There is a slightly bizarre article today on Online Journalism Blog advocating that newspapers should turn off their RSS feeds and instead push their stories to Twitter (via Cybersoc). Many people have noticed that Twitter has become one of the easiest ways to disseminate content on the internet, leading some to predict the death of RSS.
There are many advantages of using Twitter to spread your message. I have written before about the fact that in some respects Twitter seems to have superseded social bookmarking sites like Delicious. The reason? Twitter has an upper hand in any activity where you want to alert people right away to something you want to share right now.
But this immediacy comes at the expense of its long-term value. Trying to find an old tweet is a nightmare; an impossibility even. You can’t tag tweets — at least without substantially eating into your stringent 140 character limit. And the use of URL shortening services necessitated by Twitter’s character limit comes with its own bucketful of problems.
So should a newspaper completely ditch RSS feeds in favour of Twitter, as Malcolm Coles seems to suggest? Hell no.
His first argument is the strangest of the lot. He points out that many RSS feeds provided by newspapers appear to have few subscribers, and maintains that this is a weakness of RSS.
Despite having virtually no users, the Mail churns out 160 RSS feeds and the Mirror 280. All so a couple of thousand people can look at them in total.
The other papers are just as bad. And while the Guardian has a couple of RSS readers with decent numbers (partly because Google recommends it in its news bundle), it has more feeds than there are people in the UK …
Never heard of the long tail? Having few subscribers to an RSS feed isn’t a weakness. In fact, it plays to the strengths of RSS feeds as the ideal way to disseminate niche content. For me, the problem with newspapers’ approaches to RSS feeds is the complete opposite. As I have written before, they don’t offer enough RSS feeds.
You can scoff at the fact that The Guardian publishes more RSS feeds than there are people living in the UK. But the cost of doing so is pretty small, especially if the feed doesn’t actually have that many takers (because then it uses up less bandwidth). Indeed, as Jon Bounds notes in the comments to the article, in a decent CMS it will take longer (i.e. be more costly) to switch an RSS feed off rather than leave it on.
What potential alternative does a newspaper have if it decides to give up on RSS? Twitter seems to be the big suggestion. Would a Melanie Phillips Twitter account run by the Daily Mail have more than 11 followers on Twitter? Maybe, but the majority of them would probably be robots advertising mucky webcam shows.
For Malcolm Coles, Twitter would be better because you can see which stories are the best by seeing what is retweeted. Retweets are extra good because they promote a newspaper’s content. But people will tweet and retweet about articles they like anyway, whether it comes from an official newspaper Twitter account or not. And to be honest, I could do without my Twitter stream being filled with yet more junky retweets.
According to Malcolm Coles, you can also provide more context in Twitter because “There’s space in 140 characters for newspapers to give some background to stories as well as the headline.” But you can provide the whole article in an RSS feed if you want to, as The Guardian (whose RSS feeds are by far the most popular) has demonstrated. The inability to provide context is in fact Twitter’s greatest weakness. Even a social bookmarking site like Delicious gives you 1,000 characters to play with, not just 140.
It is true that you can have a conversation about stories on Twitter, which you can’t do with RSS feeds. Conversation is practically the raison d’être of Twitter though, so this is not exactly a surprise. All that this underlines is the fact that Twitter and RSS are two very different kinds of tools. One cannot be comfortably substituted for the other.
Malcolm Coles says that the newspapers agree with him because they do not bother to promote their RSS feeds properly. He says that they “have already given up on RSS feeds and no longer actively promote them.”
This ignores the fact that newspapers have never actively promoted RSS feeds. Promotions of RSS feeds haven’t just recently been relegated to the footers. If anything, they have just been promoted there. My last post about newspapers’ RSS feeds outlined my exasperation over the fact that their implementation is sloppy and amateurish, and it is nigh-on impossible to find out if the RSS feed you’re looking for even exists, never mind where it is.
Perhaps, indeed, the newspapers’ failure to properly promote their RSS feeds this is the reason why Melanie Phillips only has eleven subscribers in Google Reader. Maybe Malcolm Coles sees this as a chicken-and-egg scenario, but in this case I definitely know which came first.
The real problem is not that RSS has failed for newspapers. It’s that newspapers have failed at RSS. This is demonstrated by the fact that in the comments, Malcolm Coles ends up relying on the unreliability of the Express’s RSS feeds, rather than any inherent weaknesses in the RSS format itself, in his attempts to support his arguments. If the Express’s RSS feeds are broken and poorly promoted, that’s the Express’s fault, not RSS’s fault.
Personally, if newspapers turned off RSS, I suspect they’d never see me visit their sites again – I use Twitter as a real time stream of information, but my RSS Reader is a library of sources I’ve invested time nad effort in reading regularly and getting to know. One doesn’t replace the other – they co-exist.