a culture of feeds: syndication and youth culture
As i wrote before, i quit using RSS/syndication readers. Sitting in at Web2.0 for 20 seconds, i was intrigued by the ongoing hype of RSS – how everything is going to be syndicated and how everyone is going to access data that way. For this audience, i think that it is certainly true. But i’m wondering if that’s really true beyond the info-nerds.
Syndication is based on an email model, relatively close to a mailing list model. You subscribe to a set number of things and the program informs you of updates. Like email, updates come in the form of a new item. If you leave your syndication tool alone for too long, those new items build up and you’re faced with an INBOX-esque situation, an eternal queue waiting to be checked off. Of course, there’s also a morbid pleasure in keeping that number at zero, motivating most digital control freaks to obsessively and compulsively check off the items as read. Syndication readers are the modern day whack-a-mole.
I will fully admit that my digital OCD runs deep. Mixed with digital materialism, a penchant for collecting things and a fetish for information, i found that my addiction to RSS wrecked my world, making it impossible for me to go to bed at night until everything was checked off. While email has long since weighed on me by having an INBOX full of reminders that i’m a bad friend, syndication brought out my voyeuristic tendencies, letting me feel safe lurking without feeling compelled to respond. Reading was enough; reading was everything. If only that were the case in email.
What gets me about syndication is not my personal neuroses around it (although i fear that others will be pushed over the edge with the continuous increase in feeds). What gets me about syndication is that i can’t resolve the proposed models with the usage patterns i see in youth culture.
Melora Zaner did some great research into why youth are throwing away email for IM. In my blogging research, i was only able to validate her findings. Youth use email to talk with parents and authorities (including corporate emails like from Xanga); it’s where they get the functional stuff. They check email once a day. They get notices there, but they’re mostly disregarded. IM is where the action is. Youth see this as their digital centerpiece, where they communicate with their friends, thereby maintaining their intimate community. They use the Profiles in IM to find out if their friends updated their LJs or Xangas, even though they are subscribed by email as well. The only feed they use is the LJ friends list and hyper LJ users have figured out how to syndicate Xangas into LJ. [Remember: blog is not a meaningful term to youth culture.]
LJ Friends Feeds look a lot more like IM than email, unlike most feed readers. Posts are just aggregated in a reverse-chronological ordering and you page through the various posts. There are no checkboxes, no little red numbers that tell you you didn’t read everything. You can easily scan. Unlike their adult counterparts who seem to add and never delete, youth talk about removing people from their LJ friends list if they’re annoying, if they don’t talk much anymore, etc. Because of the overhead of reading LJ friends’ lists, there is a desire to only retain those who are of actual interest. Youth are not grabbing institutional feeds; they’re not reading name-brand journalists just for show; things like Kottke and Boing Boing mean nothing to them. The only strangers they seek are those of genuine interest, those who are like them. Youth use LJ/Xanga like they use IM – to keep in constant touch with their intimate community.
This is quite interesting because the current generation of youth is more brand-conscious, more advertising-aware than any previous generation. Branding is part of their identity, yet their communication technologies are not how they see themselves keeping tabs on their brands.
Whenever i hear about syndication madness, i hear how everything will be syndicated. This mostly means that every company wants to syndicate their material so that the consumers will keep pace. Usually, this references the info-nerds (like myself). Yet, i can also imagine that the goal is for brands to shove info down the throats of everyone and anyone. That said, i cannot imagine youth syndicating non-intimate feeds unless the benefit is exceptionally large, or the feed plays into that culture already. When my generation signed up for mailing list after mailing list just to get access to a particular site, we often used one of a million throw-away addresses, but once we were on the list, it was hard to get off. With feeds, the user doesn’t have to ask the company to be removed; they can simply stop accessing the feed. The question then becomes: why start accessing the feed unless you’re exceptionally motivated?
Of course, there are going to be consumption feeds that are of interest to youth culture. I can certainly imagine the local rag shooting out a feed of what’s going on that night and this being of interest to youth culture. But, for youth culture, news access and social access are very distinct. Google is for information; LJ/Xanga are for friends and social lives.
The future of syndication that folks at Web2.0 are professing is really structured around information organization and access. It’s about people who are addicted to content, people who want to be peripherally aware of some discussions that are happening. It is not about people who use these tools to maintain an always-on intimate community. There is a huge cultural divide occurring between generations, even as they use the same tools. Yet, i fear that many of the toolmakers aren’t aware of this usage divide and they’re only accounting for one segment of the population.
I know that i haven’t completely sussed out my thoughts on this issue, but i wanted to throw this out there for those who are interested in where RSS is going. And i would love to hear a reaction to my thoughts here.
I should make some clarifications since, as usual, i painted broad strokes. I was definitely throwing this out there unpolished, but then again, that’s my favorite use of this blog. These are in response to various comments so far.
1. My division between youth and adult cultures is by no means strictly bounded. Texting exists across ages, although the patterns change the younger the audience. And much of youth culture is dependent on fads, but i do believe that much of their decisions pushes the boundaries that shape technology as it evolves. IM and SMS can certainly attribute their successes in mass culture to youth.
2. I do believe that quite a few youth keep tabs on things beyond their circle, just that they still use mainstream media to do so. Their participation in “blogging” is not in the form of alternative journalism and so they, like most people, seek news from mainstream (even if digital) forms.
3. I do believe that there are life cycles. Much of youth culture is about identity formation, social network formation, etc. Of course, this continues on into adulthood. Yet, i am amazed at how college kids use IM for productive means as well as personal ones, giving me some indication that the tools that they developed as youth are going to pervade their working lives as well. I’m not convinced that these folks will jump on the email bandwagon simply because patterns in their lives will change. Certainly, they will use email – it is not dead, per say. It is just no longer central.
4. I am not arguing that all syndication is dead in the water. I’m just wary of the hype and the broad claims about its possible usage cases. Of course, many people find it valuable. I’m not denying this at all. In its original usage case – news aggregation – i think it is infinitely valuable. But most of the hype around syndication seems to extend far far far beyond news.