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Social Editors and Super Nodes – An Appreciation of RSS

By - December 03, 2010

RSS comments.pngYesterday I posted what was pretty much an offhand question – Is RSS Dead? I had been working on the FM Signal, a roundup of the day’s news I post over at the FM Blog. A big part of editing that daily roundup is spent staring into my RSS reader, which culls about 100 or so feeds for me.

I realized I’ve been staring into an RSS reader for the better part of a decade now, and I recalled the various posts I’d recently seen (yes, via my RSS reader) about the death of RSS. Like this one, and this one, and even this one, from way back in 2006. All claimed RSS was over, and, for the most part, that Twitter killed it.

I wondered to myself – am I a dinosaur? I looked at Searchblog’s RSS counter, which has been steadily growing month after month, and realized it was well over 200,000 (yesterday it added 4K folks, from 207K to 211K). Are those folks all zombies or spam robots? I mean, why is it growing? Is the RSS-reading audience really out there?

So I asked. And man, did my RSS readers respond. More than 100 comments in less than a day – the second most I’ve ever gotten in that period of time, I think. And that’s from RSS readers – so they had to click out of their comfy reader environment, come over to the boring HTML web version of my site, pass the captcha/spam test, put in their email, and then write a comment. In short, they had to jump through a lot of hoops to let me know they were there. Hell, Scoble – a “super node” if ever there was one – even chimed in.

I’ve concluded that each comment someone takes the time to leave serves as a proxy for 100 or so folks who probably echo that sentiment, but don’t take the time to leave a missive. It’s my rough guess, but I think it’s in the ballpark, based on years of watching traffic flows and comment levels on my posts. So 100 comments in 24 hours equates to a major response on this small little site, and it’s worth contemplating the feedback.

One comment that stood out for me came from Ged Carroll, who wrote:

Many people are happy to graze Twitter, but the ‘super nodes’ that are the ‘social editors’ need a much more robust way to get content: RSS. If you like RSS is the weapon of choice for the content apex predator, rather than the content herbivores.

A “content apex predator”! Interesting use of metaphor – but I think Ged is onto something here. At Federated, we’ve made a business of aligning ourselves with content creators who have proved themselves capable of convening an engaged and influential audience. That’s the heart of publishing – creating a community of readers/viewers/users who like what you have to say or the service you offer.

And while more and more folks are creating content of value on the web, that doesn’t mean they are all “publishers” in the sense of being professionals who make their living that way. Ged’s comment made me think of Gladwell’s “connectors” – there certainly is a class of folks on the web who derive and create value by processing, digesting, considering and publishing content, and not all of them are professionals in media (in fact, most of them aren’t).

In my post I posited that perhaps RSS was receding into a “Betamax” phase, where only “professionals” in my industry (media) would be users of it. I think I got that wrong, at least in spirit. There is most definitely an RSS cohort of sorts, but it’s not one of “media professionals.” Instead, I think “social editors” or “super nodes” is more spot on. These are the folks who feel compelled to consume a lot of ideas (mainly through the written word), process those ideas, and then create value by responding or annotating those ideas. They derive social status and value by doing so – we reward people who provide these services with out attention and appreciation. They have more Twitter followers than the average bear. They probably have a blog (like Ged does). And they’re most likely the same folks who are driving the phenomenal growth of Tumblr.

Social editors who convene the largest audiences can actually go into business doing what they love – that’s the premise of FM’s initial business model.

But there orders of magnitude more folks who do this well, but may not want to do it full time as a business, or who are content with the influence of an audience in the hundreds or thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions, like many FM sites.

I’m learning a lot about this cohort via FM’s recent acquisition of BigTent and Foodbuzz – both of these businesses have successfully created platforms where influential social editors thrive.

RSS is most certainly not dead, but as many commentators noted, it may evolve quite a bit in the coming years. It has so much going for it – it’s asynchronous, it’s flexible, it’s entirely subjective (in that you pick your feeds yourself, as opposed to how Facebook works), it allows for robust UIs to be built around it. It’s a fundamentally “Independent Web” technology.

But RSS also has major problems, in particular, there’s not a native monetization signal that goes with it. Yesterday’s post proves I have a lot of active RSS readers, but I don’t have a way to engage them with intelligent marketing (save running Pheedo or Adsense, which isn’t exactly what I’d call a high-end solution). I, like many others, pretty much gave up on RSS as a brand marketing vehicle a couple of years back. There was no way to “prove” folks were actually paying attention, and without that proof, marketers will only buy on the come – that’s why you see so many direct response ads running in RSS feeds.

