The steady shift to an RSS-based universe


The Guardian is now providing full-text RSS feeds.

Let’s dig into why this is important, and an indicator of one of the broadest shifts happening in the information landscape.

Over the last few years RSS has shifted from a geek-thing that required explanation, to the point where most people have an RSS reader of some type on their desktops. As people go to more and more information sources, it becomes highly inefficient to visit to them separately, while an RSS readers allows all of your selected information sources to be found in the one place.

Currently virtually every professional publisher provides partial feeds, meaning that if you subscribe to their news feeds in an RSS reader you only get an excerpt or the beginning of the article, and you have to click through to the publishers’ website to read the article. For some years there has been a vigorous debate on whether publishers should provide full or partial feeds. Professional publishers have almost always chosen to direct readers back to their sites, where they can ply them with advertising and make money.

The Guardian is in fact the first major newspaper in the world to provide full-text feeds, according to the Google Reader team.

As it happens, The Guardian feeds will include advertising, taking away the fundamental objection that publishers have of providing full feeds. Undoubtedly there will be lower revenues than from visitors to the site. On the other hand many more people are going to subscribe to the feeds now that they’re full-text.

One of the great advantages of RSS feeds is that you can break down news into many categories, so people can subscribe to the ones they want, and give different priority to the feeds.

The Guardian is providing a fantastic degree of control over what content you receive on your feeds, going beyond just choosing the sports or business section, to being able to drill down to topics, authors, types of content and more. If they don’t provide that discretion, readers will put in the filtering on the consumer side anyway. For now, those that provide greater choice in feed provision are likely to get more users.

In a world where the amount of information continues to increase, I see it as inevitable that information consumption will shift to subscription models. In other words we will subscribe to the information sources we choose, bring them together in one place, and prioritise and sort them there, increasingly rarely going directly to information sources. This is a major challenge for publishers, and The Guardian’s move is likely to shift approaches in the media industry in how they provide feeds.

In organisations, we are seeing the very early steps in the development of what I call “The RSS Enterprise”. For example, in looking at micro-blogging in the enterprise, one of the most important factors is that email is broken as a fundamental communication platform in organisations, and people need to have more choice in the information they access. Micro-blogging is a particular format for information creation and dissemination. More importantly, people have choice on what information sources they subscribe to.

In news publishing, information dissemination is shifting to being intermediated by machines, enabled by the basic platform of providing access to news in a tagged format such as RSS. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick says:

“The UK Guardian is the best example of a newspaper that understands the opportunities in becoming a broker of machine-readable data, instead of just human readable content.”

Indeed, while these are currently new frontiers, publishers will increasingly have to shift to providing news in richer formats. This will allow people to use them in new ways, including mashing them up and viewing them as they choose. This is challenging, but for those that do it well, as The Guardian is currently, stand to be far more central to information flows in the future.