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.

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66 thoughts on “a culture of feeds: syndication and youth culture

  1. The Power of Many

    Syndication vs. youth culture

    danah boyd, who’s made a practice of studying how younger people use social media (as contrasted with how we old fogeys tend to do so), noted recently (apophenia: a culture of feeds: syndication and youth culture) that the Web 2.0…

  2. Alan Levine

    I fail to see what is is either/or. Both IM and RSS have compelling and appropriate uses and overhyped uses. It’s not like we need to choose between Oxygen and Nitrogen, we can just breath air.

    Syndication is really powerful when it is transparent, when one system can get dynamic info from other systems, when we can choose channels and use new tools to remix them into something new (e.g. feedburner, blogdigger).

    Just wait unti text chat becomes passe 😉

  3. cogdogblog

    Email as the Most Used And Worst Method of “Knowledge Management”

    Email is the communication norm. It is no more special than the phone. But it is the worst way to manage information over time or the “KM” buzzword (which by the way I have never understood— “mamaging knowledge”, it sounds…

  4. Brian Sarrazin

    The problem with RSS derives from its “ahuman” relationship with time. A similar problem exists among social networking sites.

    RSS is like sitting in conversation with a hundred people-who-talk-only-about-themselves, all of them talking. When we click those orange XML buttons, we’re often feeling a kinship with an author, but that kinship just as often ends quickly, because they just won’t stop talking. Only the most dedicated of us possess sufficient stamina (or n-o avoidance?). We want to hear it all, but the info arrives emotionally flat, only marginally involving. The bond breaks. Comments enable us to step into the stream, but there’s still the ahuman time thing.

    Likewise, social networking sites seek to duplicate the warm dynamics of relationship, but relationships exist in time. My college roommate is no longer my friend, not because he now votes Republican, but because we’ve not talked for many years.

    On the other hand, IM has an all-too-human relationship with time. Its temporal insistence enables the heuristic identity dance so favored by teens. But importantly, IM enables us to glean information embedded in events/reactions. It injects time into the context.

    Asynchronous communication massively boosts productivity, that very linear and geeky grail, but are we overlooking virtues of the synchronous?

  5. Pito's Blog

    Why don’t you check your email?

    A very interesting piece about how people are beginning to use Instant Messaging instead of email. It’s quite counterintuitive, but it does seem to correlate in one particular college student I know pretty well. “Youth use email to talk with parents an…

  6. chris

    I’ve never used a reader and find the whole obsession with RSS baffling (yet another buzz word with a bunch of hype surrounding it). Opera also has feedreading as a part of its mail client, and I tested it once to see what it did (Miranda, a multiple protocol IM client, also has an RSS plugin, which I have not tried).

    I don’t care about the news and I have very few text “blogs” I read, which I visit once every day, because many of them offer something more than just text. It makes no sense to me to “subscribe” to 5 or 20 different feeds that a single site offers, when I can just visit the site and experience everything. My reason for going back to many of the sites is just as much for the design of the site as it is for the content it provides. Do I *need* to be up to the minute on Bob’s feelings on the war or Mary’s trip to the bank? Not unless these entries fall off the main page the next day, so RSS serves no purpose to me.

    On the other hand, the 40+ photologs I view only once a week and when they do provide feeds, they are worthless. The primary focus of the website, the photograph, is impossible to convey in the feed. Why only once a week? Only a small handful of the sites I view update more than once a week. When I go through them all, I just alternate loading one page in the background while I read another. Again, RSS serves no purpose to me.

    In all the time since I first heard of RSS, only once have I ever seen a website that used an RSS feed for syndication purposes (i.e. displaying other site’s headlines as a sidebar to their own content). Once, I attempted to syndicate a local news site’s primitive pre-RSS XML feed for a local business’ website. And as much as I might enjoy them, I see no purpose to syndicate Bob or Mary’s day to day doings. So much for the power of syndication.

  7. Sore Eyes

    RSS versus IM

    Over at Apophenia, Danah Boyd suggests that RSS feeds, like email, are primarily being used by the older generation: she says it’s Instant Messaging and SMS that’s got the attention of ‘youth,’ and the main type of feed they’re interested in is their L…

  8. James Governor's MonkChips

    Screen Scraping for 2 euros. Enter the Feed Mercenary

    During a recent conversation with Microsoft Servers and Tools uberhoncho Eric Rudder I argued that web service interfaces are being increasingly standardized in interesting and useful ways (stating the bleedin’ obvious in other words!), pointing to Joh…

  9. Smallblog

    Danah Boyd – IM vs. Email Cultures

    This is fascinating and a must-read for online political communicatrons (yeah, i don’t know what else to call us either…). Anyway, we have been having some of these conversations around the office, and i definitely intend to check into more…

  10. Ypulse

    IM Rules Youth Culture

    Om Malik at GigaOm linked to a great post on Danah Boyd’s blog Apophenia about Melora Zaner’s research (my friend’s sister’s hairdresser’s…ok) on why IM reigns supreme in youth culture and why RSS feeds and aggregators may not be as…

  11. NoahBrier.com

    Youth Evolving Online

    A while back I asked people to make a list of sites they visit everyday. I was finding that there was an increasingly long list of places I visited daily and I was curious if others behaved similarly. What I found ended up changing much of my thinking …

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