Is RSS the “vinyl” of digital media?

Posted January 26, 2010 in media, web  |  No Comments so far

For large stretches of my life, I’ve allowed my obsession with music to burn up huge chunks of my time as well as my money. Illness, poverty, hangovers, rain – none of these things would stop me leaving the house and spending whole weekends wandering London, going from record shop to record shop. Over time my vinyl collection grew while my bank balance fell, but I didn’t mind – because that collection of vinyl was (and still is) valuable in lots of ways. I didn’t just enjoy listening to those records – I also enjoyed playing them out. I played in clubs, made compilation tapes and distributed mixes over the internet.

My vinyl collection helped me evangelise the music I loved to like-minded people. And before the worlds of music and the internet collided back in 1999, this sort of behaviour occupied a useful niche in the music ecosystem. Vast numbers of releases, especially in genres that flew under the radar of mainstream promotion, were filtered, curated and recompiled, helping normal people – who had better things to do than waste their lives exploring dusty record shops or compiling mixtapes in their bedrooms – explore obscure fields of new music. In this way vinyl kept influencing the public’s relationship with music long after it stopped being a mainstream format.

Some records

It’s a common mistake, especially when thinking about media formats, to see things in a binary way where the only two states are ubiquity and death. Many made this mistake when vinyl was eclipsed by the CD, thinking that its death was just around the corner. But this thinking was wrong. Although vinyl sales fell, its role remained important and it still is today – in fact, vinyl sales in the US actually increased by 33% in 2009.

RSS, unlike vinyl, isn’t a formerly dominant format that’s finding a smaller niche. Instead, it’s a new format that’s failed to go mainstream: usage of RSS readers is in decline and Twitter is supplanting it as a mass-market feed delivery channel. But there are definitely similarities between the formats, and the role they play in their respective ecosystems.

You can’t ask mainstream users whether or not they use RSS in their daily course of Internet usage any more than you can ask the average couch potato whether or not they use Cathode Ray Tubes or Liquid Crystal Displays – Mashable, October 2008

Not everyone wants to get to grips with concepts like Atom or OPML, learn how to use an RSS reader and incorporate it into their daily routine. That’s understandable: I know lots of voracious online readers who’ve never got to grips with RSS. Similarly, many people in the 1990s, despite loving music genres that released mainly on vinyl, didn’t want to join the anorak-wearing record shop brigade and start buying expensive import 12″s.

But for media owners (whether websites or record labels) that vinyl-buying, RSS-reading audience is worth reaching if only because they’re in the habit of evangelising. A heavy RSS user is more likely to run their own website on which they’ll compile and re-publish that content, just as turntable owners are more likely to create mixes that showcase obscure records to a larger audience. RSS heavily influences how information moves online, and plays an indirect role in shaping the online experiences even of those who have no idea what it is.

So even if RSS is never destined to become a mainstream format for delivering content online, reports of its death will prove to be greatly exaggerated. The internet needs a format which, like vinyl, appeals to the obsessives and whose very nature encourages compilation and re-transmission.

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