I’ve been thinking about Jeremy Toeman’s Will Normal Folks Ever Use Twitter? A related question is: “Will normal folks ever use feed readers?” I suspect the answer to both questions is No. This might signal a new kind of stratification in society.

It’s always been possible to be very well-informed; there’ve been clipping services and above all old-boy networks; but services cost real money, and many lack networking skills or aren’t Old Boys.

But the Net is the greatest listening engine ever devised. These days anyone can choose, with its help, to be well-informed. You have to make the effort to figure out which key people are really on top of what you care about, so that you can start listening to them. Plus, you need to deploy some saved searches. Once you’ve done these things, then when you turn your computer on in the morning, it’ll tell you if anything’s happened that you need to know about.

Nobody can be well-informed about everything or in fact about more than a few things. Plus, you can set your flow too high and it’ll fill up time that should be productive and maybe keep you from becoming one of those key people yourself. But my point stands.

Not everyone wants this. When I first discovered the magic of RSS, I expected that it would sweep the entire online population, including everyone’s kids, parents, and grandparents, in a matter of weeks. It hasn’t, any more than Twitter has. My argument: “If you care about anything online, just subscribe, and then you won’t have to go back over and over to see what’s new.” I thought it was conclusive but it’s not; there are a lot of smart, good people who don’t see the point.

What does it all mean? I’ve come to expect, of my technical and business peers, that they will be well-informed to an extent that would have been very rare even a couple of decades ago. Can you skip this and still make a difference in the world? I don’t know, but it does seem that we are sorting ourselves into tribes based on the intensity of our listening.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Tony Byrne (Feb 10 2010, at 08:01)

You're selling RSS a bit short. My mother (a grandmother) uses RSS every day. She just doesn't know it, because the feeds (which she chose in some cases) show up as simple updates on various sites she frequents that are serving as formal or informal aggregators. Like her MyYahoo start page.

I think more people are "listening" in creative ways without a twitter client, RSS reader, or a canned query they composed themselves.


From: Peter Keane (Feb 10 2010, at 08:32)

If there is one thing that struck me about Google Buzz, it's that it may very well be "Twitter for Normal People." I suppose we'll see one way or another....


From: Dirkjan Ochtman (Feb 10 2010, at 08:45)

Hmm, I think twitter has much more potential for widespread use than aggregators. I.e. feed readers are for high-powered info consumers, whereas twitter can provide a nicely social community experience.


From: Josh Tolle (Feb 10 2010, at 08:50)

People who don't use RSS still baffle me. Probably as much as my ability to talk about seeing a number of things from various disparate blogs all over the web in a single day while still being productive baffles them. On the one hand, I can't grasp why anybody wouldn't want to have a one-stop shopping for the vast majority of their web content (though I live in Texas where WalMart carries everything from groceries to hunting gear to toys to school supplies to you-name-it, so it's kind of ingrained). On the other hand, I love the deity-like status I have among my friends due to their lack of leveraging RSS feeds.


From: Erik Wilde (Feb 10 2010, at 09:12)

thinking of feeds as something that people necessarily consume directly really is missing a lot of the potential and actual use. people always get "aha" moments when i tell them that their podcasts are feeds, too, just special versions of it, tied into a special reader. i tried to make that point then writing about Atom's future as a general-purpose format ( http://dret.typepad.com/dretblog/2009/05/atoms-future-as-a-generalpurpose-format.html ), and i still think this is what's happening on the plumbing level. GBuzz includes two feed dialects (Media RSS, activity feeds), and more and more data inside and between services is shuttled back and forth using feeds. GBuzz also adds PubSubHubbub's push support to that. of course, all the plumbing in the world cannot change the willingness and capacity of people to actually listen to all the stuff being sent through all that wonderful plumbing, and maybe the "generic feed reader" will always remain a geek-only medium. but more specialized feed readers already are powering a lot of what people are using (it's surprising, for example, how many iPhone apps are nothing but glorified customized feed readers), and my bet is that this trend will continue.


