I’m cheating on RSS.

I usually favor decentralized, open technologies, but I must confess: I almost never check my RSS subscriptions any more.

I used to use RSS as a one-stop way to cut down on my endless cycle of refreshing a million different blogs for news. Now, the opposite has happened: a couple of news sources are so much better in quality than the rest. I get my general news through the New York Times, and my tech news comes through The Verge or Ars Technica. These guys are beating everyone else at news depth and analysis, making most other blogs in their field redundant.

There’s a lot I risk missing online by doing this. But instead of drowning in an endless feed of RSS updates, I’ve curated a couple of social sharing tools to give me a pulse for the rest of the Web: Reddit (I unsubscribe from most of the default subreddits and subscribe to quality niche ones) and Twitter (again, being picky about quality sources.) I’d like to see Google+ take off in this role, but Google still needs to improve their API enough for killer apps to take advantage of it.

This new way of consuming content online is an unexpected one for me. I usually prefer more open, decentralized stuff, and RSS is the poster-child for such a thing. But as a constant news stream, it just doesn’t do enough to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. It’s still very useful and necessary, since it can syndicate a lot more useful information than just the news articles I’m talking about. Even though I sacrifice some openness, I find crowdsourced social aggregators far more useful, especially when I have some curation controls to personalize what I’m getting.

Sorry, RSS. You have a lot to offer as a technology, but my life is easier having left you.

Social Network Overload

While technology has generally done huge things to help people communicate, I’m starting to feel like the internet has reached a kind of “saturation point” where the technology- or lack of integration and accessibility of information across applications – has become more of a limitingfactor in how I can take advantage of these communication channels.

Point in case: instant messaging. In the ’90s, AOL and Yahoo were king, and everyone was on. Now, I have to run a multi-protocol IM program to keep me logged into AIM, Yahoo, MSN, and Jabber. On top of that, I have to log into Office Live Communicator for my work contacts, Skype because it doesn’t work with my multi-protocol program…. What a mess!

Point in case: cell phone plans. Everybody has a “free mobile-to-mobile calling” plan to get existing customers to draw others in their social network to that cell service provider. Verizon has an amazing marketing term for this – you are “in.” Back in Arizona, it was very important to be “in,” because otherwise my friends would be more worried about calling or texting me. Now, providers are starting to let people choose a few numbers from other networks to add to the unlimited calling for an extra charge.

Point in case: social networking sites. Some people are on Facebook. Some people are on MySpace. Some people are on both but really would prefer that you use one over the other. If you’re not on one, you’re missing out on your friends’ activities and whatever they have to share. If you take pictures, are you going to publish them to Facebook? MySpace? Flickr? Are you going to take the time to upload them everywhere so that everyone sees them?

What it comes down to is competing products with the same basic functionality. Because most of these products/services lock your data into their network, it is hard to upload a photo or blog post and have it simultaneously show up everywhere: your social network profiles, photo galleries, your friends’ news feeds, your personal website. On the technical side, a lot of this could be improved by decentralizing data storage and making everything both publish and import RSS like crazy.

From a business perspective, I think that companies thriving on their social networks need to be wary of what happened to the record industry. At first, labels did extremely well because they controlled the distribution methods. Without their power to manufacture and distribute, artists were powerless. But technology improved and now the means to both produce and distribute music are much more accessible to everyone. Likewise, today much of the focus is on the site itself – are you on Facebook? Are you blogging on the same service as your friends? With time, this too will be come irrelevant, individual sites becoming homogeneous while technology still improves our ability to communicate.

On a much more practical level, I am frustrated by the need to keep up with everyone on different sites. I wish I could write my blog here, post my photos here, IM from one application, and have it all get to my friends. I don’t care about the transmission medium. I just am tired of all of the effort and upkeep involved in using many different apps that do the same thing. But if I don’t do it, I can’t reach everyone! Grr.