Don’t Call It RSS

In reading Sam Ruby’s RSS presentation to Seybold I was once again struck by the variety of standards, non-standards, and standards-in-waiting that get generically lumped together as “RSS” in a non-technical setting.

My concern is that “RSS” is too cryptic, unintuitive, and inaccurate to encompass all we mean by “RSS”. And I’m also looking for an over-arching metaphor that can be used to describe aspects and things related to “RSS”.

Let’s look at e-mail as a starting point in developing a “grand metaphor” for “RSS”.

The term “e-mail” means “electronic mail” an easily understood metaphor devoid of acronyms. Once a user grasps the basic metaphor, all the accompanying metaphors are self-evident.

So a new user quickly learns that:

“It’s mail, but on your computer. Instead of typing a letter then printing and mailing it, you just send it from your computer outbox to the other person’s computer inbox over the Internet. The Internet acts as the printer, the envelope and postal service.”

The mail metaphor is all-encompassing of the technology. Almost everything related to e-mail uses metaphorical equivalents from physical mail — “inbox”, “message”, “check your mailbox”, “you’ve got mail”, “cc”, “newsletter subscribers”, etc. We use a flying envelope as its symbol without a second thought. Acronyms are buried in administrative settings.

Imagine if instead of using this grand metaphor e-mail had instead been commonly referred to by the underlying technical specifications (as RSS is):

“It’s a POP2/SMTP reader. You use it to download POP3 or IMAP feeds from a remote server and compose SMTP replies that a recipient can read using their POP2/SMTP reader. Oh yeah, no one uses POP2 but that’s still what it’s called because that was the original standard people used.”

What we need is an grand metaphor for everything related to all aspects of this:

“The process by which a publisher provides recurring content that people can read via applications that automatically check for new content from all publishers the reader chooses to monitor.”

Right now we talk about “RSS”, “Syndication”, “Feeds”, “Channels”, “Subscriptions”, “Publish and Subscribe”, “Readers”, “Aggregators”, “NewReaders”, etc. None of these terms provide the over-arching metaphor I think we need to really move RSS past the tipping point with average users.

A global RSS metaphor would have to:

1. Clearly capture the essence of the process defined above.

2. Provide “sub-metaphors” for all processes, people and things related to the global metaphor, and do so consistently. (i.e. no mixed metaphors)

3. Be easy for non-industry types to understand, explain, spell, and remember.

4. Should not overlap with metaphors already used online. (I don’t think you can have multiple metaphors in the same medium, but that may be open for debate)

5. Should not get over-extended and tacky.

What might this grand metaphor be?