From: dr2chase (Feb 10 2010, at 09:24)

On the contrary side of all this, I am RSS'd with the best of them, and we use it as part of getting work done (Trac site, RSS on everything, you can see what's going on, you can catch spammers vandalizing your relatively open site).

But -- for the last month or so, I have been busy as heck, and not keeping an eye on the paper. I've gotten unbusy enough, recently, to read the paper again (NYT and Boston Globe) and I was seeing stuff that the "Listening Engine" was missing.

The listening engine also has the same it's-new-it's-yellow-it-fits-in-my-mouth bias that regular news does, where trivial exciting stuff gets much more press than more important (using, say, the spent-dollar-count or dead-body-count metrics of importance) "news" that is no longer new.

It seems like the listening engine might also accommodate some sort of meta-news, as well, but it doesn't yet. There's fluff articles that get published (e.g., recent Boston Globe article on the dire costs "predicted" for the care of drug-abusing baby-boomers, that turned out to hinge entirely on anecdotes from one doctor of unknown reliability and bias -- and costly, compared to what, here in the US of Obesity?) where what I really want to know is, "who put the bug in your ear to write this article?" Wider and more institutionalized skepticism would have served us well back when Judith Miller was writing articles for the NYTimes.


From: rickg (Feb 10 2010, at 10:00)

Josh - me too, but in talking with friends of mine who don't use a feed reader, I've found it's because they see it as a volume thing - they check a few sites each day which they have bookmarked. For 5 sites, that makes sense, for 50 it doesn't, but they don't check 50. They don't see the point of checking 50 or 150 or 500 sources for news. If they want an aggregated view of tech news, they hit techmeme, for regular news, CNN, Google News etc. No, it's not the same as tailored searches, but it's close enough for them and when they want more information on something, they search for it.

right now, I have over 500 unread items in Reader - Do I really benefit from that? I'm starting to wonder. The problme is that there's a lot of manual work to do to refine that so it's more signal but not just a mirror of a site like Techmeme.


From: Constantin Gonzalez (Feb 10 2010, at 10:13)

I interact with "normal people" who don't use RSS, Twitter or even the Internet on a regular basis. This group spans parents, in-laws college and university friends, even co-workers.

And the more technology progresses, the more I sense detachment between the group of people who "get" technology, and the one who doesn't (or can't) "get" it.

It may be harmless today, but I fear it will become a survival thing very soon.

And then the more interesting part is: How are politics and politicians coping with "getting" technology?


From: Erik Engbrecht (Feb 10 2010, at 10:19)

I think technophiles massively underestimate how incredibly unfriendly modern communications technologies are. To my knowledge there isn't a single good integrated application for participating in the great online conversation.


From: Robert Young (Feb 10 2010, at 10:30)

both RSS and Twitter and FaceBook and etc. are not Good Things. Any more than Fox News is a Good Thing. All of the above share a common evil: they tell you what you want to hear couched to your prejudice.

Read the New York Times, cover to cover, every day. Some say it is a Liberal Media, hardly, it sucks up to the Right Wing albeit more subtly (and therefore more dangerously) than the Washington Times.

What you get is information not constrained to your information bias. You may not read every story, nor even every headline, at first. But over time, you will learn far more about the world than any other way.


From: snorri (Feb 10 2010, at 15:14)

The problem with feeds is that they are just another stack of new stuff to go through. My email inboxes, my feeds, my ReadItLaters, mailing lists, pod/vidcasts... all these stacks keep piling up, and until I've seen everything that sparks my interest, hours have passed that I could have used in creating rather than consuming. Even if I myself abhor it for conceptual reasons, I can understand why many people prefer those "portal"-style sites that present feeds as sidebar widgets with 5 entries. They don't induce guilt. If you don't read an entry, it will just silently go away in the next Ajax update.


