The AOL-izing of RSS

(Note: I worked for DenverPost.com from 2003-2006.)

No, don’t barf. I know a lot of people — especially the kind of people who read blogs, who I think are by nature technologically savvy and opinionated — hate even the concept of AOL and everything the company stands for.

But hear me out, because I truly believe that without AOL and its millions of users, the Internet wouldn’t have evolved as quickly as it has into an everyday part of our lives.

Washington Post technology writer Robert MacMillan wrote today in his “Random Access” column about RSS feeds, and how RSS is too complicated and technical to become mainstream, even though there’s a huge buzz about it in the online media.

I agree completely with him. RSS is bogged down deeply in geek quotient. I’ve been amazed that RSS has become such a buzzword solely on the strength of innovators and early adopters.

Sites that have RSS may feel great about being cutting-edge, but honestly, those RSS or XML buttons on other newspapers’ websites are scary because there’s no context, no explanation and no clear way to figure out what it is or how it works. They’re meant only for the technologically anointed, who already know the secret handshake for the hipsters clubs, so they’ll feel superior to the rest of the Web surfing masses.

All right, I’ll get off my soapbox.

At The Denver Post, we’re finally going to launch RSS feeds in a few weeks (it’s been a project a year in the making), but we saw, like MacMillan, that RSS ain’t gonna become mainstream until it’s presented for mainstream users.

I used to work for AOL (its Digital City Denver operation) in the heyday between ’96-’98, when AOL grew from 5 million subscribers to 15 million, so I’ve always had an abiding respect for the mainstream, or the “Joe and Mary Sixpack” users, as I call them.

After all, these non-techies made it possible for me to to move my career from dead-tree media to the online world. AOL conributed mightily to the mainstreaming of the Internet, and evolving it (some would say “de-volving” it) from the exclusive club of geeks and nerds and Well.com snobs that it had been. Many of us working online wouldn’t have jobs today if AOL hadn’t exploded and become so popular.

These days, I don’t think AOL is as user-friendly as it used to be — it’s confusing even for me every year and a half or so when I install one of those free zillon-hour promotions just to check it out.

But I think the valuable lesson from AOL’s glory years is that to help make technology accessible to regular folks you gotta make it plain, simple and fun. And you don’t dwell on the technology. You have the technology in the background, working its magic, but you let the user just make easy choices and click buttons to do the things she wants to get done.

So back to the Post. Along with our RSS feeds, which of course will be accessible to anyone with an RSS reader, we’re going to launch a branded DenverPost.com reader called News Hound.

The plan, not surprisingly, is to offer an “AOL-ized” experience to help non-technical users make sense of this fancy new RSS thing, and make it clear it’s just a cool new and simple way to choose the news they care about. I’m hoping the concept will contribute to making RSS mainstream.

So keep an eye on DenverPost.com — we have a lot of great stuff coming your way in the months to come!

PS: We launched “Podcasts” on DenverPost.com last week. What are Podcasts? They’re downloadable audio files that you can transfer to an iPod or any MP3 player.

Many Podcasts are homemade recordings by someone rambling on about nothing special (hmm, sounds like a log of blogs); some are almost like tal shows; some have music; some are very professional; many are not.

Our idea initially was to offer something you don’t hear everywhere — professionally-produced newscasts that cover the top headlines every day by 7 a.m., so you could download it and listen on your way to work (or listen right at your PC, of course). We’ll also have longer-form feature stories (we have a cool one now, about an alligator farm in southern Colorado), and the sky’s the limit with fun ideas for Podcasts.

We’ve had some gripers (those crabby early adopters, who are pretty darned rigid about how things are supposed to done on the Web) because our Podcasts don’t have RSS feeds to make them downloadbale by software programs such as iPodder, which downloads them and automatically puts them in your iTunes library for transfer to the iPod. But most of the feedback has been super positive.

The thing is, we’ll have RSS feeds for these Podcasts in a few weeks — see the stuff above about RSS feeds and News Hound — but our Podcast team had bene practicing and working out the format of their reports, and we gelt they were ready for a “soft launch” so people can get used to the idea.

So I hope you’ll check them out. If you don’t think they’re true Podcasts yet, that’s OK, I understand. Please check them out in a month when they do have RSS feeds, and by all means lemme know what you think!

Gil Asakawa is the landlord of the Bloghouse and sometimes spends his time managing DenverPost.com.

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