It’s been quite a while (May) since I wrote a post about the then-less-obvious move away from RSS toward micromessaging. The observation that Twitter’s rapid growth was supplanting the use of RSS as a reading mechanism — in my case abandoning Google Reader in favor of FriendFeed — was met with emotional attacks from RSS’s prime mover, Dave Winer. Knowing from first hand experience in supporting Winer throughout the rise of RSS, I certainly was not caught unawares by the vehemence of the reaction, even as it became more and more personal.
What did surprise me was Winer’s rapid reworking of RSS into a “cloud” enabled solution, even as he continued to argue with such intensity that a centralized service (Twitter) could not sustain itself. In other words, RSS is not being replaced because it can’t be, but in any case it can already do everything the new message bus can. It’s certainly the best case to be made, but it has a weakness best illustrated by observation:
Twitter is winning. The stream is faster. Faster will increasingly win the hearts and minds of those who value speed when all other metrics are commoditized. In the history of technology, doing more faster creates economies of value, which in turn accelerate adoption. The most obvious example: RSS. A technology that has always been difficult to explain nonetheless emerged and spread rapidly to the point today where it dominates the ways information is spread over the network.
Nothing is more pervasive in the network than RSS. It’s the technology that turned the Web into a DVR. We interact with it every day more than any other tool at our disposal. Whether we perceive it that way or not, we do. RSS changed our relationship with information, from hunter to partner. It also changed the way we process that information, the way we create it, and the way we deal with overload.
In a way, it’s the polar ice caps melting that finally hipped us to the obvious. Those glorious days at the wheel of our youth, the sky expanding in front of us to the horizon, the feeling of unlimited power as we stepped on the accelerator. We knew in the exhilaration of the moment the special cost of that freedom, that now was our time and that someday we would need to accept the pull of gravity.
Part of the lure of the open road is outrunning fear. Time traveling. Beating the odds. The odds are Twitter won’t go away, won’t collapse, won’t drag its thrid party cloud into a black hole and vanish. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s called Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or Microsoft. Just like the Internet, the reality of this thing built on top of RSS is that it is bigger than its parts, its companies, its parts. Each node may be centralized but in aggregate it’s the opposite.
If that’s true, attacking a popular service for its failings in business, ethics, or any lack of “openness” does little to slow it down and perhaps the opposite. It’s not a matter of politics, it’s just sheer numbers. People voting with their feet. The arguments about long form versus noisy tweets, or built-in versus external URL shorteners, or RSS versus Twitter. They beg the observation: people like Twitter, they get their information first from the stream, and they need to figure out how to manage the flow.
Is there any magic to bring to bear on managing the flow? Yes, that’s why Twitter is so central. [Editor’s note: When I say Twitter read FriendFeed.] Twitter’s Follow cloud, combined with Track, enables an authoritative filter into the flow that extracts a high percentage of the aggregate consensus of that group into a manageable stream. How that manifests itself in its delivery to the screen is what the great software battle of the moment is all about. Which device or devices we use can be interesting to argue about, but they’re all really iPhones in one shape or another. Oh sorry, couldn’t help it.
The raging against the RSS, or Office, or Links is Dead meme — I get that it hurts feelings, annoys VCs, leads to RTBS (RealTime Block Syndrome). But no amount of shooting the messenger (another metaphor) will change the fundamental point I’m making: that RSS has triggered a new wave of innovation that will inevitably build out from where RSS has stalled and eventually create a similar disruption of what it produces. Everybody look up at the sky and smile. Click.