An Excess of RSS
Here is an irony for you. There is a growing number of people who consume their news and information exclusively through aggregated headline readers, made possible by the magic of RSS feeds. If you are reading this in your mail client, you are clearly not one of them. Your reluctance is entirely reasonable. After all, push content is nothing new and for the most part, nothing spectacular. In the late nineties, Microsoft experimented with web channel subscriptions in Internet Explorer. And then there was push pioneer Pointcast, who we all remember for the $450 million deal that they didn't do. However this time round, the buzz around syndication has a different flavour and not one that may be as pleasant tasting to the media status quo.
The major driver of change is personalisation. With increasing variety of information sources and specialisation of interests, readers want more control over the selection of content. While editorial decisions made by news organisations are still influential and important, but they are only one perspective that is now competing with an army of bloggers whose highly focused domain expertise makes them ideal filters for determining the daily relevance of news stories. Unlike the early push content incarnations which relied on desktop clients to manage subscriptions, the aggregated news readers of today such as Bloglines and Newsgator are web based, and will in the future be platform independent.
Sure - the ability to put your own virtual newspaper together each morning is interesting, but the most compelling characteristic of the emerging syndication space are the network effects of consumption. When you are reading your feed of the New York Times in Bloglines, you can also see who else is subscribing to that feed, and all the other publications and weblogs they themselves subscribe to. Similarly, users of the social bookmarking service del.icio.us, can track other people's reading habits through the use of common tags. Throw in weblog search tools such as Technorati, which ranks websites based on the number of external references made to it by other blog sites and a powerful realisation strikes you. The very reading habits of millions of users are working as a collaborative filter to reduce the complexity of navigating the volume of news sources on the web.
If you think that sounds like a wake up call to the world's incumbent media barons - you are right. While RSS advertising models are still in flux, the cards are on the table for a shift away from content destination sites to content aggregation services. Google are already trialling a beta program of Adsense for feeds which will insert content matched advertising into RSS readers. At the other end of the spectrum, traditional newspaper groups are considering partnering with white label technology providers to offer their audiences branded news aggregation software tools. But as you might imagine, in a world where all content becomes available by feed, it may be feed aggregators and not content providers who have the best chance of commercialising eyeballs while avoiding the costs of producing original material.
As a quick survey of the available tools will make obvious, it is still very much a market catering for early adopters. Weblogs may have hit big time in terms of readership, but for the average consumer - news aggregators and social bookmark tools are still the arcane domain of Slashdot geeks and open source cult members. However if you look at the growth of Yahoo's RSS reader, Ask Jeeves' acquisition of Bloglines, and Google's recent personalisation product - it is inevitable that RSS aggregation will form a core component of the consumer portal feature set. For that reason it is not surprising that non-aligned players, such as Newsgator are now moving swiftly to corner opportunities in the enterprise sector.
It is too early to tell whether enterprise RSS will be a golden goose or a white elephant. Certainly the possibilities seem credible. Using RSS feeds rather than email to keep employees, stakeholders, sales teams or customers informed of company news and opportunities represents both a reduced strain on corporate IT systems as well as the creation of a more effective communications channel. However, as is often the case in major corporate IT projects - it is never just one piece of technology which needs fixing. Tackling the labyrinth of major business systems and practices, unless you are a giant like SAP, is a daunting task for most bootstrapped startups.
Like Pop, the web may ultimately eat itself. The blogosphere is becoming so self referential, it at times threatens to collapse under its own weight. A world full of feeds is no guarantee that there will be any less amount of useless or just plain wrong information in circulation - if anything there will be more compared to the belle époque of newspaper journalism. But like it or not, when it comes to content the wisdom of crowds is likely to be the prevailing one.
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