Thursday, February 15, 2007

RSS Part 1: Hunters & Gatherers

If you check in frequently with a news, sports or blog site, chances are you've seen them and wondered what they mean:

The Internet world remains largely one of “hunters” rather than “gatherers” – that is, we tend to actively seek out additions and changes on web sites, rather than having them come to us. Think about your favorite news website -- if you want to see what's new, you probably access the site by typing the URL into the browser's address window, selecting the URL from the address drop-down menu, or choosing it from your Favorites menu, then browse the pages "hunting" for the new, updated, or changed content.

Compare that to signing up to receive an "alert" or notification about updated content (new headlines, shopping deals you might be interested in, etc.) that comes to your email inbox. In this instance, you'd be "gathering" the new, updated or changed content before acting on it.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is the next step in this "gathering" concept, and it offers enormous opportunities for Internet users (and content providers as well, but that's another story). Its major selling point for Internet users is in saving significant time and reduced effort, by driving the content that matters most to a central viewing location automatically.

Providers of frequently updated content (news, weather, blogs, etc.) have been quickest to implement RSS strategies – for example, 76 of the top 100 U.S. newspapers offer RSS feeds on their websites. User adoption figures are far less precise – in a Pew Internet Project survey, only 9% of Internet users say they “have a good idea” of what an RSS feed is. Another study concluded that 27% of Internet users receive content driven by RSS without ever knowing it, via personalized “start” or “home” pages (My Yahoo!, My MSN, etc).

At first glance, it's another great concept that is slow to catch on. But if at least some subsection of Internet users is using RSS without knowing it, that first glance may be misleading. My questions were:
  • How well (if at all) do people understand the "hunter" vs. "gatherer" approach?
  • How much (and in what ways) do they value their "gatherer" instances?
  • Do people notice icons lie those above (or their clickable text equivalents), and do they have any idea what they represent?
  • How well can non-users grasp the concept of what RSS is? If presented with an definition and explanation, how well can their understanding be improved?
  • What would encourage people to investigate using RSS feeds? What is discouraging them?

To get some answers, I performed a very small pilot study, using semi-structured phone interviews with 7 people to try and flesh some of these perceptions, motivations and attitudes out.

Findings will be posted in Part 2 -- suffice to say that content providers need to start paying attention to their users before widespread usage of RSS can be realized.

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