It does seem that no one is really developing “for” RSS anymore.

Except, I am. At FM we use RSS in various robust fashions to pipe content from our network of hundreds (now thousands) of talented “social editors” into multitudes of marketing and content programs. (Check out FoodPress for just one example). We’ve even developed a product we call “superfeeds” that allows us to extend what is possible with RSS. In short, we’d be lost without RSS, and from the comments on my post, it seems a lot of other folks would be too, and in particular, folks who perform the critical role of “super node” or “social editor.”

So long live the social editor, and long live RSS. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at how we might find an appropriate monetization signal for the medium. I’m pretty sure that marketers would find conversing with couple hundred thousand “super nodes” valuable – if only we could figure a way to make that value work for all involved.

Hmmmm…..

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  • http://ocunwired.ocregister.com Ian

    You know why people say RSS is dead? It’s the unread count.

    The unread count is a number which tells me how much noise I have to sift through to get to the signal.

    You want RSS to win? Please make the unread count more useful to me.

    It is too much work to put it all on the user.

  • http://www.islco.com Omar Khan

    What about RSS feeds getting new life in powering mobile apps like Pulse?

  • http://ocunwired.ocregister.com Ian

    To add: Can something be built into RSS itself that adds context to the content you’re reading?

  • http://businessoftech.com Kyle Wegner

    I think one missed point (that I meant to bring up in your original RSS post, but will leave here instead) is that news via Twitter is real-time and temporary whereas news via RSS is real time and timeless. If you have a busy day and take a day off of Twitter you’ve missed all those stories that passed through your feed. There are automated solutions like Paper.li, but then isn’t that just another form of RSS?

  • http://www.sebastienmarion.com Sebastien Marion

    RSS excels at tracking ‘vectors in time’, as opposed to editors/individuals. For example, a database which produces a signal based on specific parameters carries greater value (amplification?) than a ‘follow’.

    My current system is to consume tweets daily, while running through feeds once a week.

  • http://renaissancechambara.jp Ged Carroll

    Thanks for the hat tip John. Thinking about your points monetisation from two aspects for a moment:
    – Why hasn’t Feedburner’s contextual advertising model taken off. (I don’t use it because I monetise my content through having a decent reputation and selling consulting services, but for media plays it has got to be an option?)
    – Secondly, is the business model in curation like Newser or Techmeme, but much more narrow in focus?

    Just a couple of thoughts.

    Best regards,

    Ged

  • Michael Held

    Another difference is that twitter as well as facebook are companies – even while only facilitating conversations. I prefer to get my news from ‘neutral’ sources like a RSS reader. The main drawback of this strategy is that authors are not able to see which articles readers liked, shared or commented on (using Google reader).

  • http://seoroi.com/about-seo-roi/gab/ Gab Goldenberg

    hey John,

    I saw a presentation at Pubcon that would answer your problem – monetizing RSS feeds – very well.

    Become a lead gen publisher. Add the form into the content, including the RSS feed. So long as the whitepapers offered are relevant to the content, people will convert. There’s already such ad networks in IT… why not with Federated inventory?

  • http://www.pacebutler.com Derek

    And I will continue to exit out of my comfortable reader when good content arises that I feel the need to comment on. This is great content so I will be glad to exit my comfy reader room and come visit your “boring HTML site” every time.

  • http://www.pocoshock.com pocoshock

    anyway, how to set up the RSS itself?

  • http://jfrydakis.posterous.com Jason Frydakis

    Just landed on your site via RSS! :)
    In addition to all that you mention above… being in a different continent – time zone (Athens, Greece) usually I can only keep up via RSS or visiting BattelleMedia directly. :) RSS is still there for me at least.

  • http://www.desertstandard.com Roger

    Great article. I have has a recent resurgence with RSS due to Reeder for iphone and ipad. One issue I have always had is that Google stopped making Reader a great product. They need to buy up Reeder and get that interface nailed down. The ability to share thoughts with various social networks or save them for easy reading later is great. Also being able to quickly and easily go to the HTML version of a site is great. I dont necessarily need a new tab to open, just let me see a little bit.

    I like RSS more than Twitter and Facebook because I know that in RSS I will have a better ratio of signal to noise. Twitter and Facebook are great for checking in on my communities but RSS has quality nuggets of info all the time.

    Long live RSS!

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