It’s normal to want, often need, to find an analogy to describe something reasonably new (or complex). This is the case with RSS. I first encountered this issue when I was writing my This Way App article for American Demographics. When I pitched the idea of a story about RSS my editor refused to let me do it unless I could come up with an analogy there and then.
Of course I had considered it before, the thing is that the most popular way to describe it (as a kind of Vivo for the web) wasn’t doing it for me. The problem with describing it that way is that TiVo lets you choose specific programs from a stream to watch, you need to know what you want and choose accordingly. That’s not what RSS does.
RSS is far more like On Demand.
Here’s how I ended up explaining it in the article:
Many people describe RSS as TiVo for the Web. Part of what makes TiVo so appealing is the ability to pick and choose from across the network spectrum and record those shows you’re interested in. RSS, however, records an entire opt-in spectrum of feeds, rather than one show at a time. It’s like being able to choose your cable package with On Demand channels only. That way, when you get home from work, rather than watching what’s on at that time, you are provided with a list of every show that has appeared on your chosen channel lineup since the last time you watched. This way, if you only watch ESPN, HBO and NBC, you only need to subscribe to those 3 stations. And for those who watch 100 different channels, RSS can handle that too by spidering across all the sites you’ve chosen and posting update signs and signals for each of them.
You’re not getting feeds of single entries, but rather entire channels. Would you say that subscribing to the New York Times homepage is equivalent setting to the TiVo to record each week’s episode of The OC? (I hope not.)
I happen to believe the act of searching for an analogy is very often problematic, however, if you’ve gotta do it, how about doing it right?