What Twitter won’t kill – RSS and cultural depth

At the Peninsula Dim Sum Tweetup, Chris Heuer expressed some concern that the shift toward realtime status and realtime search would usher in a dark new age of cultural amnesia in which people’s attention is riveted to the trivially new and we lose the ability to understand in context. This concern is a cultural expression of the technical prediction that in the age of Twitter, Google is dead, RSS is dead, non-realtime content is dead.

I’m less concerned. Sure, the shiny realtime is taking an increasing amount of attention share. And sure, the decentralized digg of realtime meme- and link-sharing is creating a powerful new toolset for discovery. But I strongly suspect that the internet will continue to foster interest in the deep as well as the shiny, and that they are connected. Also, the improved understanding of the value of streams will increase the use of of non-real time streams.

When twitter or some other realtime stream exposes a meme or a link, you can do a few things – pass it on, “like” it up, engage in current conversation, save it for later, and dive into the topic. Realtime helps you participate in the current conversation. Google search helps with the deeper dive.

There reason I’m not worried about amnesia is Clay Shirky’s math about the creative surplus. When hundreds of millions of people are networked, it only takes a very small number of more deeply engaged people to create Linux and Wikipedia. Sure, many more people may see and spread a meme than the number of people who dive deeply into it and organize around it. But math and accessibility favor the deep dive. Not many people will do it, but enough people will, and enough people will connect with each other, that we’ll get the depth and the action.

Let me give just one tiny example. Twitter, and specialized tools like Blip.fm and Last.fm make it easy to share immediate music updates. And then Google, Youtube, Myspace, Last.fm, Amazon and many more sites make it super-easy to find more about the music and get further into it. The stream is the tip of of the iceberg.

As for realtime displacing slower streams, the key is a better shared understanding of attention. Yes, realtime feeds replace RSS for immediate information, because it’s more immediate. But there are other, less-real-time uses for information feeds. As Lee Bryant and Shell Israel observe, RSS is a glue technology for exposing streams of information in relevant context, when there isn’t a need for immediate notice.

The first question is why is a stream needed at all. Is a source of information visible enough to the people closest to it, and are they the only people who want the information? No need for a stream. Do you want the information to be more visible, and visible to more people, get a stream. Do you want to share the information in a different context? Embed a feed. Does it not matter if the information is an hour old? Use an RSS feed. These stream management practices will become better understood, and the popularity of live streams will accelerate learning about how to use streams overall.

One thought on “What Twitter won’t kill – RSS and cultural depth”

  1. For more than a year I have nearly abandoned my RSS feed I was consuming ravenously. To a large degree Twitter killed it. But, the reasoning why is what I am trying to fix.

    RSS in its current state is broken for me, I have a broken for me I have over 400 feeds I care about. These feeds include a wide breadth of professional (as well as quasi professional) interests. The lot of them produce between 2.5k to 3k items each day. The information gems I find in them are 3 to 10 items a day. My patterns and the patterns in the feeds can be scriptable and I am aiming to do that when time avails (does it ever?).

    But, one of the things that surfaced in the grappling with feeds is they each fit into categories for use (status updates, activities, subject information streams, etc.). But, the harbinger in this bunch is the subject information as the feeds often cover a wider breadth of interests than what I care about (multi-subject streams) and many feeds will cover the same topic that point at the same core object (URL). I really want to have more granular subject parsing (granular social network) and aggregating of ‘like’ items, similar to a TechMeme approach.

    RSS have incredible value, but the tools for consuming and making better sense as well as use from them needs a radical jump.

    I deeply agree with your premise that we use the information in the feeds in different contexts (moving out of the flow) to share with others or to hold onto. These activities (be it on the desktop or in one’s pocket) needs to be fleshed out with a focus on ease of reuse and refinding (aggregating) when needed.

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