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RSS Whack-a-mole

Danah Boyd believes that the RSS hype won’t meet the reality. Why? Because feeds are impersonal, and people go to blogs precisely for that personal and personalized touch. She writes:

Syndication is based on an email model, relatively close to a mailing list model. You subscribe to a set number of things and the program informs you of updates. Like email, updates come in the form of a new item. If you leave your syndication tool alone for too long, those new items build up and you’re faced with an INBOX-esque situation, an eternal queue waiting to be checked off. Of course, there’s also a morbid pleasure in keeping that number at zero, motivating most digital control freaks to obsessively and compulsively check off the items as read. Syndication readers are the modern day whack-a-mole. I will fully admit that my digital OCD runs deep. Mixed with digital materialism, a penchant for collecting things and a fetish for information, i found that my addiction to RSS wrecked my world, making it impossible for me to go to bed at night until everything was checked off.

Besides the usability problem (which I had already noted), Danah writes that it is at odds with how youth culture handles the information overload. She continues:

In my blogging research, i was only able to validate her findings. Youth use email to talk with parents and authorities (including corporate emails like from Xanga); it’s where they get the functional stuff. They check email once a day. They get notices there, but they’re mostly disregarded. IM is where the action is. Youth see this as their digital centerpiece, where they communicate with their friends, thereby maintaining their intimate community. They use the Profiles in IM to find out if their friends updated their LJs or Xangas, even though they are subscribed by email as well. The only feed they use is the LJ friends list and hyper LJ users have figured out how to syndicate Xangas into LJ. [Remember: blog is not a meaningful term to youth culture.]

LJ Friends Feeds look a lot more like IM than email, unlike most feed readers. Posts are just aggregated in a reverse-chronological ordering and you page through the various posts. There are no checkboxes, no little red numbers that tell you you didn’t read everything. You can easily scan. Unlike their adult counterparts who seem to add and never delete, youth talk about removing people from their LJ friends list if they’re annoying, if they don’t talk much anymore, etc. Because of the overhead of reading LJ friends’ lists, there is a desire to only retain those who are of actual interest. Youth are not grabbing institutional feeds; they’re not reading name-brand journalists just for show; things like Kottke and Boing Boing mean nothing to them. The only strangers they seek are those of genuine interest, those who are like them. Youth use LJ/Xanga like they use IM – to keep in constant touch with their intimate community.

Interestingly, I already wrote about why RSS is nothing special. But it’s an interesting notion: people more interested in following the musings of their friends than that of complete strangers. They go to networked information in order to reinforce preexisting connections rather than trying to establish new ones (mental or social).

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