The problem with RSS

RSS logoGoogle shuts down its RSS reader soon, and this has the usual suspects talking about what’s “wrong” with RSS. I’ve written much about the technology, and I’ve always been an enormous fan. Dave Winer basically invented the concept of moving content around the Web sans formatting, and it’s always “worked” for me. I built aggregators in Nashville that were enormously popular among the web crowd, and I’ve supported Dave at every turn. Dave likes news rivers, and I do, too, but I don’t believe that’s the best use of RSS. One of the interesting things about RSS is its versatility, as Dave explains:

…people who believe in mailbox-style RSS readers are in a RDF. If I say “I like a river style of news” they almost explode in passion and sometimes rage. They tell you what they need. At length, in great detail. I never understood why they do this. But I have found the solution. Just say ‘Hey I can have a river and you can have a mailbox and the earth will still revolve around the sun, birds will sing in the morning, people will fall in love and have babies, etc etc.’ My getting what I want won’t effect you getting what you want.”

In my view, RSS is an XML software that stands alone in the distribution of unbundled media. The reason it hasn’t blossomed into what it could be is that the people who make the content that we presumably want to read/watch make their money via THEIR infrastructures, not the content directly. Therefore, they are disincentivized to participate in anything that lessens the need for that infrastructure. This has led to media companies using the “headline and couple sentence” format in their RSS distribution.

Imagine Twitter being handled this way. Instead of 140 characters, everybody sent just 40 characters, with the requirement that the user had to click on the Twitter item in order to read the remaining 100 characters. Obviously, that would be a pain-in-the-ass, and Twitter would soon cease to exist. This is different than tweets that contain links. In my example, access to the link would be beyond the first 40 characters. To me, this has been the misuse of this great piece of technology. I profoundly believe in full-feed RSS. To me, that’s its most powerful product, and until we find a way to play in that environment, RSS will never reach its full potential.

The dawn of so-called “Native Advertising” could bring with it a market for distributing this kind of content via RSS, and that might open the flood gates of revenue for entrepreneurs and those who make the content.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The Pomo Blog is back in business

Greetings, fellow travelers.

This blog has been sick for nearly three years, but today I can pronounce it healthy and recovered. Long-term readers will recall I was infected by a virus that likely came in via the shared hosting I was unfortunately using at the time. The event corrupted all of my archives at that point and broke everything. While I was able to get it up and running, it wasn’t the same until these last few weeks and months. I’m now on a dedicated Unix server with people I really trust, and all ten years of my archives have been fully restored (3,000+ posts).

Tony Cecala

I want to thank Tony Cecala, Ph.D., Dallas area WordPress guru, and alpha geek for his effort in fixing what was an incredible mess. I’m also taking some advanced classes with Tony and hope to better my skills at using the software that has become the default, go-to CMS for the open source community. I can’t possibly over recommend Tony and his knowledge and experience with WordPress. If you really need an expert (as I did), he’s your guy.

I’ve also been very busy writing other things the past year and haven’t really been able to dedicate the time necessary to serious blogging. It’s looking like that’s about to change, so I promise I’m back with a serious intent to spend more quality time here.

I want to also take a moment to point to what Dave Winer’s doing with tabbed rivers that run on RSS. The future for information distribution lies here, not in privately held profit centers like Facebook or Twitter. I hope to be adding my 2 cents to this important discussion, for nothing less that the future of our industry (and perhaps even press freedom) is at stake.

Thanks for being with me over the last couple of years. Keep coming back.

We need to get back to basics

Symbol for RSSThe issue is RSS, really simple syndication, a Web protocol that is EXTREMELY efficient for moving content from place to place along the byways of the Web. It’s an XML protocol, which means it passes content separate from formatting, to be reconstructed at the other end. It frustrates media companies, because it removes “their” content from the infrastructure within which they make their money.

I’ve been a student of all things new media for over 14 years, and the current spinning & whirling hodgepodge of everything from this to that has caused me to take a big step back for a bit. When this happens, I start looking at fundamentals and those “big” trends that I’ve talked about often. Maybe it’s the pending Facebook IPO, but I sense forces building for some form of cosmic explosion that will force everyone back to basics. Let me explain.

