It's fairly common knowledge in pop-culture trivia circles that the first video to air on MTV was the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," a song with a title that proved prophetic in its bold announcement of a shift in the way music was consumed and marketed. Something similar but perhaps just as profound is happening with the delivery of information online with tools that leverage RSS (Really Simple Syndication or RDF Site Summary, depending on whom you ask).
When I started using an RSS newsreader daily, some remarkable things happened that I didn't necessarily expect: I began to spend almost no time surfing to keep up with current technology information, and I was suddenly able to manage a large body of incoming information with incredible efficiency. My newsreader has become so integral that it's now sitting in my Windows startup folder along with my e-mail client and contact manager. I'm humming "RSS Killed the Infoglut Star" when I fire up my RSS newsreader in the morning.
My enthusiasm for RSS is relatively new (and as I write this, the Echo project is developing; regardless of what happens there, I hope the spirit of simplicity behind RSS survives). After working with RSS as a syndication format in past jobs at media companies, I finally jumped in with both feet as an RSS consumer a few months ago, and I've never looked back. On a very simple level, leveraging RSS means getting the information I want when I want it, and even the stuff I'm not interested in can be dispensed in record time. In an age of spam and cold calls, this is just what the information-overload doctor ordered.
Over the past few years, the Web itself has become like a blabbering acquaintance with a million fleeting and unconnected ideas, and e-mail has become a crowded cocktail party with a few interesting people whose words are obscured by the gaggle of others frantically trying to sell various unmentionables. With more and more traditional media companies supporting RSS every day and the unmediated voices of thought leaders such as Ray Ozzie and Tim Bray coming through my newsreader via RSS-enabled Weblogs, using my newsreader is like having a cocktail party for busy people where the conversation is lively and almost always to the point.
RSS feeds are really just simple XML documents, but this superficial simplicity can make some think that RSS can't possibly be that useful. One description I've heard hits the nail on the head: RSS newsreaders are TiVos for the Web (credit goes to Phil Wolff for his original statement: "RSS newsreaders are TiVo for bloggers," though I think RSS newsreaders' benefits extend beyond the blogging set). You could call an RSS newsreader a tool for "knowledge management," I suppose, but such a lofty term obscures the beautiful simplicity of such a remarkable tool.
RSS is great because I only get information from the sources to which I subscribe. I only get the updates and changes from those sources, which means I'm not visiting 30 Web sites to see what has changed throughout the day. I don't need any special software other than an inexpensive RSS newsreader (I use Radio Userland, which set me back $39.95).
In the end, however, explaining to the uninitiated why RSS newsreaders are so compelling can be a little frustrating. There's a certain je ne sais quoi about RSS that reminds me of how it felt to describe the Web to people who hadn't yet experienced it. All I know is that I can't go back to my old inefficient ways of consuming information. As the Buggles sang in the first MTV video: "We can't rewind / We've gone too far." And that's a good thing.