Messiness At Scale
At the risk of putting my fingers in the sausage machine, let me add a touch of nuance:
- RSS has declined in use, as web heads shift their source of ‘things to read’ away from RSS readers — like Google Reader — to tools like Twitter and Flipboard.
- The role of RSS in web infrastructure is being threatened by non-RSS based architectures, like Flipboard’s. That product ignores RSS and fetches through the URL to get directly at images, text, and other content.
I maintain that Twitter, Facebook, and other ‘closed’ systems are really something else: they are dense and complex social systems, more like modern cities than Web 1.0 publishing platforms. And, like cities, there is more going on, less being controlled by specifications like RSS, and the food is better, the music is better, and there is more dangerous sex taking place.
Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This collective intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated and clearly defined standards.
So, if you are looking for clean bathrooms and no traffic jams, stay in Iowa. But it is in cities — dense, loud, unplanned, messy — where the breakthroughs emerge.
Getting back to the specific case, here, let’s look at Flipboard. Flipboard rejects the use of neat-and-tidy RSS, and reaches through the URLs it finds in Twitter to directly paw the text, images, and links placed into articles and posts, and then it chooses what to display based on a proprietary algorithm inside the guts of the app, not based on the publisher’s RSS specification.
Flipboard, Twitter, and other dense, complex social tools create a messier world, one that has superlinear scale. The tradeoff between complete ‘openness’ (or individual control of information and its experience) and superlinear social density is one I am willing to make. And so are all the users of these tools, or should I say, residents of these cities?