Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Rest In Peace, RSS"... Really?

An incendiary blog post is lighting up cyberspace this morning. Steve Gillmor of TechCrunch has written an article titled, "Rest in Peace, RSS", in which he says that "it's time to get completely off RSS and switch to Twitter".

To you non-computer geeks out there, RSS is a technology that, over the past few years, has revolutionized how people get information on the Web. Before RSS, people had to type in the URL of every website they wanted to visit just to see if there was any new material posted. What RSS did was retrieve the headlines on your favorite sites for you, allowing people to harness all of their Web headlines automatically, and then organize them in one central place. In other words, it offered a way to "stop looking and switch to receiving".

To see working examples of this, check out The Nerfherder's Technology Blogroll and Political Blogroll - which are RSS pages I created long ago on Netvibes.

So, to RSS devotees such as myself, Gillmor's requiem is quite a shock to the system. I imagine this is what it felt like for our parents' generation after they had spent years assembling beloved record collections, only to hear that now everything was about to shift to cassettes or CDs.

Can it be true? Is RSS really on death's doorstep?

The answer, it's hard to admit, might indeed be yes. For starters, and as I've written about before, RSS never quite caught on with the mainstream public. Why that's the case is a matter of debate, but one thing is clear - it doesn't exactly help in preventing RSS's extinction. Meanwhile, Twitter, by contrast, seems on the verge of breaking through into the mainstream consciousness.

But perhaps the most thought-provoking assessment that Gillmor provides is his framing of recent Web evolution. He conceptualizes it by tracing the historical path from partial RSS feeds --> fulltexters --> the added value of comments and "the Statusphere" --> the need for social management of the ecosystem --> Twitter, Facebook, and Friendfeed. As a result, he argues that RSS has become "a shell of its former self, casually subsumed" into the social stream.

This narrative is a fascinating interpretation on recent history, and the blogosphere has been firing on all cylinders today debating its merits. I, for one, believe it to be fairly accurate, as my own experience seems to mirror Gillmor's (although I have some lingering skepticism as to whether Twitter can be a viable replacement). However, does my continued use of RSS suddenly make me a backwards-looking technologist? That seems, somehow, awfully disturbing.


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