Feed me!

March 21, 2007

I suppose that someone else has used this title already to discuss some aspect of RSS feeds. However, it sounded better than “RSS. All that great?”

As many of you know (and do), subscribing to RSS feeds has become commonplace. They offer many advantages because you can get all the latest updates from your favorite sites. Following my wife’s lead, I also set up an RSS feed aggregator account several months ago. However, I only used it a few times, before my usage just petered out.

Like I have said about other technologies, I don’t begrudge others their excitement over RSS feeds. I just don’t want anyone to try “converting” me so that I become a more perfect Web 2.0 librarian or “cybrarian.” (The first thing that comes to mind when I see that word is the Cybermen, followed immediately by the name of a German film director.) Before I become a born-again enthusiast, I need to feel convinced that a new technology will truly benefit me or my patrons. For instance, it took me a while before I caught on to the appeal of MP3 players. When I figured out that I could make iTunes more accommodating of my music tastes, I could not get an iPod soon enough. As for RSS feeds, my excitement level has remained relatively low.

I haven’t been able to figure out my antipathy towards RSS feeds. For whatever reason, I prefer to visit individual sites at my convenience in search of any updates. I sometimes visit a site multiple times before finally seeing some kind of update. Mind, I don’t make such visits obsessively, which probably explains why I don’t use my RSS feed aggregator account. Those who track usage statistics on their sites might be happy, though.

It seems that if you get a notification about updates, you have an obligation to zip to the website immediately. Otherwise, you’ll miss some “important” hot news. Such an attitude may reek of techno-superstition, but perhaps it contains a small bit of truth. Getting the latest news ends up taking on the air of a mini-emergency, even for those of us who do not work in a field that deals with emergencies. Cutting edge businesses might see such updates as valuable, so RSS feeds seem most useful in that sense.

Of course, no one actually has to check their feed aggregators all the time. One can still do so at their own convenience, in much the same way that I check my favorite sites.

Apparently, some actually refer to themselves as RSS bigots. Basically, RSSBs steer clear of blogs if they do not have a way to place them in feed aggregators. Sucks for me, because I do not have an easy way for visitors to do this. That’s mainly because I had trouble getting the danged thing to work, and I have better things to do with my time. (Just like everyone else, I like my technology to work with minimal effort on my part.)
Not having an RSS feed subscription section on my blog does not appear to have done much damage. Somewhere around 40 people subscribe to my feed already. To those of you who have subscribed, my guess is that you either pressed the orange RSS subscription button in the toolbar, or that you added /feed to my blog’s URL. Whatever you did, I’m glad to know that some people out there aren’t “bigots,” and that they judge blogs by their content.

And why in the world would someone call themselves a “bigot,” anyway? I know it’s an attention grabber, but c’mon… the word has plenty of bad connotations.

Going beyond my own antipathy towards RSS feeds, Tony Snow’s latest column in Wired questions their contribution towards the betterment of society. Snow begins by discussing the availability of amounts of information, as well as how more people are “connected,” However, Snow sees some irony, because he believes that increased “connectivity” also allows people to become more insular. As a result, they can stay away from information that they deem “inconvenient.” (Within the context of librarianship, the issues brought up by Snow could relate somewhat to those raised by Rachel Gordon Singer’s recent Oroberosity posting.)

When discussing RSS feeds, Snow mentions how they can only send updates based on what one selects as areas of interest. Although nothing stops socially-conscious folks from selecting RSS feeds that Snow would probably find appropriate, I think he identifies an essential problem of individuals developing an echo chamber that aggregates ideas with which people feel “comfortable” (which, paradoxically, could induce discomfort in others). In the case of some databases that allow users to start feeds (or alerts) based on saved search strategies, they might not account for changes in interests over time. As a result, one can keep receiving “alerts” on topics that they no longer find interesting. Although one can delete the search strategy alert from their profiles, the process might seem more trouble than it’s worth. I suspect that people are likely to just delete an individual update and put it out of mind… until the next update. Nothing insidious there, but the accretion of such alerts adds just a bit more “infonoise” to one’s diet of incoming information. I know whereof I speak, because that happened to me and my supervisor in ScienceDirect. In fact, I think she still receives a notification about “concrete,” which she did as a demo of the database’s search alert capabilities a few years ago.

Besides the potential to induce an ennervating cocktail of laziness and information overload, an over-reliance on RSS feeds or database alerts could make people lose out on new sources of information that they might find interesting. Although aggregated feed or alert accounts might point one to new information, occasionally going on the Internet and finding sites the old-fashioned way (or via serendipity) can only expand one’s range of sources. RSS feeds and alerts may be convenient, but finding new sources beyond the usual suspects can bring the truly fresh perspectives necessary for getting by in a rapidly-changing world. Ironically, perhaps searching the old-fashioned way seems like the best way to do just that.


2 Responses to “Feed me!”

  1. I won’t attempt to “convert” you–maybe because I only use an aggregator to keep up with a large number of relatively low-frequency blogs, NOT as a news alert or other “alert” service. It works for me. It might not work for you. I think the points you make are good ones. (Of course, I also read and treasure a daily newspaper, so I’m clearly old-fashioned…) (I don’t think of myself as an “RSS user” at all; when I was using Bloglines one-click subscribe, before both major browsers added the li’l orange icon in the address bar, I usually chose the Atom version anyway. These days, it’s likely to be the format-agnostic Feedburner feed.)

    Subscribing to TSPL takes exactly as long as subscribing to an “RSS-friendly” blog with big icons or whatever, at least for Firefox 2 or IE7 users: Basically one click. Which I did a while back… Anyone who’s so “bigoted” that they require an in-blog icon is probably not going to appreciate your thoughtful commentaries anyway.

  2. Jason Says:

    Thanks, Walt, for not trying to convert me, and for your concern about “RSS bigots.” However, as I was writing my posting, I kept wondering if such selectivity remained an issue. Much of what I found on that topic, including your dissenting opinions on the usefulness of RSS bigotry, come from a few years ago. That seems like a hopeful sign, especially since the “little orange button” renders in-blog icons redundant.

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