From: len (Feb 10 2010, at 16:37)

I'm old school. I read a few key people I like who do use feeds and they serve me well as choosers of my choices, a few technical news mags that keep me lightly informed, and otherwise I search for things I need.

When well set in those things I find it desirable to listen to, I always know where to find them. When out for adventure, I know the tools. Say, adaptively set in my ways.

To paraphase pink floyd, the query space is in my head.


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Feb 10 2010, at 17:23)

I agree with Robert Young’s take on the New York Times. I may do him one better and really prove I am old school when I confess (most proudly) that I have been getting a daily delivered NY Times for about 15 years. My wife and I have had breakfast in bed (I do it most of the time) at 6:30 for most of that time. We read the NY Times and our local Vancouver Sun. When I go to my computer I might glance at our national newspaper, the Globe & Mail. I have an English friend who knows what I like (articles on the decline of photography, journalism and magazines) and sends me links from the Guardian. I occasionally check ongoing and that’s just about it. At my age (67) I feel that my time remaining is shorter and more compressed. I would not know what to do with all those RSS feeds.

As for aggregators I have a local friend called Simon Ogden


who calls aggregators stupid robots. I agree.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


From: SCdF (Feb 10 2010, at 22:05)

Normal people don't use twitter because normal people don't know about twitter, and none of their friends know about twitter, so they have no one to tweet to.

On the other hand, normal people _do_ use Facebook, and they _do_ post status updates, links, random observations and other junk. Because they know about Facebook, and they have friends on there they can interact with.

So really, normal people _do_ use twitter-like services, they just do it where their audience is.


From: Scott Berkun (Feb 10 2010, at 22:12)

There is a big difference between A) fast access to huge volumes of information and B) comprehension derived from slower, but more thoughtful writing

I'm convinced someone reading the Economist for 3 hours, once a week, is well more informed about what is going on in the world, and why, than most people with tricked out RSS feeders and active twitter accounts.

Speed and volume has no bearing on quality of the data transferred, or the likelihood of the reader understanding it.

This is certainly not true for all, or even most, but for many I know who insist on jamming their brains with the fastest access of great volumes of information mostly seem to just spin the wheels of their brain, rather than have any meaningful positive impact on their sense of the world or how to be of use in it.


From: Dustin (Feb 11 2010, at 01:08)

Facebook is becoming the twitter for 'normal' people. The matter then changes to _who_ they are connected with on facebook.


From: Dong Liu (Feb 11 2010, at 07:55)

Goolge tried so many things, gmail, greader, gwave, and yesterday, the gbuzz. I like this buzz.


From: Tony Fisk (Feb 12 2010, at 03:10)

I had similar thoughts about wikis...group of people... add their thoughts to the common mix.. refine them... no brainer.

No way!!

(I still think they're a great idea. I suspect the problem is that people don't think they have much worth saying)

Firefox sold me when it started providing RSS feed setups.

I must confess, though, that I have *never* grokked what the fuss about twitter is. I suppose I should try it and find out... one day.


From: Darrin (Feb 13 2010, at 21:13)

Just curious - could it be that people who use RSS feeds are plugged into a different world than those who don't? And that those who don't are plugged in just as much but in a completely different way?


From: matt (Feb 16 2010, at 11:20)

I think normal people don't read that much. It's popular amongst heavy readers and readers of more obscure material. Other people prefer sites like Digg or Google News because they pull the popular stuff to the top.

My wife never liked RSS readers because she liked visiting different sites in their own layouts, becoming bored looking at one application for too long.


From: Michal (Feb 20 2010, at 03:35)

I think this depends on what you consider a feed reader -- is iTunes' podcasts section a feed reader? If yes, then I think everyone does or will use RSS readers for media consumption.

I think that the reason Twitter received so much attention in the media is because it works best for companies and journalists as a way to handle press releases -- which used to be long and full of air, and now are being condensed to a modest 160 characters.


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