Why Do Feeds Fail?

Do you know your friendly neighborhood feed?Yesterday, we were meeting as a team to chat about how Connect enhancements, when Paul says he would use Connect more if he could have the activity running in Firefox via an add-on.

Sounds like a good idea to me, and I’m already thinking of people who might want to tinker with an add-on, which should be easy because we have REST APIs, etc.

Then Anthony says that can be accomplished with any number of feed reading add-ons already available. Doh, over-engineering fail.

Of course, Anthony is right, so I spent a few hours tinkering with a few of these add-ons and the activity feeds from Connect. Makes for a pretty good solution overall, and I just finished a page (one of Rich’s Easter Egg features) to let people know about this method for consuming Connect activity.

The bigger picture here is that feeds are an afterthought in the enterprise, even for people who think about feeds everyday, like me.

I gave up trying to convince people to use feeds to read information on the ‘tubes long ago, but now, many internal systems generate feeds, creating renewed interest. Still, I struggle to get people to use the feeds we produce; everyone wants email first.

I don’t get that; if Connect sends you bacn, won’t that make you more annoyed, since everyone says they have too much email?

The real question here is why people won’t use feeds? I have some ideas.

1) Feeds (RSS, Atom, XML) have always been under-explained. They’re quietly advertised by that little orange icon, with no obvious “what’s it for” explanation. You can get one in some places, mostly content providers, but mostly, feeds are a mystery to the average user.

2) You have to do something to use feeds. The fact that you need a feed reader before you can read a feed probably causes most people to quit before even trying.

3) There are so many feed readers, choosing one is a chore. Plus, even easy, breezy web-based readers (Google Reader, Bloglines) require a learning curve.

4) You have to remember to use them. This is probably the last straw for a lot of people. They have to launch the feed reader or do to the web app. Tough to build that habit. Even mail clients with feed reading capabilities (e.g. Thunderbird) suffer from this problem. Feeds don’t require a response, like email, so they’re easily ignored.

5) Feed are geeky. I get the feeling that most people think this, but I’m not sure why. Maybe RSS scares them off because it’s another acronym. No idea.

Do you have other ideas?

Feeds need a makeover. Someone’s going to get rich by figuring out how to make feed reading as commonplace as Googling or Facebooking. If only it were me.

Find the comments and share your thoughts.




  1. I agree that feeds are quite mysterious at first sight, it took some time to “get” the idea even for a technically-inclined person such as yours truly. On the other hand, the tools for reading feeds are all the more ubiquitous, Safari and Firefox both support them out of the box and at least Firefox seems to default to adding them to your bookmark bar where they are in your sight most of the time (even so, I sometimes forget to check whether there are any updates).

    For me, the problem seems to be more on controlling and managing the numerous feeds: there are hundreds of unread entries at any given moment waiting to be skimmed through and often I just skip the whole thing and mark all as read. This is especially the problem with aggregate feeds such as Digg and OraNA; with such a wide spectrum of content (and often little or no editorial control), the headlines vary in quality and make following the feed difficult.

    Feeds + Social, now there's something! I like your “What We're Reading” sidebar app / feed. I would also imagine a “learning” feed that would rate feed items based on your previous reading habits, tag words and such and only show items above a certain treshold would render many a feed more meaningful.

  2. Even with Safari/Firefox built-in support, feeds are still way behind the curve. Syndication is a solid idea; it's really sad that it hasn't gained popularity.

    I have the exact same problem with unread items. Seems like undone work, making me itch to click mark all as read. Totally psychological.

    Social added to just about anything seems to work well. Glad you like the Reader munge widget. I find all kinds of new stuff in the shared items of people I know; it's like having a social filter on the 'tubes. Most of the smart feed readers I've used are decent; Google Reader has suggestions now. Decent, but still a long way to go.

  3. @Top1 – I recommend the following Youtube video,

    , because I succeeded in proselytizing several RSS nonbelievers.

  4. I like the reasons that you listed. I'd put the learning curve at the top of the list. People are already not very technologically inclined. RSS just screams geek and sounds difficult. They'd need someone to show them first hand how it works.

    Of course, remembering to check them would be priority #2.

  5. First, thanks for commenting here and on FriendFeed. I appreciate the human aggregation 🙂

    As I said on FF, there isn't an order in my head. I just dumped them as they came to me, probably shouldn't have numbered them.

    You are correct about the geek factor. Lots of people I talk to about RSS glaze over as I try to explain it. The lack of a proxy-capable web reader hinders adoption in the enterprise too.

    There will be someone who makes a lot of money figuring out how to make feed reading mainstream. It might take a couple years, but as people come to FB and other apps online, the need for aggregation will grow.

    Maybe FB will become a reader. All your feeds . . .

  6. This subject is very relevant to me, since i'm running a RSS/ATOM feed filtering web site Feed Distiller.
    They're have been a few similar companies, and a lot of dead companies doing the same thing. Newsgator is doing aright though.

    To make feed reading mainstream, i think people are going better tools for managing there incoming feeds, not just subscribing to every article a particular blogger writes. I think in the future people going to become aware of feeds, through the widgets presenting feeds, on someone elses website. People tend to like browsing content more than having it pushed toward them, which goes some way to explain the lack of take up of feeds. I think feeds will be successful soon, I'm betting my future upon it, right now.

  7. Interesting point about widgets, based on the feedback I've got about the “What We're Reading” widget here, people do actually like it, at least a few do.

    Still, I think we're talking about the early adopters. I think the only way to make feeds mainstream is to use a mainstream delivery mechanism (like Facebook) and leave out some of the flexibility, which adds to the “geekiness” that Corvida and other have mentioned.

    Or go with a combined approach like a Boxee that delivers all kinds of content, including feeds. Feed readers have to evolve to reach the mainstream.

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