Technology

RSS, Not R.I.P.: Tool That Brings the News to You Is Still Useful

Posted Feb 1, 2011 2:10 AM CDT
By Dennis Kennedy

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Illustration by Jim Frazier

It’s long been said that we overestimate the short-term impact of the Internet but greatly underestimate its long-term impact. The same applies to certain elements of the Net; and RSS, or real simple syndication, is a good illustration of that.

In 2003, I wrote an article saying RSS had changed the world, and I encouraged lawyers to start using tools like news aggregators. I wouldn’t begin to pretend that lawyers have jumped on the RSS reader train since then. I often see blank looks when I ask lawyers if they are familiar with RSS. And lately I’ve seen a fair amount of “RSS is dead” discussion, largely based on the notion that Twitter is taking over the RSS role.

Social media strategist J.D. Lasica famously described RSS as “news that comes to you.” In simplest terms, RSS enables you to “subscribe” to a blog or website once and then receive the updated content from that blog or website automatically.

Originally you would read and receive RSS feeds in a stand-alone program called a news reader or news aggregator. Now you might get RSS feeds through an online tool like Google Reader, in your browser, in Outlook, or even in an iPhone or mobile app. (I’ll note that I’m using the term RSS feed generically, as there are different types of Web feeds and other formats, but the user experience is essentially the same.)

An example: If I write a post on my blog, an RSS feed with the full text of my post is automatically sent out over the Internet to every subscriber. One never has to remember the URL of my blog or visit it again to get my new material.

The availability of an RSS feed is normally shown by the orange universal symbol for a feed. Click on it and you’ll get the location of the feed and some options for subscribing.

Over the past few years the availability of feeds has been extended in many useful ways. I have subscriptions to “saved search” terms in Google and other resources, to Facebook and LinkedIn updates, narrowly defined news topics and much more.

WHY NOT NOW?

To me the value of RSS feeds remains as strong as when I first learned of them. So why hasn’t this approach taken off with lawyers?

First, consuming RSS feeds generally required that you use a separate news reader program or website. Many people did not want to add one more silo to go to for information, even though news readers can definitely result in a reduction of silos. Getting approval to install a new program can be difficult in many firms. Browser-based tools like Google Reader help, but they still create another place to go for information.

Second, the sheer number of information resources we use has increased and changed. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook have risen in importance as information resources. People are more likely to look for ways to pull information into those tools than pull it into a separate tool. Perhaps ironically, the phenomenal growth in iPhone, mobile and other apps to help us manage information resources has increased the number of places we look for it.

As we face increasing information overload, we seem to be looking for filtering tools, often through trusted experts rather than collection tools. The place we look is social media. People use Twitter and the links recommended by those they are connected with. Google Reader has implemented features where you can see blog posts and other items shared by people you know and trust.

At the same time, RSS underlies many features we are taking for granted—from webpage widgets that show updated headlines to mobile apps that provide updated information. We often think in terms of alerts, feeds, updates and similar terms that reflect the essence of RSS.

RSS tools and readers have improved greatly. Create a Google Reader account, subscribe to some feeds, visit Google Reader daily and see how your experience of the Web and your relationship to new information changes.

RSS feeds can be an excellent way to keep up with legal developments, follow news about clients, and otherwise gather new information you care about.

The idea of “news that comes to you” is still very powerful. RSS is a great example of a technology that becomes so useful and ubiquitous, it starts to be taken for granted. Look past the hype and start now to take advantage of the long-term impact.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based legal technology writer and information technology lawyer. DennisKennedy.com is his website and the home of his blog.

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