It’s 1995. I just got a new job as a middle school computer applications teacher. I visited my classroom for the first time to take a look around. Macintosh LC computers. Appletalk network. No Internet access. I dig through the software in the cabinet. Type to Learn. Kid Pix. MS Office. BASIC. I had met with my predecessor and she shared what she had done with this class. She taught keyboarding for the first 2-3 weeks, and then BASIC programming for six weeks. It was a 9-week class, and there was no course of study.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do with these kids, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be keyboarding, and it wouldn’t be BASIC. I wanted to teach them something useful. I had recently learned to make web pages by looking at the source code for pages on the web to see how they did things, and by reading a book on HTML. This World Wide Web thing was really starting to take off, and it would be very useful for my students to be able to create web pages. So that became one of the units for my class. We didn’t use any fancy web site editing software. I installed Netscape on the computers, and we used a text editor to create the pages. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have Internet access. We could browse offline, or share our web pages with the other computers in the room. And I was teaching them useful things that would allow them to create and publish to a global audience someday.
But HTML, as easy as it is conceptually, is not easy enough. The idea of adding tags to a text file to tell the browser how to format the text is way too complicated for the average non-technical web user. So it wasn’t long before we had web page editors. People started using products like Adobe Pagemill and Microsoft Front Page to make their web sites. And those programs did a reasonably good job. Later, more powerful tools like Dreamweaver came along, before finally being replaced with content management systems. These days, hardly anyone writes HTML anymore.
It’s a dozen years later. The web has exploded, and we’re struggling to keep from drowning in the deluge of information that we’re getting. The old system of bookmarking web sites and checking back for updates isn’t working. There are too many places to check, and it takes too much time. We need a way for the information to come to us. When planning a series of technology professional development sessions for staff, we decide to start with RSS. It’s a really simple technology. You get a specially formatted web address (an RSS feed) from a web site. Then, you put that address into a feed reader. When the web site gets updated, so does your reader. So, you subscribe to a bunch of sites, and you use your feed reader to check them all for updates, and get the new content, all in once place.
The teachers didn’t get it. I don’t blame them. I didn’t get it either, the first time. Or the second. But we persisted. We showed them tools like Protopage and Netvibes. We practiced by pulling RSS feeds from CNN and NASA and our school’s web site. We subscribed to podcasts, which are just RSS feeds with audio attachments. Some of them started to get it. Most of them didn’t. We moved on to blogging.
I subscribed to RSS feeds in Thunderbird, my email client. The feeds showed up like additional email folders. When new items were posted to the sites I followed, they would show up and look like new email messages. I also set up a Protopage for my department. It had RSS feeds on it too. At some point, I even configured Google Reader, which gave me a single place to go to get all of my updates. Eventually, I used Firefox’s live bookmarks and the RSS Ticker plugin to get an IV-drip of new content right in my browser.
But RSS was never simple enough to be mainstream. There was always that element of magic to it. “Right-click on the little chicklet, and copy the link. Then, paste it over here. No, don’t worry about what it says. ” There’s a lot of hand-waving involved. You don’t have to understand how it works.
Last week, Google pulled the “Reader” link from the menu bar that logged-in users see. The service is still there, but you now have to click on “More” and then choose Reader. It’s a sign that most people aren’t clicking on that Google Reader link anymore. Instead, more people are interested in the Picasa photo sharing service. So Google has made it one click easier to get to the photos, and one click harder to get to the RSS Reader.
That, in itself, isn’t a big deal. What surprised me was how little I care. If the truth is told, I never click on that link anyway. I only use Google Reader for podcasts now, and my phone downloads those without me ever having to go to the site. I don’t have live bookmarks since switching to Chrome, and I don’t use Thunderbird anymore for email. The only place where I would see my RSS feeds on any kind of regular basis would be on my default home page. But since I use browsers that restore my session, when I launch Chrome or Firefox, I get all of the tabs back that I had the last time I closed it. So I don’t even go to my home page anymore.
So how do I find out about the world? I use Twitter a lot. And Facebook. I rely on my network to tell me what I’m missing. Occasionally, I’ll drop by a news site or an education site or Digg, but that’s pretty rare. I’ve shifted from relying on web sites to keep me up-to-date to relying on people. I’m using tools like Paper.li and Hootsuite to help with that. The paper.li service takes all of the links tweeted by everyone I follow and formats them in a daily newspaper. Every day, it creates a new one based on the links from the last 24 hours. This is today’s edition of my own personal newspaper. And I didn’t have to go searching for RSS icons or copy feed URLs around to get it. I can also use Instapaper to sync it to my phone. So if I find myself without Internet access on the phone (like, say, in one of our schools), I can still get to that day’s content.
RSS isn’t going anywhere, just like HTML didn’t go anywhere. But we’re moving away from it being a hands-on technology to something that happens in the background without us having to worry about it. And that’s making it easier for more people to stay up-to-date.
Image credit: Cool Infographics