The RSS Paradox

By Steve Gillmor  |  Posted 2004-06-14

The RSS Paradox

A few weeks ago, the SciFi Channel broadcast a four-part miniseries involving time travel. I am a sucker for time-travel stories, to a certain point.

That point is where the designated deliverer of exposition calls up the Great Guiding Principle of time-travel projects, wherein the immutable laws of screwing around with time dictate that nothing can be changed in the past, lest the universe be rented because the characters dog would therefore never be born, leading to cascading series of unintended consequences such as incomprehensible run-on sentences like this one.

In this case, the Great Guiding Principle was served up midway through the series, long after my family and I had invested too much time and caring to give up, and long before the incredible finale where the Great Guiding Principle was ignored.

A mysterious briefcase from the future containing pictures of our hero with a bullet in the head magically redistributed its electrons to document subsequent changed events. Somehow, the universe did not collapse, though my respect for the producers did.

Ironically, a time-travel technology called RSS got me into this in the first place. It all began when Dave Winer negotiated a deal with The New York Times to provide permalink access to Times stories. Links to Times stories in Weblog posts had started to break, renting the blog space-time continuum by erasing the past.

With permalinks assured for Times stories, the journal of record regained its standing as the most-linked-to mainstream media outlet in a recent Technorati developer presentation.

Even though I receive the print edition of the Times every day, I still use the Times RSS feeds to monitor for interesting stories at a glance. One such item led me to a glowing review (registration required) of the SciFi show.

The same day, another Times story got my attention (registration required) with this suddenly relevant headline: "To Watch These Programs on Cable, You Have to Find Them First."

The gist of the article was that content producers are looking to video-on-demand channels to place their material in lieu of a full digital channel position on cable and satellite networks.

But how do you find these programs? If it hadnt been for the Times review in my RSS feed, I would never have found the time-travel movie. I would have finally gotten around to the print version later in the week, kicked myself for not keeping up with the paper and then frantically searched for a repeat of the show to record on my PVR (personal video recorder).

Of course, a better solution would be to integrate RSS and my PVR. Although the second Times article didnt close the loop on this, TiVo took a big step toward that future two days later, as foreshadowed (registration required) by John Markoff in, yes, The New York Times.

Bypassing the current gatekeepers, PVRs would now be able to download content directly over the Internet. Heres my favorite quote from the story: "In the new world of Internet-connected television, viewers will not have to worry about when a show is scheduled or from where it comes."

Next page: The Roaring Sixties.

The Roaring Sixties

Nowhere in any of these stories is RSS mentioned. But that doesnt mean its not there. In fact, it is the new Great Guiding Principle of time control at work.

Just like the electric guitar in the 60s, the MBA in the 80s and Wi-Fi in the 00s, RSS is todays transport. If John Lennon were alive today, he might be releasing direct to Net via RSS enclosures.

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Sometimes, these moments flash by us so fast that we dont have the time to notice or respect them. As technologies redistribute the electrons of what we perceive as reality, they can be hard to assimilate. Witness traditional medias difficulty in acknowledging or accepting the impact of the Weblog on journalism. You only have to look for the smoke if you want to find the fire.

Thats why the syndication debate rages—not because theres any argument, but because everybody knows something big is happening. Those of us who were lucky enough to survive the 60s know the feeling of being part of a revolution—even if we werent, and still arent, quite sure what it was about. At least the last two presidential campaigns were fought about it, and this next one will be, too.

Thats why Im just as sure about RSS today—not because I understand it, or ever will, as a logical series of events or ideas that will one day be looked back on as some immutable watershed. Recently, Mitchell Kertzman, an old friend of mine from those Woodstock days, told The Wall Street Journal that when he first saw an RSS aggregator, he had the same gut reaction he had to the first browser.

But he questioned whether what the Journal reporter calls "a reliable business model" has emerged, saying businesses must be built around it. "If I knew how, I would have invested already," said the software executive-turned-venture capitalist. But Mitch, isnt that why they call it venture capitalism? Or perhaps its just a new Great Guiding Principle, made to be broken in Act Three.

Click here to read a column by Steve Gillmor on how messaging and collaboration are changing in the workplace.

Me, Im going to do what Mitch and I did back in the Roaring 60s—start underground radio shows when the current stakeholders couldnt believe what their customers were telling them. Today, the customers are saying they want their MTV on their schedule, on demand, on RSS time.

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