In earlier days of The Pomo Blog and in my earlier essays, I wrote of the revolution in what I called “unbundled media.” People were sharing individual cuts from albums and newspaper articles and TV clips among other things, all separated from their infrastructures. Today, it seems the successful ventures (can you say “Instagram?”) are trying to do the opposite: putting media into infrastructures like, well, Facebook. This is why I think we all need to be very careful today, because in big money’s attempt to inject artificial equilibrium into the chaos of the Web, things are moving in opposite directions. There will be a day of reckoning.

Back in the early days, I wrote of unbundling news stories and of building newsrooms that would function in such an environment. I even wrote about a revenue play with unbundled content, in some cases, created by the people formerly known as the advertisers. None of it has materialized yet to the extent that I saw, and I’ve always wondered why. I mean, I knew that media companies would struggle with the concept of making money apart from their infrastructures, but I felt (still do) that the right people with money could force this on unwilling industries and that media would eventually see and seize the new value.

There were others on this particular vibe back then, people I had already grown to respect. Umair Haque wrote of the difference between a blockbuster and a snowball rolling downhill, the latter of which is a part of a networked world. He also wrote of unbundled media and the value of quality content over marketing. Dave Winer was putting forth a concept called “rivers of news” based on the simple process of RSS — which he actually invented — and I felt I was joined at the hip with Dave. RSS was and is the perfect distribution vehicle for unbundled bits of media, but it, too, has not yet reached anything near its potential. Dave blames an almost conspiratorial effort by leaders in tech media. RSS, after all, is free and unencumbered. How does Silicon Valley make its fortune from that? Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, Jay Rosen and others were also on the vibe, and if anyone claims provenance for the whole thing, I think I’d have a problem with that. It doesn’t matter who got there first; the point is that a handful of people (much smarter than me) were all exploring this obvious (to us) development at about the same time, but it has seemingly sat there unattended.

Dave Winer never gave up. Heck, I don’t think any of us gave up, but he’s the one who has kept trying to move the rock while the rest of us have been basically cheering him on. Now this week, he’s posted “River of News — FTW!” and it bears a fresh jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.

Dave Winer is a very interesting fellow. A lot of people misinterpret his genius for self absorption or worse, and I think the tech industry is the real loser for it. The more I read Dave, the more I get to know him, and the more I get to know him, the more convinced I become that he’s right.

Doc Searls followed Dave’s piece this week with “Take us to The Rivers.” Doc admonishes his readers to take up arms with Dave, encouraged by this piece by Jason Pontin of Technology Review.”

The bigger and older the industry, the harder it is to make fundamental reforms, or to embrace disruption. Publishing, including newspapers, had been working the same way for many generations, so it has taken awhile for the obvious to sink in…

Last fall, we moved all the editorial in our apps, including the magazine, into a simple RSS feed in a river of news. We dumped the digital replica. Now we’re redesigning Technologyreview.com, which we made entirely free for use, and we’ll follow the Financial Times in using HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we’ll kill our apps, too.

Now back to Dave… Please, this time, listen to the man. While you still can.

My sword is with this group to any extent possible, but I have some advice. Unless and until we set our minds to resolving the revenue problem for media, we’re going to have a hard time (with people who really count) being taken seriously. That’s not intended as a swipe at anybody; it’s a simple fact. How does a media company put ads into its river without insulting people? Is that something we cannot tolerate at all, or would it be best for us to create the rules and protocols? And what about using RSS as a commerce mechanism? The people putting out the content that really matters today are those who used to be advertisers. What’s so wrong with using this technology to resolve their problems. Again, if we could influence the rules, wouldn’t that be worth the effort? And besides, content from advertisers is news in many ways.

I wrote about this back in the day in “The Economy of Unbundled Advertising,” and while the ideas expressed there were perhaps ahead of their time, I believe fundamentally in their hand shake with the Web, and that’s via RSS.

I owe my blogging history to Dave Winer, for he helped me get started. He’s right as rain on this, but the anti-capitalist nature of an open, seemingly chaotic architecture is what’s causing so much grief for those institutions and industries who exist in the old-fashioned, top-down world of modernity. This is the pragmatic postmodernism about which I write and preach. It’s also why, I suspect, I’m so drawn to the minds of people like Dave, Doc, Umair, David Weinberger, Kevin Kelly, and many others. None are opposed to making money; they simply all see the limits of doing it the top-down way.

