Is RSS “Social Software?”

So, reading all the posts from biblioblogs about Internet Librarian 2006 makes me sad that I’m not there. Ah well, maybe next year.

Anyway, Steven Cohen’s talk on What’s New in Social Software (in ABC format) is getting a lot of blogging coverage from, among others, Travelin’ Librarian and David Lee King.

The ‘R’ of Steven’s talk is ‘RSS’, and a few bloggers have noted that he said it wasn’t really a social technology:

Library Web Chic: “R – RSS (not really social software)”

Librarian in Black: “R: RSS – is it social software? not really, as it’s a more solitary endeavor–no giving or sharing”

I wasn’t there and didn’t get to hear Steven’s comments for myself (dangit), and I hate to potentially disagree with Steven- but the assertion that RSS isn’t social needs discussion.

RSS frees content from the constraints of a web page and allows it to be re-parsed, mashed-up, recontextualized, resyndicated, aggregated, searched, and tagged. These are all social acivities.

Adding RSS to your content is in itself a social act; it invites others to make use of your content in whatever context, tool, or project works best for them. Offering full feeds says that you’re more interested in sharing your ideas with than driving up the page-view counts in whatever analytics software you use. Offering your content via a feed is sharing, is giving, and is social.

There are a great number of reasons why it would be inaccurate to call RSS “social software,” (it isn’t really software, for one- it is an XML document format) but it enables all kinds of social interaction, and I think it (or its successor technologies) will do a lot more of that in years to come- so it might be equally inaccurate to propose that it isn’t social.

Someone please leave a comment and confirm that I’m not alone in this view? After all, Steven DID include it in his A-to-Z list on social software, even if he did so with a disclaimer.

Meh. I wish I could’ve gone to IL2006. 🙁

10 thoughts on “Is RSS “Social Software?”

  1. I agree with you. I also wasn’t at the conference this year so I don’t know what his comments were. I would argue that RSS is as much a component of modern social software as AJAX. RSS certainly allows for the ability to connect socially with others, not to mention the fact that many people use RSS, or data contained in RSS to drive the social software apps that are so popular nowadays. Often people use social software sites, not realizing that RSS is what’s providing the content.

  2. Why is it so imperative that something fall under the rubric of social software? I don’t see how such a designation would facilitate the introduction of RSS to business/corporate settings, which is where many people learn about neat tech tools. Affixing the social software label to RSS could only render it trivial the eyes of hardcore business non-techie types. And I agree with the Librarian in Black that RSS feeds lead to heavy reading–which is about a solitary an activity as there could possibly be.

    Internet Librarian is interesting–once. But it does have a very tiresome rah-rah aren’t we all just so cool atmosphere that I found a bit tiresome when I attended last year. I’d rather stay home and read blogs postings about Web 2.0.

  3. “Why is it so imperative that something fall under the rubric of social software?”

    Because we’re libraryfolk. We’re semantic nit-pickers.

    “I don’t see how such a designation would facilitate the introduction of RSS to business/corporate settings”

    The introduction of RSS to business/corporate settings is by far not the only goal information professionals care about.

    “Affixing the social software label to RSS could only render it trivial the eyes of hardcore business non-techie types.”

    I completely disagree. The “social software label” is hugely important to hardcore business non-techie types. Did you see that Rupert Murdoch (not a geek) bought MySpace?

    I agree with the Librarian in Black that RSS feeds lead to heavy reading–which is about a solitary an activity as there could possibly be.

    I agree that subscribibg to a lot of feeds leads to a lot of reading, but:

    First, I reject the notion that reading is a solitary activity. I think it was Vonnegut who said that the act of reading is a meditation between the mind of the author and the mind of the reader. Reading lets the reader into OTHER people’s heads.

    Second, subcribing to a lot of feeds and PARTICIPATING in the content they show you (blog post comments, wikipedia revisions, etc.) is social.

  4. David,
    By your logic, anything that\’s readable is social. Would you call HTML \”social\”? How about a MARC record? Obviously, I agree with the position that RSS is not \”social\”.

