Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link Is Twitter replacing RSS?

This idea came to me by way of TechCrunch, which covered the movement of Feedburner founder Dick Costolo from Google to Twitter. In the article, Mike Arrington references Steve Gillmor’s piece from May where he proclaims RSS dead.

RSS never really caught on with mainstream consumers as a way to follow news. But you can’t argue the success of RSS as a technology. Every blog and every major news website publishes an RSS stream. Those RSS streams, which are really nothing more than URLs where you can pull, via HTTP, an XML document with a list of recent headlines and often the full body of articles, make up the basis of news aggregation services like Google Reader, Google News and MyYahoo.

Why didn’t RSS take off with the mainstream? I believe there are two fundamental reaons. First, discovering new content is hard with RSS and easy with Twitter. Second, because Twitter limits itself to 140 characters, the stream does not carry the full text of articles. Viewers are driven back to the publishers where they see advertisments and fully engage with the publisher’s brand. Hence, publishers love twitter. It brings them traffic to their website. Publishers have a love hate relationship with RSS.

Discovering New Content

Twitter is all about discovering new content. By default, you can see which Twitter users any given person is following and follow the same users. There is no central place to this with RSS.

Google has attempted to address this deficiency by adding features in Google Reader to share what you are reading and find out what popular people read via RSS. But these features are buried and only appear in Google Reader. They are not built into the RSS system.

Twitter has a short memorable namepace making offline communication of feeds possible. ABC news can put right on the TV that you follow them at twitter.com/abc. Twitter serves both the publisher of a feed and the consumer of the feed. RSS never had this. The closest thing we had was Feedburner. Consumers have no idea what feedburner is. It means nothing to them. It was glue technology between Google Reader and a Blog.

Getting Publishers on Your Side

Web publishers live and die by getting traffic to their website where it can be fully monetized via advertising. Twitter drives people back to the publisher. RSS takes the content and makes it available outside the source site. That is not publisher friendly.

I use Google Reader to follow blogs. It works amazingly well. Like most folks, I prefer blogs that publish the full article, not just the headline, so that I can stay within Google Reader rather than jumping to the source site to read the article.

By using Google Reader, I completely avoid the advertisements and I miss out on the comments (there are some ads in the RSS stream, but only a small % of what i would see at the publisher’s site). Publishers have a love hate relationship with RSS for this reason. it helps get them readers, but if everyone used RSS to consume the content, the advertising model falls apart.

Because twitter limits messages to 140 characters, putting the full text of articles into the stream is impossible. Instead, nearly everyone posts via a URL shortening service, driving the reader back to the source site. This is much better for publishers who then get to show ads. It’s arguably better for readers too, since they can engage in the comments.

Where do We Go From Here?

Looking at Twitter as a replacement for RSS, the average person, who mostly consumes content, would rarely post anything to twitter. So forget the long tail of people tweeting what they had for lunch today.

I don’t believe RSS will go away anytime soon. If nothing else, Google relies on it today to index blogs posts for search. But RSS will certainly be marginalized by Twitter. Twitter already enjoys much wider name recognition than RSS amongst consumers. I challenge to you find a person on the street who knows what RSS is. RSS will be relegated to being a glue technology on the web.

My belief is that twitter will evolve much like blogging. While there will be a long tail of personal streams that are read by nearly nobody, the vast majority of the traffic, as measured by publisher to subscriber messages, will be dominated by more mainstream publishers and bloggers who will be sending links to less personal and more news-like content. In the world of media, the vast majority of time spent by consumers is spent on media created by a relatively small number of talented content producers. While the web certainly lowers the cost of entry to becoming a publisher, most people still lack the talent to entertain a large audience.

Further, if Twitter is to replace RSS, then the importance of the twitter clients can’t be overstated. Hence, apps like Tweetdeck and Seesmic will shape our experience and be very valuable, just like Google Reader was. Expect Google to create or buy a killer AJAX twitter client to integrate into their suite of applications.

What’s interesting to me is that Twitter will likely win over RSS precisely because it brought together several important features that you need to cobble together using RSS: discovery, managing multiple subscriptions, and reading the streams. The accident of restricting messages to 140 characters so that viewers needed to go to the source publisher sealed the deal by making Twitter much more publisher friendly than RSS. Publishers were more interested in promoting their Twitter feed than their RSS feed.

I wonder what other services that are successful with the geek set but largely ignored by the mainstream can be popularized by fixing the deficiencies and integrating the various parts under one roof.

  • http://rlieving.blogspot.com rlieving

    Putting aside the irony that Twitter itself is just a giant RSS feed for a moment, I wonder if this point is well made.

    RSS is not a discovery technology. RSS is not a promotion technology, per se. It is a publishing technology and an aggregation technology.

    A better question would be to ask whether the Twitter page (and clients) will replace other aggregation technologies. After reading your post a couple of times, I could see your point that a Twitter page could (possibly) replace Google Reader, Blogline or possibly even My Yahoo! or iGoogle for a limited number of people. Twitter has made it easy to aggregate data from multiple sources – even easier than other places.

    I think you may have hit on an important point, though. As a person who has tried to explain and set up Google Reader on people's machines, the benefits are often hard to easily explain versus the multiple steps (find RSS, add to reader, organize) it takes to get a feed set up. So, my conclusion is that RSS just needs a better aggregation methodology.

