Tuesday, July 13, 2010

RSS vs. Twitter

In a previous post, I said I liked using RSS feeds to keep up with current developments from various websites.  Since then, I have had an exchange with the webmaster for a certain website.  I suggested that they should add an RSS feed, and they replied that they had decided that Twitter rather than RSS represented the wave of the future.  I was not aware that there was a contest between Twitter and RSS, probably because I don't use Twitter.  But I hear enough about Twitter that I thought I had better try to find out whether it did indeed provide a better solution for my purposes.  That's what this post is about.

I ran a search to find some guidance.  The first thing I read, by Shannon, seemed to say that Twitter was better than RSS because RSS saves everything and waits for you to dismiss it, whereas with Twitter it just flows by and is gone.  The point here seems to be one of user purpose.  If you're just interested in seeing interesting stuff at random, Twitter may be better.  But if you want to be sure you haven't missed anything from a particular source, I would think you'd prefer RSS.  Shannon is uncomfortable with having to dismiss dozens or hundreds of entries that she hasn't had time to read; she prefers to let it just drift away without her intervention.  But I have found that I can do exactly that without too much difficulty -- and I can sort my sources into categories (I use Google Reader) so that I can quickly decide (and can stay in control of the decision) as to which dozens or hundreds are being dismissed and which are being retained.

More persuasively, Florian Klien said this:

twitter is a platform where spontaneous messages, thoughts, findings, fun facts and any type of content can be published, without the overhead of formulating a big chunk of text e.g. a blog. twitter is great to publish tiny little bits of content that are greatly incoherent.
Florian's argument is that RSS and Twitter have different purposes, so it's not really a "versus" kind of situation.  Use them both as needed.  Toronto Mike elaborates upon this in two ways.  First, he says, from the perspective of the blogger or webmaster, "An RSS subscriber wants to read your blog content. Without a doubt, an RSS subscriber is more valuable than a Twitter Follower. ... If the objective is site visitors [so as to get more ad revenue], Twitter is better, and if the objective is simply having the content read [i.e., actually communicating something to your readers], RSS is better."

Ritu provides a point-by-point comparison.  She and her commenters seem to agree that both RSS and Twitter are valuable, for different reasons:  for the busy person, tweets serve as reminders of a particularly important article that might otherwise go unnoticed in the mountain of information, but Twitter is simply too disorganized to be the sole tool of a serious reader.  More emphatically, Jason Katzenback urges that Twitter is essential from a marketing perspective -- though he makes it sound like Twitter users are an essentially brainless flood, good for income and promotion and clueless on substance.  In that sense, it almost sounds like one of those arguments where there are 20 reasons why Technology A (e.g., Windows, VHS) is so inferior to Technology B (e.g., OS/2, Betamax) -- and yet Technology A nonetheless dies young.  Toronto Mike quotes one of his readers as follows:
Here's something that works just fine (RSS), it's a standard supported all over the place and it's essentially universal.

Twitter depends on one closed source company that still pretty much has no idea how to monetize their service (read: unstable), and it's restricted only to people using Twitter, obviously.

It just seems redundant to me: "Hey, RSS blows, I'm going to hook my RSS feed up to Twitter so that people can access my content in the trendiest, most roundabout and restrictive way possible". It's totally inefficient.
And yet, as I read that, I'm having déjà vu about DejaNews.  That was the name of a service that archived Usenet messages in the 1990s.  Never heard of it?  You can thank Google for that.  They bought DejaNews and proceeded to completely trash it.  It used to be possible to search for posts all the way back to 1981.  You would search in "newsgroups," which were like discussion forums, except they did not die, their addresses did not change, you did not have to depend upon anyone's website to stay in business, etc.  The information was just out there, in the cloud, and it was automatically shared among all servers.  There was no advertising.  Hence Google destroyed it, instead of developing it as a clearly superior technology for some purposes.

That could happen to RSS too, however practical it may be.