Kevin Cheng  

How Do You Spell RSS?

May 6th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

RSS or more generally, news feeds in general, are growing in popularity. For the uninitiated (of which there are more than you think), News Feeds are like getting a subscription to a magazine instead of stopping by the newsstand everyday to check if there’s a new issue out. So rather than check a dozen or a hundred websites everyday, you are informed when any of the sites you’re watching have been. Nowadays, you can get feeds on just about anything: major news, most blogs, the latest photos from a friend, etc. For the narcissists, there’s even feeds to tell you when something new that mentions you has been posted on any blog or feeds that track commenting on a site or an article. When My Yahoo! starts to offer news aggregators, you know it’s probably hitting mainstream.

But is it really ready for prime time? The way I see it, there are numerous problems still with this “product” or collection of products. Steps are being made to fix them but they’re not there yet. When we talk about products, some like to use the Venn diagram of Useful, Usable and Desirable. If a solution fulfils all three of these, it will most likely be successful. News Feeds and their related technologies, I fear, have problems in each of these areas.

##The Usefulness of News Feeds
Didn’t I just talk about how useful and great news feeds are? So why am I now questioning the usefulness of this technology? Quite simply, one of the points illustrated on the comic today: information overload. Now this topic has been discussed many times, with much more [research and eloquence][1] than I will do here. One would be hard pressed to keep up with a single news source like BBC, let alone hundreds or thousands of news sources and blogs, some of which have it under contract that they must blog a minimum of 12 times a day (like Lane, those are the ones I [remove from my aggregator first][2]).

Some solutions suggested include visualizations or collaborative filtering through smart search terms. I think the solution is going to be around identifying the echoes and grouping them. Remember how GMail rocked your world? It wasn’t because they had Google search integrated into your mailbox. That was great but the real kicker was how they managed threads so well. Groups of conversations could be safely ignored, deleted or addressed. So what is needed is some way of reducing the echo chamber by tracking what you’ve seen and what you thought of it. A promising standard that [Tantek][4] and others at [Technorati][5] are working on is [attention.xml][3] which states in the problem statement:

> - How many sources of information must you keep up with?
- Tired of clicking the same link from a dozen different blogs?
- RSS readers collect updates, but with so many unread items, how do you know which to read first?

> Attention.XML is designed to solve these problems and enable a whole new class of blog and feed related applications.

Is it the be all end all? No, but at least someone’s putting some effort into it.

##The Usability of News Feeds
Oh where to begin. A quick laundry list to get us started:
- feed:// is not a supported protocol in browsers, but most will click on feed:// links and expect something
- RSS and Atom XML files can show on browsers without any indication of what to do with it
- Solutions like [Feedburner’s][6] friendly looking pages could cause even more confusion because if you’re unfamiliar with feeds, it just looks like the site formatted differently
- The text and links in Feedburner’s friendly pages lack visual hierarchy and don’t get the main message across quickly enough

People who don’t get feeds, still don’t. Even if we pretended there weren’t two standards (Atom and RSS) to contend with (which thanks to Feedburner we can, there’s still a gaggle of terms floating around to cause confusion: LiveFeeds, My Yahoo News Feeds, RSS, XML Orange Buttons, etc. Not to mention the confusion that occurs between those expecting an e-mail subscription and an RSS one.

For example, we have a Subscribe button under our comic and a newsletter subscription on the right of our articles. The former is for feed subscription, the latter is self explanatory. We don’t like this. Tom and I spend a lot of time discussing why it sucks and what we need to do about it but frankly, we just haven’t gotten around to it. [Dave Shea][7] eventually got fed up and created his own friendly page. The problem is that was a year and a half ago and it’s still one of the better solutions out there.

Sadly, until it becomes standard to have an installed application support feed://, whether it’s the browser, e-mail client or a separate application, the “friendly xml” page solution is still the most viable.

##The Desirability of News Feeds
We could talk about how feeds aren’t pretty enough and hence, not that desirable but in fact, news feeds are _too_ desirable. I’ve had days where I look back and think, “where did the last 4 hours go?” and realize it was through reading my feeds, and following the links from those feeds. The worst is, I don’t feel much more informed than I did after the first hour - once again due to the echo chamber.

I actually switched from a notification based reader that was integrated into Outlook because it was too disruptive. Now I use [Sage][8] on Firefox, which requires me to manually request a synch. Of course, the result is that I hardly ever check my feeds and when I do, it’s guaranteed hours down the drain.

I love news feeds, and use them whenever I find em. I try to tell everyone to use it and have spent countless hours explaining the concept to those unfamiliar with it. I wish everyone who read OK/C subscribed to our feed instead of depending on our emails because it’s just so much better for getting informed about new posts we write mid-week (some even thought we stopped updating because the emails weren’t working for awhile). It’s frustrating to see that so little progress has been made in the accessibility of feeds to novice users, and so little has been accomplished in the organization and presentation of the mass of information for those that do use it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Where is everyone and what is being done about this?

[1]: “The Birth of the Newsmaster”
[3]: “Attention.XML”
[4]: “Tantek’s Thoughts”
[5]: “Technorati”
[6]: “Feedburner”
[7]: “Plugging the RSS Usability Hole”
[8]: “Sage: Feedreader for Firefox”

12 Responses to “How Do You Spell RSS?”
julian wrote:

I personally have stayed out of the whole RSS thing in part because I prefer seeing real web pages in the styles that the authors intend, so I don’t know that much about aggregator interfaces other than that my web browser now has one built in. :)

So I’m curious: Have you seen Safari RSS yet, and if so, what do you think about it?

