Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Is RSS a Victim of its own Success?

By Dennis D. McDonald

At last night’s Meeting VI of the Alexandria Web Strategy Discussion Group, convened at New Target in Alexandria, Virginia, Maddie Grant raised the topic of RSS feeds. She’s tried a number of readers and now she uses Google Reader. Still, she complains about the problems with setting up readers and especially the challenges of explaining the process to other users. In her mind, RSS has not lived up to its promise.

My take is a bit different. My use of RSS has also changed over the years. I have ended up using it both as an aid to “current awareness” and to my own publishing.

With respect to current awareness, I too have tried a variety of readers and have settled on a Firefox add on called Wizz. A while back I dutifully went through and organized my several hundred feed subscriptions into categories in Wizz, which shows up as a bookmark extension in a vertical window on the left side of the Firefox browser. I also methodically un-subscribed from all the email newsletters and announcements I had been getting in an effort to simplify my email life.

As it turns out, though, I don’t scan my different feeds as religiously as I used to. Instead, I use Wizz to generate and maintain a master OPML file containing all my feed subscriptions that I use as the basis for a My Megite page. Megite as a news aggregator uses my OPML files as the basis for its scan of daily news items. It regularly discovers new items from the people whose RSS feed information is included in my OPML file as well as related items that Megite determines may also interest me. It’s an efficient system that kills two birds with one stone:

  1. Megite makes me aware of new stuff published by people in my RSS subscription list.
  2. It also incorporates new and related tech news items.

It’s one of the first things I check each morning.

My second use of RSS is as an aid to my own blog publishing. My blog service Squarespace generates a separate RSS (or Atom) feed for just about every organized object in my blog, including separate feeds for each individual tag. I also use to save and tag web based bookmarks, and generates an RSS feed for each tag as well. I take these feeds and, using the Grazr widget service, generate a within-page list of links. Here’s a list of links based on my own blog posts tagged with the term RSS:





Here’s a list of links tagged with “RSS”:





I use these displays throughout my blog and am very pleased at the way they are automatically updated.

Now, I’m not saying that RSS is perfect. In fact, I would not want to have to explain all the variations that are available to organizing and reading them. When I’m in a position to recommend a feed strategy to a  client, for example, I recommend both the process for generating the feed (and its associated filtering) as well as the reader strategy; the two have to be handled together, especially in situations where user audiences have a great variability in technical sophistication.

Still, Maddie is justified in her frustration. RSS is still more complex than it needs to be. In my view, the more “invisible” it becomes, the better — as long as it can continued to be used to generate and manage discrete user managed data streams.

  • Copyright (2008) by Dennis D. McDonald




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