    One last point where I think you got something wrong. You said:

    “I wonder what other services that are successful with the geek set but largely ignored by the mainstream can be popularized by fixing the deficiencies and integrating the various parts under one roof.”

    Twitter, in itself is a geek medium that is not well understood or adopted by most internet users. I bet if you looked at the statistics of people on the internet who use Twitter vs. those who use RSS (on purpose or accidentally), you would find that RSS adoption dwarfs Twitter.

    Anyway, good post. I think it misses the mark a bit. But it is thought provoking.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    I agree. RSS is glue technology for the web. Twitter lives at a higher level and uses similar glue technologies underneath.

    My point was that Twitter is succeeding where Google Reader/RSS failed to catch on. Like you, I tried to teach famiy how to track blogs using Google Reader and they just found it too complicated.

    I dont know the exact numbers of users of twitter vs google reader and the like, but I do know that mainstream media actively advertises their twitter handle on TV but does not try to get their audience to subscribe to their content via RSS.

    There is RSS the technology and then there is RSS combined with google reader or similar that allows consumers to track a whole bunch of media sources at once. I would argue that twitter is going to be more successful than RSS was at the latter.

    But as I said, I don't think RSS will go away but I believe that in terms of direct use by consumers, twitter will be more successful than RSS combined with readers.

    Of course, MyYahoo might be bigger today than Twitter is and that is all based on RSS. So maybe this all takes a while.

    And I stand by my last question. Can we think of other things that geeks do with great effort that are an opportunity for simplication as a consumer play. If you look at geek behavior, you can often find the seeds of a future product. For example, my friends were building NATD routers out of old PCs running freeBSD at least 3 years before broadband routers from linksys came out that shrunk the whole thing into a small appliance.

  • DavidMc

    Hi Andrew,

    Of course, what makes Google Reader work for me, far more than the particulars of RSS, is their seamless integration of Google Wireless Transcoder. Integrating something similar into Twitter would make the “cost” of clicking on a link with a slow cell connection much lower and therefore make it much easier to use Twitter as a RSS substitute.

    BTW, if you know of any Twitter iPhone apps that use similar link compression, I'd be very interested. :-)

    - Dave

  • tslow

    “Aggregation technology”?

    With a 160 character limit? Transient data with detached context?

    That's not aggregation. It's consume and discard. Both RSS and Twitter do that.

    Twitter and RSS both fail to “catch on” at large (a la Walter Cronkite or Amazon.com) save for the spin precisely because they do not “aggregate”. They cannot filter the overload of information. They do the opposite, so the data points eventually become linear and meaningless.

    To make sense of them, we all will need a personal librarian!

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  • DavidMc

    Readtwit does part of the GoogleReader/Twitter merge. Not perfect, but a good first step.

    - Dave

  • http://dz5080.blogspot.com/ DZ5080

    rss is the best way to announce new article.

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  • Darryl

    Feh. Twitter.

    Andrew wrote “My point was that Twitter is succeeding where Google Reader/RSS failed to catch on. Like you, I tried to teach famiy how to track blogs using Google Reader and they just found it too complicated.”

    So Andrew is your family on Twitter?

    Also: If Twitter is great for the publisher, driving traffic to originating sites, and Twitter clients are important (nay essential) for managing the flood of poorly organized tweets…

    Then how does Twitter itself stay in business? If everybody uses a client, ads on Twitter.com are useless, as are “recommendations”. SMS fees and server upgrades aren't free, nor are the costs easily passed on to reader or publisher (unless they somehow decide to differentiate between the “professional” and “amateur” tweeters).

    Also, when I see actual 140-character information (not links) passed along on Twitter, I see plenty of commenting happening there, *not* on some forum. The crappy thing about this (aside from nobody making any money off of this), is that the threads are near impossible to follow after the fact. There is no deep search/threading of old conversations on Twitter. It is super-annoying to try and follow a possibly informative/interesting discussion between two people using @notation because of all the extra chaff in between.

    I suppose this could be solved by a well-written client/search engine, but it drives me freaking crazy at the moment.

  • Darryl

    Feh. Twitter.

    Andrew wrote “My point was that Twitter is succeeding where Google Reader/RSS failed to catch on. Like you, I tried to teach famiy how to track blogs using Google Reader and they just found it too complicated.”

    So Andrew is your family on Twitter?

    Also: If Twitter is great for the publisher, driving traffic to originating sites, and Twitter clients are important (nay essential) for managing the flood of poorly organized tweets…

    Then how does Twitter itself stay in business? If everybody uses a client, ads on Twitter.com are useless, as are “recommendations”. SMS fees and server upgrades aren't free, nor are the costs easily passed on to reader or publisher (unless they somehow decide to differentiate between the “professional” and “amateur” tweeters).

    Also, when I see actual 140-character information (not links) passed along on Twitter, I see plenty of commenting happening there, *not* on some forum. The crappy thing about this (aside from nobody making any money off of this), is that the threads are near impossible to follow after the fact. There is no deep search/threading of old conversations on Twitter. It is super-annoying to try and follow a possibly informative/interesting discussion between two people using @notation because of all the extra chaff in between.

    I suppose this could be solved by a well-written client/search engine, but it drives me freaking crazy at the moment.

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