Saturday, June 2, 2007


I was recently discussing with a colleague that RSS feeds and newsreaders weren't really anything new, since Usenet has been doing that since 1979. Why should I really care about RSS? The difference I was told, is that Usenet is now gone but RSS is still here. I'm not really sure which viewpoint was more obsurd.

Usenet news is as popular now as it ever has been. My organization abandoned our feed because we were unable to keep up with the volume. We kind of let it slip into oblivion without a second thought. When you are researching a technical problem and don't find the answer you need on what do you do next? You click "google groups" of course, since there's as much up to date technical information (if not more) available there as archived on the web. Did you know that Google Groups searches a Usenet News archive? If you'd like to download audio books or other likely copyrighted works while "flying under the radar" where do you turn? Still Usenet News. Sites like "" have nice interfaces to let you read or download news, since you've probably forgotten or never heard of the now ancient "nn" news reader and it's many counterparts. The interfaces may have changed, but Usenet News lives on.

That brings us to RSS feeds. 'Blogs, forums, and discussion boards all tend to have RSS built into their websites. RSS gives us a mechanism similar to Usenet News (syndication) for obtaining information. What's new is that this technology exists over the top of web pages. In other words, it is basically a way to subscribe to only the updated pages on web sites which cover topics of your interest. That's almost perfect, since it means you can use a newsreader (like Google Reader) to get new content without having to visit a list of websites. What's just as important is that the same content is also accessible from a web browser for those slow adopters not inclined to use a newsreader.

I say "that's almost perfect" because there's very little reason (ok, no reason at all) to keep an RSS feed on topic. This is my 'blog and even though I've posted relatively few times, the topics are all over the map. Eventually the tagging systems and filtering mechanisms will evolve to maximize the signal to noise ratio in RSS. Until then, I'm not terribly impressed with RSS, but will continue to use it just as my colleagues continue to use "Google Groups."

Incidentally, it seems quite simple to feed Usenet News to a website and syndicate it via RSS. Is that not being done? Seems like a great project for or google.

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