Wednesday, May 06, 2009

RSS, Readers and Information Management

Clay ShirkyImage via Wikipedia

Several posts have looked at RSS Readers and even RSS itself questioning the need for these technologies especially with the growth in the use of Twitter and Facebook to discover news. These posts sing a premature song for the death of RSS and Readers.

RSS is a syndication protocol and is very suitable for syndicating content between applications. RSS readers are not the only use of RSS feeds. I fully expect that RSS will continue to be consumed primarily by applications rather than humans. RSS isn’t going away. It works and it is good enough for what it does.

RSS Readers are a different question. RSS Readers are primarily a way to make RSS feeds human consumable. As Dare pointed out most are based on the existing Email client paradigm. As Dare also points out this isn’t the best information paradigm for consuming large amounts of news. But this doesn’t necessitate the death of RSS Readers.

Twitter et al. are good for discovery, but not consumption. What is being seen here is a failure of filters based on time and space which no longer exist. It harks back to Clay Shirky’s comment about information overload actually being the failure of filters. What twitter et al. provide is a filter. Instead of seeing it as an either/or proposition, these filters need to be integrated into RSS Readers.

What we have is a need to evolve RSS Readers to have effective filters. RSS Readers are actually a misnomer as people focus on RSS rather than on the underlying concept of organising and presenting information. Let’s refer to the “ideal” as Information Management Application (IMA – got to love acronyms!).

IMA does the following:
  1. Gathers information (whether from RSS, Twitter, Newswires etc.)
  2. Filters and Organises information
  3. Presents the resulting information
The problem with existing methods (i.e. RSS Readers) is that they have little to no filtering and organisation. IMAs provide a rich arrangement of filters and organisation methodologies to help manage the information ocean. Like panning for gold, the IMA sieves the information ocean to find the nuggets.

It is step 2 that makes the difference. A majority of the organisation and filtering can actually be done with by grouping related sources together (e.g. rather than have 100 articles about Apple buying Twitter, group all these articles together as one), organising the stack of articles by source (e.g. the act of adding a source to the IMA makes it more important than a source not actively added to the IMA) and then layering over than filtering based on what your social network has read or is pushing.

Add in metrics about how many articles are in a group, how fast the group is growing and how much attention others are paying to the group and suddenly the ocean of news is far more manageable. Add in a touch of human curation and you have the 21st version of the personalised newspaper.

IMAs will come in multiple variants be they desktop based or online. Google has the embryonic version in Google News and Google Reader. Yahoo can also create an IMA as the next evolution of Yahoo News. The field is wide open and like many things no IMA is going to suit everyone.
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