Fixing RSS's public-relations problem

Yesterday I spoke with two acquaintances, both of whom have decades-long track records in the high-tech biz, and neither of whom has ever used an RSS newsreader. When I mentioned RSS as an alternative to mailing lists, both said the same thing: "But I don't have time to visit 30 different websites in order to find things out." Of course, that is exactly the problem that RSS solves. And has been solving, for me, since 1999.

Over the years, people have asked me which version of RSS to use. I've always said it doesn't matter, they all do the same thing. But the question always annoys me, because while I've tried to pretend otherwise, the fragmentation of RSS really is a problem. I think it's part of the reason my two acquaintances aren't using RSS today. And if they're not, how can we really expect Tim Bray's Mr. Safe to jump onboard?

Despite the confusion, a very notable Mr. Safe -- the BBC -- just did jump aboard. Given a choice of three formats -- RSS .9x, 1.0, and 2.0 -- the BBC opted for the safe choice: .9x. That's sad in a couple of ways. First, because people at the BBC even had to worry about this choice at all. Second, because 2.0 has a stronger core and a well-defined mechanism for extension. It should have been the safe choice.

I'm delighted to see that Sam Ruby has launched a collaborative effort to review the RSS core and delineate its periphery. According to Tim, Sam's employer -- IBM -- has given him the go-ahead to work fulltime on the project. This is huge. I'm equally delighted to see that Dave Winer is both reporting on and contributing to the discussion.

If the goal of this effort is to nail down what last year's RSS 2.0 process also aimed to achieve -- a solid and universally-acknowledged RSS core, freely extensible in a solid and universally-acknowledged way -- then I hope it moves swiftly to achieve that. The existing core, in my view, requires few (if any) changes. What we need is consensus on the core, the sooner the better.

The periphery is vast. It includes commenting, threaded discussions, semantic modeling, authentication and encryption, and an endless amount of other stuff. All that can come in due course.

Let's be clear: RSS is in no way broken. I, for example, will be using RSS to monitor this current round of analysis and specification. I don't really care whether tags are written as mixed-case or lowercase. But there are issues in the core, and issues related to the delineation of the periphery, that do matter to me. RSS will empower me to tune into its own review process in the most efficient way. What's broken is that not nearly enough people know about, or use, this model of awareness diffusion. That's a public-relations problem, not a technology problem, and one that I hope will at last be fixed.

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