RSS’s dirty little secret

Bear with me while I pull a few different threads together here. What started this line of thinking was reading a Forrester paper on RSS and this post about JP Rangaswami‘s open email approach, discussed here by Stowe Boyd (care of O’Reilly Radar):

JP has set up a stringent approach to filtering his email. He throws all email where he is CC’d directly into the trash. Basically, he only reads email directed to him, alone. Of course, for this to have any influence on people’s behavior, he has to loudly and regularly let others know that he is doing this. More interestingly, he has opened access to his email to his staff. By treating his email as an open forum, he has found that his associates are more involved in his interactions with others.

Now, the Forrester paper presents a good argument for managed RSS services inside an organisation and even reminds us that you can “RSS-ify” other disparate systems (excellent!). It also starts to discuss feed analytics, optimization and filtering – all good. However, it is here that the paper begins to lose me, particularly with JP‘s open email approach ringing in my ears. I think where it misses the point is that while in positioning RSS as something to be managed, it becomes yet another information system that is implemented without requiring or taking into account the changes in behaviour that are required to make it work. Forrester simply base readiness for RSS on two factors: need and content availability.

Some time ago I wrote about my own thoughts on tackling email overload (see For better, or worse: Living with e-mail in the workplace [PDF, 81KB]) – part of that advice then was:

  1. Where possible, eliminate the root cause of the problem;
  2. Take control of your own inbox by managing it appropriately; and
  3. Lead by example and practice better e-mail etiquette and style.

I believe this advice holds true for RSS too, especially if you see it as part of a broad solution for dealing with information overload rather than means to an end. Otherwise, despite all the nice filtering approaches you might like to apply, RSS is going to end up contributing to information overload and not reducing it (of course, good technology makes it a whole lot easier). This line of thought has also found myself contemplating these two points of view on the surveillance society:

Thinking back to JP‘s open email approach again, the main barrier is not so much the technology but having the right behaviours and attitudes for how we communicate and share information. And some of those attitudes relate to our perceptions of privacy as well as control. So, if we take the open email idea and try to identify the root cause of the problem it solves, then I think it is more about taking a collaborative approach to information and knowledge management. And clearly, if you’re are familiar with JP‘s particular information technology philosophy, his open email approach is more about his mindset than the technology.

So if we think about this more broadly, is JP alone in taking this approach? I don’t think so as I’ve had the luck to work with some different organisations over the years where by policy they have pursued open information access – in one recent case they are starting to share email through a document management system where access is restricted only by exception. Fundamental to that policy is organisational change, backed up by technology that makes sharing information as easy as possible. And that is the secret to using RSS to successfully tackle information overload.