Steve Rubel suggests that the reason that RSS and newsreaders haven’t caught on is a lack of “mass adoption by b-to-b and b-to-c e-commerce sites.” He turns to the history of Amazon and ebay and the explosion of the web to suggest a historical analogy. But he has fallen into the trap that many commentators on communication technologies do: ignoring the primary factor moving many such technologies from the innovators to the early adopters. Porn.
Yeah, sure, Amazon and ebay were popular, but online porn was making money way before either were breaking even. From VCRs to cable to Usenet to IM and video streaming — what moved it out of the lab was porn. The private nature of pornography (at least from the consumers’ perspective) makes it relatively invisible. Once people realize that a “newsreader” can support pictorials, and especially as the combination of RSS and bittorrent grows, we will see a rush to newsreaders. When that happens, many people will also begin subscribing to “legitimate” news and entertainment feeds, and we will once again get collective amnesia about the prime mover.
What is the state of Porn RSS? A quick googling of “RSS porn” calls up some interesting musings that suggest I am not alone in seeing the connection here, but few actual feeds. One exception is the evocatively named Channel of Filth, which is dedicated to “servicing the teaching and learning community’s needs for accurate, timely and quality-assured descriptions of kinky amateur fruit session videos…” (link is rated PG). Syndic8 scares up 77 feeds with “porn” in them, many moribund or ill-formed. Right now, there are a number of pornographic blogs with feeds (most famously Fleshbot), but most are in fact “meta-porn” blogs. Nonetheless, if we are to use history as a guide, this is where the RSS killer app is to be found.
So, the primary factor limiting the rapid diffusion of RSS is a lack of porn feeds. Conscientious educators and public intellectuals should mount an effort to create high-quality RSS porn. If we look to some of the literature on diffusion, we see that the technology itself is not as likely to diffuse as rapidly as, say, blogs. The major reason for this is that they lack the ability to be easily observed. If someone asks you “what is a blog” you can point them to several examples (indeed, this usually is easier than trying to define them). The same may be possible if you happen to have a newsreader on your laptop, but it remains a far more “hidden” technology. When you go over to a friend’s house, it’s easy to see their new Tivo unit, and see how it works, but his newsreader is less likely to be on display.
Until recently, many newsreaders also lacked good “trialability.” That is, trying out a newsreader meant downloading and configuring sometimes finicky pieces of software. I think Bloglines has largely obviated this latter concern, and somewhat dissipated the former.
(Any double-entendre in this post was indeed recognized and enjoyed by its author, but I am trying to avoid the whole giggle-giggle-porn thing since I’ll have to be teaching about it for 15 weeks.)