Like I said, it’s time for all of us to get back to the fundamentals.

TMZ.com goes full-feed RSS

TMZ logoSomething extraordinary happened in the world of online media this week, and nobody seems to have noticed. TMZ.com, that entertainment news and gossip juggernaut, became the biggest site on the planet to offer full-feed RSS. As of this writing, TMZ has not gotten back to me for comments, so the best I can do is speculate. As a person who has followed TMZ since its humble beginnings — and reported extensively (here) on their model, which we call “Continuous News” — I can assure you that full-feed RSS from them is significant.

What is full-feed RSS and why is it so important?

Traditional media companies all have RSS feeds, but the distributed XML portion of new items is capped at a headline and one or two sentences. This is driven by strategy: the media companies want people to read their content on their own websites, because that’s where the money is (they think). This type of feed requires people click on a link to be taken to the company’s own website. It makes sense if mass media is your model, but it makes no sense in the world of distributed (unbundled) media. Traditional media companies have, therefore, used RSS only as a marketing toy, a notification system, of sorts.

But it wasn’t created for that, and every blogger knows it. And apparently, TMZ.com now knows it, too. Here’s the way their feed looked in my RSS reader this week. Before this week, the only thing I’d see in the viewing panel was a headline and a sentence. Now, the entire story is available for viewing WITHOUT me bringing up their website in the browser associated with my reader.

TMZ's RSS feed

Let’s say your TV station carries the syndicated TMZ program. You can now create an RSS widget that brings all of their news into your window. If you’re creating an aggregator of entertainment news using RSS, TMZ’s content will stand out, because it will all “be there.” This is the beauty of place-based distribution, because it doesn’t care where it’s posted; it simply wants to be seen.

This flies in the face of traditional mass media thinking. Who would be so crazy, the thinking goes, as to “give” their exclusive content away like that? The proverbial “crazy like a fox,” that’s who.

Let me state clearly why this is so important.

  • Distributed or unbundled content IS the future of news content. It “fits” the handshake, the touchpoint, the missing puzzle piece of the Web. Downstream, every piece of exclusive content will be unbundled, because if it’s not, it won’t be a part of the coming aggregation plays, those business that SERVE users by filtering or curating the content of the many for the consumption of the one. This is inevitable, no matter how much traditional media kicks and screams against it.
  • Advertising “as items” in an RSS feed are where the real future money is, although it’s only there in a trickle today. These ads are visible. There’s no “banner blindness.” And they provide real SEO value (see below). Look at the image of my reader again. Above the viewing panel is, like any email software, the headlines of the feed. If I see a headline I like, I can read its content below. Now imagine if, say, every 10th headline began with: “ADVERTISEMENT” or “SPONSOR.” I could look at it or not. Ads done this way are of very high value. As I noted a few weeks ago, John Gruber of the geek blog “Daring Fireball” sells a weekly sponsorship for his blog for $5,500 (that’s $22k a month). He’s currently sold out through mid-July. Here’s the way that looks in my reader:Daring Fireball's RSS feed
  • An advertisement as a part of content on a media website is worth another $250 a month, simply due to search engine optimization (SEO) value. It’s a permanent piece of content with a link or multiple links back to the sponsor, and it has significant value back to the advertiser. I know one advertiser who buys the cheapest ad deals possible simply to get his ads (with links) “on” the pages of big websites. Why? He doesn’t care if people actually “see” the ads; for him, it’s all about SEO.
  • There are ad networks that will populate your RSS feed with banners, including all the standard IAB sizes. The problem with these in a viewing panel of a headline-and-sentence feed is that the banner dominates everything, and frankly, that’s an insult. For example, here’s what TMZ competitor Enews Daily’s feed looks like:Enews Daily RSS feedYou can see how ridiculous (and transparent) that looks compared to a whole story with an ad.

