Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

RSS, the Long Tail and iTunes

Chris Anderson of the Long Tail blog identified a trend in commerce that he calls the Long Tail some issues ago in Wired Magazine. To summarize his observation, most (offline) stores have a limitation of physical capacity that keeps them from selling everything under the sun to you. The problem is, you didn’t know that some of the more “nichy” things out there under the sun were things that you wanted. Online commerce is allowing this situation to change. Netflix is giving you access to movies that Blockbuster can’t store on its shelves. Amazon.com is getting you books that Barnes & Noble can’t store on its shelves. And ebay getting you stuff that your neighbors can’t store in their garages. With some help from his friend Kevin Laws over at VentureBlog, Chris Anderson has tied the concept of the Long Tail to RSS now . The general comparison made concerning the two of them is that RSS is “Tivo for the Web” — an insightful comparison. (I would say that RSS is the TV schedule that the Tivo downloads and Bloglines and NetNewsWire are the Tivo for the web, but let’s not mince metaphors.) RSS, for me, changed the way that I read the web. Until the advent of NetNewsWire reading on the web had become a hunt and gather kind of task where I would hit the big sites, Plastic, Slashdot, Salon and hope to find something I was interested in. Nowadays I read the web like I would the New York Times (the paper version) — fishing through a lot of headlines looking for the articles that peak my interest, but all in one place. And as Steven Johnson pointed out in a slightly related article “Tool for Thought” content aggregation systems like his DevonThink or NetNewsWire work is because you’re doing 90% of the filtering. This might seem to point to the fact that the more “atomitized” RSS feeds become, the more useful they’ll be [1]

RSS services have also given us the ability to keep up with the ongoings of the niche markets and suppliers of the Long Tail. As Chris Anderson puts it:

The reason this is so important to driving demand down the Tail is that RSS feeds can provide a constant stream of links and suggestions for products and media that you otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. Best of all, they don’t have to be from conventional media and blogs; they can simply be notifications of availability or updates on what’s selling where.

Chris mentions netflix specifically and I just wanted to point out another one: iTunes [note: this link only works with the Apple iTunes software]. So now, while I’m browsing RSS feeds, looking for articles of note, I can get the latest updates on the iTunes music store. What I would rather have is updates on the bands that I like, but I figure we’ll eventually get there as well.

[1] By “atomitized” I don’t mean the Atom feed service, but just breaking-down-into-smallest-component. And obviously there are limits.

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