Struggle for context - RSS culture vs walled gardens

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 16, 2013
Just as companies are struggling with compiling the right data for real-time decision making, individuals have the same problem - magnified by dependence on smaller and smaller devices, where filtering content for impact is a daily chore. Here's my thoughts on where that leaves us.

Clear blue sky
Now that hashing out the death of Google Reader is over, where does that leave us? Should fretting about RSS be left to curators like myself? The answer is a resounding no. The debate about RSS is framed incorrectly. The stakes are not about outlier tools mostly used by freaks, geeks, and journalists.

The stakes are about how we get the information we need - exactly when we need it, and on the device we're carrying. Those stakes are not small for enterprisey types making career-defining decisions with big numbers in play. But it’s not as simple as pulling the info you need – there’s an even stronger need to filter out the surge of content that isn’t relevant.

Just as companies are struggling with compiling the right data for real-time decision making, individuals have the same problem - magnified by dependence on smaller and smaller devices, where filtering content for impact is a daily chore.

My obsession with RSS is about the power of filtered feeds to surface the right content and conversations quickly. In my case, the perfect mix involves RSS, email alerts and social discovery; I broke down the pros and cons of each recently.

But one thing surprised me. I did not expect RSS to become a rallying cry for those who believe in an open Internet versus walled social gardens. Of course, that’s the real reason Google shut down Reader: Google desperately wants us to embrace Google Plus as a walled garden for consuming and sharing content.

Google and Facebook aren't looking out for your needs for enterprise context; they are after a different prize: market dominance.  As Marco Amenti put it:

While Google did technically “own” Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.

As we’ve seen from Facebook's evolution, the downside of walled gardens is their total power over your little plot within that garden. Suddenly you lose control of your incoming feed; billboards spring up around your little patch of grass, blocking the view of your own network. Blogs juxtaposing the advertising land grab on Facebook against the tiny space we are left with make the point.

We’re seeing a similar trend in the enterprise, given the rising debates about cloud lock-in, with Google recently conceding that even an 'open' cloud platform has some degree of lock-in. The debate extends to mobile applications, where some advocate for HTML5 and an open web experience, versus the controlled environment of mobile apps. There are no simple answers - other than a gut feeling that vendor lock-in limits customers and stunts the pace of innovation.

The nostalgia that accompanies the loss of personalized space on the Internet is revealing, as in this tribute to the demise of Reader:

Google Reader was special because it was one of the last remaining places on the Internet you could really call your own. In every other way, the nature of news reading on the web these days and the social services that now dominate your attention are crafted by others who dictate what you will read and when. Whether browsing through an editorially run news site, parsing your Twitter stream or reading your Facebook news feed, the links before you are those that others have deemed important.

Fortunately for RSS advocates, there is no need to shed tears – other options are sufficient enough to allow us to carry on. In my case, I curate 1,000 feeds out of Newsblur now. Aside from my inability to tag or search Newsblur content, Newsblur is proving even more powerful than Reader for my purposes (Reader had become a dead platform the last couple of years since the sharing features were dismantled).

The tech press continues to push articles that gloat over the fall of Google Reader. The gloating is usually accompanied by 'there are plenty of other options out there' talk. True - except that ignores how Google squelched RSS competition for years before leaving the playing field with choices that don't have the rich feature sets many of us need.

Here's a few more debunkings for the road:

1. Breaking news isn't the only information problem. From TechCrunch: 'But for me, and I’m sure for others like me who work in the online news space, at some point Google Reader just stopped feeling current enough, fast enough, and comprehensive enough.'

myPOV: Yes, RSS is out of step with the pace of breaking news. If all you care about is mainstream news and big stories, social discovery via social networks is more than sufficient. However, most enterprise folks are industry-specialized. We need to know about stories that aren't heavily shared. And, as we've discussed, context is far more difficult to achieve (e.g. Microsoft makes crucial/noisy announcements, but who can make sense of their enterprise impact?). Information without context doesn't help us make better decisions.

2. Relying on friends to surface essential content is naive. From the same TechCrunch piece: 'I again trust recommendations from my Twitter peeps, and add content to Instapaper or Pocket for later reading instead of looking to individual sources.'

myPOV: In the enterprise, you come to trust certain voices and perspectives. No way should you count on the randomness of social media to present you with those views. There's so much agenda-driven broadcasting on social channels, pushing questionable content to the top; the idea that social networks are some kind of content meritocracy is just that - a nice idea. When you trust certain enterprise bloggers, you want to subscribe to them - via RSS or email.

3. If RSS causes you to have a 'filter bubble,' that's a you problem. From a Washington Post "WONKBLOG": '[Reader] reinforces my filter bubble. Rather than an algorithm filtering what I read, I’m filtering what I read.' 

myPOV: Few of us have time for the quirks of daily content exploration. It's no accident that few enterprise folks have confessed to a StumbleUpon addiction; we don't have time to stumble. If you configure your RSS feeds correctly, you can ensure enough random content to get discovery both close and far from your field. Usually RSS reader failures come down to not wanting to put in the effort. Put in the heavy lifting early, and you'll be amazed what you can pull out later.

As for me, I'm (mostly) out of my belly-aching phase and clam-happy to have a fab new RSS tool to consume, mark, and share out of. But I get pissy when others imply that obsessing over how to prioritize and filter information makes you out of step with the real world.

Whether or not you embrace RSS, adopting a hacker's mentality towards pulling the info you need will serve you far better than hopping onto advertising-laden platforms and trusting fickle display algorithms that were never developed with you in mind.

I'll leave you with this rant I posted on TechCrunch, sparked by the comment 'by and large, the Internet has moved on':

If you're a specialist who believes in mastering your field with the best sources available, the Internet has most certainly NOT moved on. Beware of becoming a social media generalist (read: underemployed freelancer) relying on your friend's recommends in between their cat pictures.

For those who believe that expertise still trumps chatty conversation, and that context from the best and brightest trumps overtweeted superficial news stories, RSS still matters. And Reader was more fully functional than the alternatives. Fortunately there are still some decent ones. I urge anyone who wants to break out of the social herd to use RSS to specialize and change their professional lives. Let your friends 'like' and tweet their way into career obscurity.

And you?

Photo credit: Clear blue sky © Brian Jackson -


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