RSS advertising hasn’t taken off for the same reason RSS hasn’t fully taken off: the media industry doesn’t see the value (or like it), but I expect that to be changing sooner than later. When that happens, we’ll discover even more about how to monetize that distributed content. There’s been a lot of talk lately about RSS “dying” due to social media, but RSS is the mechanism by which unbundled media moves around the Web, and contrary to dying, I think it’s just moved from the bottle to solid food.

TMZ.com pioneered the Continuous News model by proving that they could produce compelling news content in blog format, item by item and bit by bit. They saw the demand and had the courage to go with the “latest item on top” concept of Web display, something traditional media companies have a hard time grasping. It has served them well

What about you and your company? Are you going to wait until somebody else writes the rules about unbundled advertising, or do you have the courage and conviction to do that yourself?

RSS going mainstream

TNW2011 logoThere’s more evidence this week that full-feed RSS is about to become a go-to technology for all forms of media. At TNW2011 in Amsterdam, companies showed off new technologies, and there seem to be many that duplicate in some way the model of Flipboard, what Steve Jobs described last year as Apple’s favorite iPad app. Flipboard presents RSS feeds in a magazine-style reading format, but it can only do its magic with a site that provides full-feed RSS. In Amsterdam, another technology does the same thing, only this one works in a browser. Pressjack is still in development, but it allows users to create a magazine with multiple feeds and then upload it to the Web for others to see. Pressjack’s Hannah Baldero told The Next Web (TNW) that they’re not really a Flipboard competitor.

While working with our customers to develop new features it became apparent many clients did not have design resources in-house so updating a publication was a lengthy process. We also wanted to address the matter that with a traditional publication, the content is fixed to the time the publication went to print. Readers were moving online as they demanded more up-to-date news.

So, we started about trying to design a technology that would allow publications to update themselves without the need for any design resources and this is where PressJack sprang from. We wanted to ensure a digital edition was always displaying the latest news.”

RSS logoThere’s also Yahoo’s Livestand — “Livestand is a digital newsstand that’s always fresh and effortlessly personalized. Sit back and enjoy the news, entertainment, and local information you love, right on your tablet. The more you use it, the more it gets to know you.” — Treesaver, another browser-based tablet reader — Treesaver will soon be releasing a set of templates for publishers to use and the technology will be open sourced, allowing anyone to customize the idea as they choose. — and NewsAnchor is a Mac app that reads your RSS feeds to you.

These readers are all designed for tablets, and they don’t play well with feeds that are meant to tease users and push them to the home of origin. This will usher in the age of unbundled media about which I’ve been writing for the past 6+ years, and media, especially local media, is totally unprepared. Oh, it’s easy to turn the switch and make full-feeds for consumption in these devices; but how to we make money in so doing?

If all of these companies wish to display advertising around this content, there will have to be some form of licensing developed. Feeds can be password-protected, although my preference would be otherwise. Ads “as” items in a feed is a whole different animal, for what advertiser wouldn’t want his content displayed in magazine form via Flipboard or any other reader? There’s also feed sponsorships, which would also include mentions in the stream.

Of course, media companies could put out their own reader-apps, but they would have a tough time letting go of the content permissions, because we’re so stuck in the past about the value of ours! The user-customization aspect is what troubles media companies and their apps. It’s a matter of control.

But make no mistake, this is coming faster than you think. My advice is to jump in with both feet and start experimenting with your best advertisers. It’s not about CPMs; it’s about the value of such unique or exclusive exposure. Early in gets the worm, if I can twist the old metaphor. Your RSS feeds will one day be far more valuable than your own app.

For more insight into the mainstreaming of RSS this week, read Mathew Ingram’s Are Apps Like Flipboard the Future of Media?

Preparing for Unbundled Television

Last week’s big news about Netflix acquiring rights to a potentially big hit program prior to production – and in the process outbidding even HBO – ought to get our attention. Unbundled television is the future of television, and it’s a scary thought for those of us who’ve spent our lives exploiting the linear “broadcast” paradigm. No one would argue that unbundled consumption is THE current reality in the music world, and it’s just a matter of time before the same can be said of video. This won’t happen overnight (although it might seem that way one day), but what can we do now? How do we prepare for such a shift? That’s the essence of this essay.

Preparing for Unbundled Television

I believe this essay is especially important today and that you’ll use the information contained here to begin the unbundled discussion at your station.