaps we need a new word for RSS feeds focused on quality, iPad friendly, blog or magazine or news or even research articles you can read on the train. A padcast? No thanks. An ePubcast? Yuck. Storycast? Pamphletcast? You get the idea. In any case, the current reality is that even after 10 years of the industry pushing RSS feeds, no blogger creating even the best content would rely on RSS to get their stories out there. Most good blogging sites now allow users to keep updated via good old-fashioned email, because it works.
Many would say that RSS hits its stride when building clever mashups. To be fair, RSS feeds with geolocation data makes for great maps. Yahoo pipes and other engines for chopping, sorting, auto-translating and otherwise crunching feeds can do some wonderful things, clearly potentially useful in some research scenarios. Perhaps. The most common mashup approach however is to populate "channels" of news on otherwise static web pages. You see them everywhere: lists of headlines, text-heavy article snippets, the odd icon. This is fine, but the advertising world knows that very little money is made on sidebar ads that Google and others have made ubiquitous. People gloss over them unless they're very nicely integrated. Now, advertisers have the bucks, and Google has the might, to make sure they only advertise to you - for yes, they know who you are - what they think you want. These ads unleash a world of intelligence on our unsuspecting minds, but if people still ignore all this, what chance have we of encouraging clickthroughs from our dumb RSS channels? No, the advertisers get their spoils out of search requests that return "featured results". It's not rocket science. To be there at the right place at the right time, be there when someone's looking for something. The fact the universities should make much more of their website's search capabilities to disseminate important information is probably the subject of another blog article.
But these days there's something else. Something that leads to much more referral traffic than even search. All the evidence shows that discovery through, you guessed it, social networking is driving users to web content as never before. This makes sense. Where RSS feed readers are only worth bothering about for content with high production values, your Twitter stream or Facebook page is the perfect place to keep up with everything else that's interesting in the world because following actual people is far more interesting than tracking anonymous "machined" RSS feeds. People gossip. They snigger. They post fun stuff alongside making serious points and linking to heavier content. You find the good stuff because you care about what the people you follow say in these networks, and enjoy all the "phatic" stuff that comes along with it. Twitter is particularly good for this, as it's easy to follow (and be followed) without feeling harrassed either way, and all updates have the great strength of being shorter than a text message. Yes, if you want your content to be found, it has to be interesting enough to be shared, and you have to get personal. All bloggers know this. Along with their email subscription buttons, they Twitter like mad, advertising their wares all the while. Guilty as charged.
If RSS is being crowded out in the public arena, what then its use in the private web? After all a university, like any large organisation, has plenty of news to share with its own and friends, but which isn't intended to be completely public. The (theoretical) power of standard RSS feeds comes through their use in mashups by third-party reader applications or websites. To consume a protected RSS feed such apps and sites need a standard way of authenticating the user to access the feed, no matter its source. To date the only way to do this has been to use standard HTTP authentication known as "Basic Auth". If browser pops up its own login prompt before showing a page, rather than redirecting to a new page with a login form rendered in HTML, then its Basic Auth you're seeing. Disappointingly, very few RSS readers and almost no mashup websites support RSS feeds authenticated this way, making such feeds next to useless. When the benefits seem obvious, why so? Well, mashup sites generally want to splurge information to Joe Public for advertising reasons. Given all the other usability hurdles already covered above, for many RSS readers handling authenticated feeds is a step too far. The real problem however is Basic Auth itself. To use it you have to give your third-party RSS client or website your precious university username and password, and that's insecure. To be clear, if a Russian website offers to generate a crazy map of your authenticated (geolocated) RSS feed containing your latest confidential research findings, all in return for just your university username and password - please don't give it to them.
Lately Google, Twitter and Facebook amongst others have developed a way around this, using OAuth instead of Basic Auth to secure personal news feeds. This allows, say, a third-party iPhone Twitter app  to redirect a user back to the Twitter website, where they can login securely and instruct Twitter to trust their iPhone app with your data, whereupon you return to the original site. The end-user experience of this "dance" between websites is just seamless enough, and the advantages are clear. You never handover your login details to the third-party app, and you can revoke the trust that you granted at any time in your Twitter preferences without having to change your password. There are phishing and man-in-the-middle attack nasties to fret about here, and for sure OAuth is not entirely mature yet. But OAuth is non-proprietary, and is becoming a "standard" that many are jumping on because a solution here is sorely needed. I see no reason why eventually an OAuth protected RSS feed from a university shouldn't be readable in a third party app, potentially alongside more social streams, particularly when OAuth 2.0 negates the requirement for data consumer apps to pre-register with data providers. If this were possible then, who knows, perhaps researchers and collaborators could share news securely much more easily; students could "subscribe" to assignment feedback from their VLEs, and keep up with these notices intermingled with their social streams. I'd like to think that many things might be possible in ways that we couldn't do before.
By then however, RSS itself itself may have been superceded with richer feed formats and protocols, such as OAuth protected Activity Streams, that allow apps to do funkier social things with updates in news feeds such as "like" them, or "reshare" them. Yes, the fact is that the social networking world is treading all over this space once again and RSS is becoming just another useful machine-to-machine data format, and one of many at that. For me, the myth that RSS could be a mechanism for freeing information, and ultimately freeing everyday users, by giving them full flexibility to interact with the naked data directly, feels likes it's receding into little more than a techy dream.


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