Bob Salmon wrote:

A few rules I try to abide by:

1. Don’t feel you have to subscribe to every feed that’s possibly interesting. Even if you did nothing but read feeds you’d still miss something. Accept the fact that you can’t meld with all of human consciousness.

2. Even limiting to a small number of feeds - don’t feel you need to read every item. (Same principle as above.)

3. Don’t become part of the echo chamber. Make your posts worth reading. (This is tricky as it requires you to suppress some urges to show off your immense intellect and to miss certain conversational bandwaggons, but basically boils down to: If you’ve got nothing to say, say nothing at all.)

Obviously I don’t follow these all the time, but I do have to keep reminding myself - who’s in charge here, my RSS reader or me?

Matt K wrote:

There are some very good points here. I’ve ran into the same issues myself, but instead of recognizing them as issues I’ve just quit using RSS feed programs and eventually I uninstall them. I’ve been using Firefox’s live bookmarks, but I find that most of the time when I want to see news I don’t read the feed entries. I randomly click on an entry and immediately click on the upper-left logo of the site to get to the homepage and use it to find things. I do this because a news site’s homepage will always have a grouping that is better than a sequential list and will contain photos relating to the stories. I don’t know about you, but I’ve added an extra click to each news hunt and my preference for grouping and photos sounds like something called google news. If google could incorporate that into a browser with a user’s choice of feeds but the same ability to group stories and see photos, that would be killer.

Matt K wrote:

Oh, something I forgot: recently I’ve encountered sites that have started banning multiple requests for a feed within set periods of time from the same ip address. I understand the need for this - I really do. However, as a professional I work in an office with other professionals with similar interests. The issue is we’re all on the same internet connection with the same external ip address. How do you remedy this? In an office with 100+ people, what are the odds you’ll find the person(s) requesting a certain feed. Even if you did, could you possibly get your readers to request in harmony? I think this is another major hurdle. Maybe offices could start using software for proxying rss feeds? What are the odds that getting some employer to use such software would really happen when it’s encouraging a productivity killer.

John Franklin wrote:

Just reading this now, largely because of the problems outlined in both the post and the comments above. ;) Totally agree with all of the above/am encountering pretty much all of these difficulties. Somewhat like Dave Shea, we figured we had to put in a friendly page - although ours is not as good. I also wonder about Safari’s RSS, and whether or not it’s preferable to have feeds display the whole post, or just summaries…or whether both options is necessary.

Moi wrote:

I’m more concerned with how you pronounce RSS than how it is spelt. Every time I see the acronym I hear this little voice from Father Ted…

Matt James wrote:

I definitely agree that we need a way to group news links for related stories the way Google News does where they show the basic story and several links to different pages on the same topic. Knowing them, they probably use a very sophisticated algorithm to do just that.

What I also find would be of high importance is a way of trimming out articles that you aren’t interested in. For instance, I subscribe to quite a few RSS feeds and end up taking hours at a time to cull through them all. When I’m left, depending on the day, I will end up with around 7-10 out of 100. That’s horrible. Sure, some of it is repetitive articles, but still others just happen to be on the news feeds, but I’m not interested in them at all. We need a way of letting the cream rise to the top!

Douglas wrote:

> Maybe offices could start using software for proxying rss feeds?

It is all HTTP, they should be doing it already. Go complain to someone. (And make sure those sites temp banning IPs aren’t sending no-cache headers - that would just be silly. Don’t cache this, but you onyl get to see it once!)

As for the article… I don’t have much to say there. Never had any problems like you describe :)


Allan Burns wrote:

I have been promoting RSS as a channel where you can notify your readers of new content. I think this benefits the readeras they know when there is new content on a site rather than wasting time visiting sites that haven’t changed.

There are many other ways you can use RSS but I won’t go into them here. RSS won’t be going away while people find it useful and useable.

Sean wrote:

So, any chance that OK-Cancel will publish its own RSS feed? I can never remember if I’ve read a particular one. An RSS feed would solve that. But I don’t see one on the site.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Sean: Yep, we’ve had feeds from about week 2 of our inception. The feed is at

It’s on the “subscribe” button under the comic. I suppose we could do those ugly orange xml icons or something.

Skippy wrote:

I use live bookmarks in Firefox, exclusively. But there’s a trick to using them well.

First, I have a folder on my bookmark bar (below the URL field) called “RSS”. Under it, I have other folders, which I strive to always keep well organized by topic. So the first trick is keeping organized.

I add the live bookmarks in these folders. I only add feeds from sites where I’m guaranteed to get very juicy content. I visit many sites, but I only get feeds from those where most posts are chok-full of goodies. (Yes, OK/C is one of them :) ). So the second secret is to be a gourmet: limit yourself to a few, but delicious feeds.

Finally, the navigation is very simple. I open the folder (which will act like a bunch of menus, due to its position) and I scan around for fresh interesting titles. I open a bunch of tabs (about 5, usually), and then I proceed to read them. Sometimes I jump a link to somewhere else, but only if it’s really really useful for the topic at hand. That’s it.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?