The weaknesses of RSS

I am addicted to RSS as a method for getting news, but I have a confession to make: I think it has drawbacks. Sacrilegious though it may sound, one of RSS’ greatest strengths – its ability to pull information from a variety of sources into a central point – is also its biggest weakness. RSS reduces respected sources of information to compete on a level playing field with personal opinions broadcast from blogs. An RSS reader treats them the same. A well-researched, incisive news piece from The Financial Times competes on a par for my attention with the idle musings of an individual blogger.

While intellectually I am able to discriminate based on source credibility, while I scan my feeds I’m looking for snappy headlines which pull me in. That could just as easily come from a blog as from a publication. So my news download leaps from macro-economic and political, right down to personal trivia within an instant. When I’m in download mode first thing, it all goes in. And that’s the risk. If you have say (conservatively) 100 feeds, reading 5 headlines from each, it’s not always easy to recall among those 500 stories where you heard a particular news snippet. Was it on a blog? Or from CNN? Fact, gossip or fiction? It’s easy to lose perspective.

So while we want a blend of news sources, since RSS makes them all appear as equals, it’s important to weight each one according to its credibility.

Nor can RSS entirely replace reading a newspaper or scanning a site for the simple fact that publications still don’t put all their news onto the feed. This means you can miss important but niche stories. While dedicated subject feeds go some way to offset this challenge, by no means are the feeds a full representation of the content of a publication.

The other drawbacks are technical. Often news stories which have been marked as read are republished on the feed and show up as new. This means you can end up reading yesterday’s reheated news thinking it’s freshly cooked.

It’s also hugely text-heavy, which is fast but ignores photojournalism almost entirely. Of course images can be uploaded but a photo can make a story, whereas an RSS piece relies on the headline for its appeal. Photography is under-used in media relations as a means to communicate and I fear RSS will only reinforce that trend.

I’m told (by the team at Nooked.com) that rich media will come to RSS, which will make it far more engaging. I’m also keen that a secure version of RSS is developed which allows authentication. Once you know who you are broadcasting to, the messages can be tailored even further. This can be done in part through the use of password-protected feeds, but the management of it is cumbersome.

Do I think RSS is one of the biggest technologies to impact publishing and public relations? Yes. Does it have its failings at the moment? I’m afraid so.

  • John Garratt

    I agree that authentication and tailoring are vital, but rules need not be rigid. At the client end it needs to be clever enough to classify incoming items and also to drop in the odd serendipitous item that hits the user’s complex, but also changing requirements. Something must be done to help sort out the overwhelming flood of news. At least us editors will never be out of work for long.
    But a recent brief study of some technology PRs showed that few have any RSS programme. It’ll be client driven or nothing for them.

  • Another issue that is slowly creeping into RSS is blog spam. I blogged about this issue a few weeks ago and quickly received feedback from Bob Wyman at PubSub.
    http://hyku.com/blog/archives/000251.html
    It was great to see that they’re aware of the situation and are working on it.

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