RSS & Twitter: Meta Consumption

Shawn Blanc recently posted a comprehensive look into the sub-culture of nerds with respect to their habits of checking news/personal items via mail, RSS, and Twitter. (To support some of his opinion, he had posted a survey several hours earlier requesting input from his readership on the subject.)

There is some good stuff here, especially this:

However, if there are feeds which you just can’t miss then you’re likely to put them in your RSS inbox because it will sit there until you do something with it. You either read it, skim it, or mark it as read. But you have to deal with it, even if dealing with it means you ignore it.

Proclaimations of the death of RSS and, consequently, Twitter ascending as its superior descendant have been a discussion of late in nerd circles, but it seems that there’s a missing piece to the argument: the fact that Twitter “feeds” rely entirely on RSS? Whether you’re leveraging something like twitterfeed or some other means, Twitter must be fed some kind of data pipe for news articles, posts, entries, and so forth. The current standards for this are RSS and Atom [Syndication Format]. You can’t effectively declare a standard dead to an usurper when the new method relies on the old. Granted, Mr. Blanc’s assessment of these news-aggregating mediums has more to do with how we use them rather than platform supremacy. If you’re beholden to RSS applications like NetNewsWire, Reeder, and Fever — or simply viewing your feeds from a browser or the Google Reader page — you’re accessing and following a structured process for news consumption. Twitter merely repurposes this process into an arguably messier set of affairs without regard to organization1.

Now, I do understand that there’s a difference in perception — Twitter “killing” RSS feeds doesn’t mean it’s killing the hand that feeds it, but killing the medium that distributes it. RSS is like a direct connection to individual entries to a website, and Twitter could be seen as a more accessible medium that masks the direct connection of RSS into a more friendly feed. Either way, Mr. Blanc declares (based on his survey) that the ratio of a site’s RSS subscriptions to its Twitter followers is 5.78:12. This explains that Twitter is in no way doing any detrimental damage to RSS readership, nor is it encroaching upon the use of “friendly feed mediums” like NetNewsWire, Reeder, Fever, and Google Reader.

Is there a problem in deciding how users access your site’s news feed? Should webmasters not only provide an RSS link, but also a link to follow the main site’s Twitter feed? As much as I enjoy aggregating and organizing my feeds for convenient consumption, how about trying something else — like creating an enjoyable website at which to read content? I still bookmark sites to visit (though less frequently than those in my RSS subscriptions), based purely on the design of the site. RSS subscriptions (and the read-later service, Instapaper) are fantastic, efficient ways to keep your frequently visited sites organized and updated on a daily basis, but they also (typically) do something else: provide the text of the article free of advertisements and pagination. Some advertisements are good, but the employment of others can be such a jarring experience that RSS or Instapaper are the only ways to avoid the hostile reading environment. Create well-designed and fast sites and you won’t have to worry so much about providing links to RSS and Twitter feeds and Twitter, let alone a pointless debate over the death of RSS. In addition, you can enjoy much more thorough analytics than something like Feedburner and the non-existent analytics of Twitter.

  1. Granted, Twitter does have a Lists feature, but it’s more of a filter for a specific username’s or multiple usernames’ feeds rather than an organized system for checking chronological updates. 

  2. I’m well aware that this data set is coming directly from a tech-centric readership and indicates nothing near the data that would represent the greater consumer base. But then again, this article and its subject matter are probably completely foreign to anyone outside of a particularly well-understood technological bubble.