Thursday, May 21, 2009

RSS, Twitter, Facebook are dying - what's next?

Steve Gillmor's deeply half-wrong TechCrunch piece about the end of RSS got me thinking about how I consume content online, and what I think is changing. His basic argument is that RSS used to be his essential method of reading content online, but now he doesn't use it anymore and has moved on to Twitter. I think that's an interesting observation, but I only think he's got it partially right.

RSS does need to change:

There's no built-in filtering mechanism, and the most popular RSS reader (Google Reader, but I assume this is true of other major readers) doesn't do a very good job of filtering at all. This is essential, because subscribing to any more than a handful of feeds means that your reader will quickly be totally overwhelmed by new items, and you'll have to do so much picking and choosing that you're spending as much time manually filtering as you are reading, and it's a giant hassle. This is an insanely tractable problem, but I haven't seen any promising attempts to solve it yet.

It's too one-way. There's no standard mechanism for incorporating comments from your friends, or random strangers, or replying to an item and having it be visible by the author or anyone else.

There aren't any interesting or useful social or discoverability aspects. If I want to see what my friends are reading, I can't - Google Reader is making headway here with shared items and bundled feeds, but not nearly enough people I'm friends with use these things to make them worthwhile. And if an item is created somewhere, but I don't subscribe to whatever feed(s) it appears in, I'll never see it, even if it's really similar to stuff I've previously starred or shared.

Gillmor thinks Twitter and, to a lesser extent Facebook, are going to replace RSS. But they have their own share of problems:

Twitter is basically a subset of RSS, feature-wise. Posts are too short to be anything more than headlines in a normal RSS reader. To the user, "following" someone is exactly the same as subscribing to their feed, except it uses a proprietary service. Why can't I simply have all the people I'm currently following appear in my RSS reader? No real reason. Once that happens, why do I care about Twitter, exactly? If RSS and Twitter merged in some way, as they really ought to, then both would be greatly improved - an interactive RSS feed would be very interesting and fun to read.

Links, @replies, RTs and other metadata take up too much of the 140 character limit. Twitter's great for pithy remarks, but it's exactly as much fun as non-fulltext RSS feeds for anything substantive.

Twitter does a great job of being open, but it's still a proprietary service, and if the Web has shown us one thing, it's that Open beats Proprietary almost every time.

The other part of Gillmor's equation, Facebook, also seems (to me) to be in trouble. It's still a very useful tool, and given how much data it now has, I think it's likely to be relevant in some way for a while. But I've used it less and less for a while now, and I've heard anecdotally from many other people that they use it less often as well:

The Newsfeed is too Twitterish - it's filled with stuff I don't care about from people I don't really know. The only filtering available requires me to do too much work.

Applications are a massive disaster that FB can't go back on. The only app that was ever useful was Scrabulous, which they had to take down. Other than that, not a single one that I've seen (which is an admittedly small number, and I'd love it if someone proved me wrong, but I know that nobody will) has been useful or interesting: it seems like they're basically all quizzes at this point, and that got old a couple months ago. Everyone's profile is now way too cluttered with meaningless app detritus, and it makes the site both way less useful and way uglier. It's become Myspace. But apps are too big a bet, and too much a part of the site, to remove now.

At bottom, FB has done almost nothing interesting to take advantage of the fact that they know who all my real life friends are. I find that fucking amazing. They're sitting on a ridiculously valuable set of data, and I'm sure they're banging their heads against the wall trying to come up with a new way to take advantage of it, and they've got bupkus. The move to become an OpenID relying party was genius, but that's not really the same thing, and it doesn't make me want to use FB itself any more than I already do (which is almost never, aside from reply to very occasional messages and invites).

So what really replaces Facebook, Twitter and RSS? I think it's got to be some combination of the three - and that's probably Friendfeed, although I just logged in for the first time in a while, and it's clearly not there yet (it doesn't actually bring in your tweets or your RSS items, unless they're from a friend of yours, which greatly limits its utility.)

Here's what I envision: One site that knows who all my FB friends are, and allows me the option of following their news feeds. If I want, I can follow a random other person's news feed as easily as I can with Twitter, but they don't get automatically added to my "friends" list unless I ask. I have a merged news/RSS stream that I can read, and it gets annotated with interesting items from outside sources similar to those I've expressed some interest in previously (say, by reading the full text of, or starring, bookmarking or sharing).

In other words, a site with three lists of acquaintances: Friends (see all their contact info and updates about them if I navigate to a certain page); Short News (Twitter-style updates); and Long News (blog posts, news articles, etc). One mega-feed that can do all kinds of fancy filtering. And all on an open platform so that I can interact with this service using the web or desktop app of my choice.

Want!