This article by Scott Berkun is a splendid discussion of things that have been done and that could be done to improve web browsers. I found the link on John’s blog, and, like John, I’m more of an enthusiast for RSS feeds than Scott is. But I have often wondered why.
Scott is right in pointing out that RSS has many similarities with push technologies such as Pointcast, and Netscape’s ‘channels’, and other flotsam & jetsam in the internet bubble. It’s an amazingly crude technology – inferior in many ways to good old Usenet news, for example, which I’ve hardly read for years… why is that?
Well, as Robert points out, the rise of RSS is completely dependent on the rise of the ‘blog. And the rise of the blog comes from the fact that the best way to handle information overload is to use humans, not machines, to filter it. Similarly, Google used the human decisions involved in the creation of web pages to build a more useful search engine. For a long time we’ve decided what news we read by relying on newspaper journalists and editors we trust, and what music to listen to by picking a radio station & DJs with similar tastes to our own. Bloggers do just the same for us with web pages. But bloggers aren’t as regular in their habits as radio programmes or newspaper front pages, so we need a way to find out when they’ve written something. Hence RSS.
The older ‘push’ technologies such as Pointcast were impersonal. You were signing up to read whatever a faceless organisation decided was appropriate to throw at you.
Usenet news still exists, of course, though many people now think of it as ‘Google Groups’, and it’s still useful. But there, your decision is to read whatever anybody has to say on a particular subject. Some of it may be useful. A lot of it, often the majority of it, won’t. And we humans would, in general, rather find a person, or a group of people, that we trust, and listen to their opinions, even when they’re off-topic. In fact, a lot of the value of a newspaper, or a blog, is the things you learn about that you wouldn’t have gone looking for, just because they are off-topic.
It’s essentially the human element, the ability to exercise your choice to say to an individual, ‘yes, I’m interested in what you have to say’, that has made Blogs and RSS succeed where earlier systems have fallen by the wayside.