  5. Hi Michael!

    Well, HTML is designed to live in one location: on its page of origin. It can’t be easily scraped, mashed, or otherwise played with. RSS, on the other hand, is specifically DESIGNED to make the content portable, moveable, mashable, etc.

    At the very least, RSS is a social facilitation technology.

  6. I was actually transcribing right from Steven’s talk, so the quote given from me above is not what “I think” but rather, what “Steven said.” I don’t think that RSS is necessarily a solitary activity. Sharing of findings through any type of reading activity can make it social. Plus, someone somewhere wrote what you are reading, so aren’t you connecting with them? Still, I don’t think I’d classify RSS as social software.

  7. Hi Sarah- thanks so much for leaving a comment!

    If you were transcribing, then I really have a problem with this: “it’s a more solitary endeavor–no giving or sharing”

    No giving or sharing? The very act of making your content available via a feed is sharing and giving in way that a page without a feed can’t begin to approach.

    Perhaps I didn’t make my point well. Let me try it another way:

    RSS is not, in itself, “social software,” but it is utterly essential to a great number of social activities and a number of social applications make essential use of it.

    For instance, neither you, Walt, nor Michael visit http://davidrothman.net in your browser every day- you don’t have time for that. But having the feed in your aggregator enabled you to efficiently check out the post (among hundreds of other items), and quickly jump to the page with the link so you could comment and disagree!

    RSS is essential to the new social paradigms of the web, whether or not it is, in itself, “social software.”

  8. Hey David. My talk with Paul Pival on RSS and JavaScript was classified under the social computing track at IL. We were kind of ribbing Aaron Schmidt about it, saying that it would have fit better in the Mashups track since RSS isn’t strictly social software. He said that the common thread in all of the social software products people talked about today is that they have RSS feeds. And therefore, it’s important to know what you can do with RSS to make the content more portable. Good argument.

    I would say that RSS is often the glue that holds social software together, that makes the content in social software portable, that allows it to be combined in a myriad ways. Is it social by itself? No. Is it part of many social software tools and essential to the “social software family?” Yes. It is what allows us to take all of the disparate pieces of our online identity and put them together in one place. Therefore, I’d say it is an essential part of social software, though I’m not particularly worried about classifying it.

  9. Hey Meredith-

    Good lord, I wish I could’ve gone to IL. 🙁

    Anyway- I think we’re in agreement. RSS isn’t social software in the same way that the Google Maps API isn’t social software. However, both the Google Maps API and RSS are important in facilitating applications that make up the “social web.”

    Please note that I have at no time in this post or its comments tried to define RSS as “social software,” I have only asserted that it is extremely important to many of the services we routinely call social, and that the act of offering a feed is, in itself, social.

    In a future post, perhaps I can try to elaborate on why I dislike the current use of the term, “social software”.

  10. David: “The introduction of RSS to business/corporate settings is by far not the only goal information professionals care about.”

    True, but the reality is that that is where money is and that is what so many of the RSS companies need. Pluck just died. These startups need dough and customers. They don’t live for the benefit of us librarians. They need widespread adoption by businesses in many sectors. Otherwise they go bye-bye and how does that help information professionals?

    “The “social software label” is hugely important to hardcore business non-techie types. Did you see that Rupert Murdoch (not a geek) bought MySpace?”

    Yes, I did. But Murdoch is a media tycoon. RSS is a form of media. As a medical librarian, I want to see RSS adopted widely in medical settings. And for that to happen RSS has to have an aura of seriousness. Murdoch conjures up images of trash newspapers and junk television. Affixing the term “social” to a web technology will hinder its adoption by mainstream business and research settings (though you don’t care so much about the former).

    “I reject the notion that reading is a solitary activity.” Of course it is. Nothing could be more so. Yes, I can enter into the head of the writer. But he doesn’t know that and never will, if he is dead or if I never write him and tell him so and such letters are rarely read.

    And how many people participate in blogs? You are one of the few bloggers who takes the time to respond to comments. Most of us read blog postings and rarely leave comments and if we do or comments are ignored by the blogger and the other comment leavers.

    But I do very much like your blog and have enjoyed this discussion—it is nice to see you getting comments by such important figures in librarianship.