Twitter vs. RSS

I’ve been reading a few people’s ideas about the future of content filtering on the interwebs.  Generally, a lot of the tech-savvy peeps out there are saying that RSS is dead – that it’s an antiquated way of reading information.  This guy argues that we should all use Twitter instead – that it will do just as good a job filtering content so that I only see the stuff I want to see.  Other applications are trying to filter content as well.  Facebook is trying to push users towards the “top news” timeline rather than the “most recent.”  Other forums like Reddit and a bajillion others use some method of voting, so that the best information gravitates to the top.  Even Google recently removed their prominent link to Google Reader from the top of their Gmail page.

This is great, but I have a few problems with the idea that this form of media consumption is a suitable replacement for RSS.  I don’t want to be the luddite that won’t move away from RSS even though everyone else already has, but using Google Reader does a few things for me that other methods of receiving information aren’t doing.

1. Twitter, Facebook, and other methods of getting info don’t keep track of what I’ve seen and what I haven’t.  This makes it great for discovering stuff that I have no idea is out there, but it’s a clumsy way to keep track of info I know is coming.  It’s easy for things to get lost.  I follow 140 people on twitter (which is extremely modest, some follow many more), and I’m often frustrated when I log in, and can’t tell where I left off reading last time.  Also, you start reading at the newest, which means you’re reading all the conversations backwards.  Annoying.

2. Twitter is real-time, but my viewing time comes in spurts.  I can’t keep up with real-time info feeds reliably, because I have things to do other than read twitter all day.  Twitter doesn’t work well at all for someone who, for example, doesn’t have time to read much during the week, but has plenty of time to catch up on weekends.

3. A lot of the information I want to read (and most of what I produce) will never get voted to the top of anything.  Maybe it’s my aunt’s cat blog and I’m the only reader or something…. but I want to make sure I read all new content, even if it’s lousy.  If I rely only on sources like Facebook or Twitter, I’m sure to miss something.

4. Twitter often requires me to click through to another page before I can tell if it’s something I’m interested in reading or not – this problem is compounded by the ubiquitous shortened URL’s that don’t give me any indication about where I’m clicking through to.

Of course, all this being said, I can certainly admit that I spend a lot of time trying to filter through everything on my own in Google Reader.  I have tons of stuff in my reader that I don’t regularly read, but I leave it in there because every once in a while something useful pops up.  I can certainly see the value of a media format that would sort that for me  …but…. If I moved away from RSS, wouldn’t I just follow those same news outlets in Twitter, leaving me to sort through the same amount of stuff?

7 thoughts on “Twitter vs. RSS”

  1. I see Twitter as more as an active activity where I interact with people, where I see my Google Reader as more of a passive activity where I'm consuming content. I like both, but they don't serve the same purpose for me.

  2. Well said, Reuben. I agree completely with the points you raise. I also agree with Emily too. If RSS is dying, hopefully something non-Twittery will take its place. I too have a bazillion feeds that I follow and appreciate that I can track what I have read or not read and also share my fab finds with my friends through Reader.

  3. @Everyone – yea – I can see the limitations of RSS, but we're going to need something a hell of a lot better than Twitter to replace it. That being said, I'm sure we will see changes to Twitter that will make it better and also change it entirely once people get bored with 140 characters.

    @Sarah – one of my frustrations with Google Reader is that they really don't make it easy to follow people. You've been a regular (and valued!) commenter here on this blog for a while now, and yet, Google Reader hasn't suggested I follow your shared items. This seems like a totally missed opportunity for community building! How do I follow your shared items?

  4. First thing – I've never had Reader at the top of my Google pages, even though it is by far the Google product I use most. Maybe there is a setting somewhere to customize that but I've never checked.

    Second – I think the comments for the article you linked to are quite telling: the guy basically wrote it to get a rise out of people.

    I think he had a good point, but he chose to speak in broad terms rather than what he really meant by it (RSS is Dead vs. Twitter Works Better for My Needs). He used RSS as a way to comb through other tech news feeds so that he could then write his own stories on whatever the hot topics were for TechCrunch. In tech blogging (and re-blogging), you want to be the first person to have your piece up, making RSS a slow delivery method. By the time you've read it on someone else's feed you've missed the chance to capitalize on the story. You want to be the person people are re-blogging, not re-blogging someone else's work yourself. Twitter remedies this because it is always up to date. You can learn about something the minute it happens. From that angle, Twitter is more useful.

    When the shootings happened in Arizona this month, I wasn't checking CNN or my RSS feeds for information – I was searching Twitter. Before the TV stations had even announced his name, through Twitter you could see a photo of the guy, watch videos on his YouTube channel, take a look at his MySpace page, and read all the surrounding social commentary. In retrospect, this did not make my life any better. In fact for that 12 hour period I think it made it worse. I don't need up to date information like that, but the fact that it was accessible got me hooked in, depressed, angry, and disconnected from things that were happening in my life that day. The concept of instant news is interesting but I don't know that I understand the real value after that.

    For people who want to read specific topics or specific blogs like you and I, Twitter is not better. If I only subscribed to Twitter feeds of people I'm interested in, links to their blog updates would get buried in all the other "So-and-so is now the Mayor of McDonald's" and Kanye West re-tweets. I would miss most of the content I actually want.

  5. To see my shares or other Reader users shares, you can create connections through the Sharing Settings. I was able to pop in your email address and add you to my list. I am not so sure you want to see my silly shares but I can shoot you an sharing request email that will give you my shared items link.

  6. I have yet to find an algorithm that knows what kind of mood I'm in and what content to display based on that. Until that happens RSS is my favorite way to consume content on my time and in the order in which I choose.

    I totally agree with Emily's sentiment that Twitter is an active interaction for me instead of a consumption device.

    The only thing for me that strays from that for me is my read-list list on Twitter which I have sites that I deem as too busy for my reader so I subscribe to them in that way and look back later (sites like Minnpost, strib, techcrunch, techdirt, mashable, rww, etc etc)

    Great post reuben!

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