RSS – Hot or Not?

A recent Nielson/NetRatings poll (story here) showed a huge gap between the have’s and the have-not’s. Specifically they asked respondents about their usage of RSS and found that 66% either hadn’t heard of RSS or didn’t know what it was used for and that only 11% of web log readers used RSS to monitor blogs (less than 6% of users overall use RSS according to a Pew Research study from January). There are definitely some implications for those (increasing number) of us who are investing in and trying to grow RSS related businesses (and we’re clearly still in the early stage of the adoption curve for RSS enabled technologies – see Bill Burnham’s great post on the subject here)

That is not what I want to talk about here, however. What I want to talk about is something much more basic about how we are looking at the emerging industry that is building around RSS. I want to talk about “42”Those of you who grew up in the 70’s an 80’s (or who saw the recent movie) might recognize 42 as the much anticipated answer to the ultimate question in Douglass Adams’ classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Not exactly what the universe was expecting and most of the 4 part Hitchhiker’s trilogy then chronicles the search for THE ULTIMATE QUESTION. The point being that sometimes the answer we get is because we didn’t understand the question.

I worry about this with RSS. RSS is a technology – not an industry, not a service, not an application. It’s a (somewhat) standardized format for shipping around XML content. Not particularly interesting by itself – it becomes much more interesting when you lawyer something on top of it (access to your favorite blog or podcast; information about your upcoming trip to Aruba; updates on the top accounts you are working on in your SFA or CRM system, etc.).  Techno-geeks understand what you mean when you say things like “what’s your RSS strategy” and “how are you implementing RSS” – just like they understand that SMTP underpins e-mail or that SOAP is what facilitates communication for apps using web services. Everyone uses e-mail – very few people know what SMTP is. Most people make use of .NET or web services enabled applications – I’d guess that most have never heard of SOAP outside of the bathroom.  Both are important technologies, but for the most part behind the scenes.  We need to raise the level of conversation (and action) around RSS.  We can turn “RSS” from a description of an enabling technology into the common name for accessing information through feeds in a central repository (in the same way that successful companies turn their names into verbs), but we need to focus on what RSS does (and building stuff on top of the technology), not just on the technology itself. I’m not at all surprised when I read stats like the one above – we’re still in the early stages of building an industry around a new technology; still early in the hype curve; still figuring out the potential.

As the saying goes: “It’s not the technology . .  it’s what you do with it that counts.”