2005, on which, the year being through, we can now talk in a doctoral manner, was all about RSS, XML and Atom feeds. Wherever we went, websites were adding little buttons, blue in the Mac world and orange everywhere else, to signals their new “feeds”. Along with these usually came another button or link labeled “What are feeds?” that, more often than not, took you to that page or to a custom-designed pop-up explaining feeds were a life changing technology allowing us to stay current on all our interests simultaneously.
Later that year we learnt people didn’t care about feeds in the least and that, despite their being used everywhere, few users were actually reading them or even understanding the concept, much like, after years of iTunes Music Store, the general public has no intention to learn the difference between “iTunes”, “Walkman”, “iPod” and “MP3″. How come? Is it because RSS truly sucks? No, certainly not: not only is it almost impossible to flat-out declare a technology “sucks” but RSS definitely has something ground-breaking in its blood, no matter how it is used. Because icons are different then? There may be some truth in the problems created by the lack of a unified front but I doubt only so few users are in possession of a brain powerful enough to draw a link between the orange “XML” buttons and the blue “RSS” ones.
To me, the root of the issue is not to be found in how the technology is presented but in the technology itself. What does RSS allow us to do? It allows us to keep current, up to the second, on many matters, ranging from the state of our firewall to world news. This, however means RSS puts constant pressure on us. If I know Mac Minute has published a news item, I have to go and read it because it is my job but if I can forget about Mac Minute for an hour so, I can entertain the obviously false notion that I am on top of my material and comfortable in my own work. As long as my router does not warn me of a DoS attack going on, I do not have to worry about my network and can go downstairs grab that doughnut I have been thinking about.
Irresponsible I hear you say? Consider how often the truly excellent Mac Minute is updated during a day and how many DoS attacks are run against corporate routers and you will soon see how RSS can tie people to their chairs in a constant state of hyperventilation and hypomania. Admittedly, those who have never tried RSS cannot know all the gory details I just outlined but we all have an intimately instinctive repulsion for information overload, be it through telephone, cable channels, instant messaging or even billboards in stores.
“— Hey, there is this new information techn… — No, thanks, I’m perfectly happy with how I get my news.” This is the dialog that takes place in the brains of millions of users when they are confronted with the novel notion of RSS.