As weblog syndication moves into the mainstream, people are complaining more and more about how difficult it is for an average user to subscribe to a weblog (here’s a recent example, but it’s only one of many I’ve read). One problem is deciding who an average user is — a sixteen-year-old who can text message on a cellphone numberpad with her thumbs at 20 words per minute, for example, can probably find the little orange icon on a web page — but the bigger problem is that making weblog subscription too easy will destroy the biggest future benefits of RSS and Atom.
While most feeds today are general, public information (like Quoderat), more focussed, personal feeds are currently our best hope for a solution to phishing and spam. Unlike e-mail, blog feeds are highly resistant to these problems: I have to manually subscribe to a feed to start getting messages, and can unsubscribe whenever I want. Someone selling drugs claiming to lengthen part of my anatomy can write all the messages he wants, but I’ll never see them; a script kiddy in the Russian Republic can create hundreds of messages telling me to follow a link to update my bank account information, but I’ll never even know. As average users (whoever they are) deal with more and more spam, and hear about more and more phishing cases, they will start to mistrust all commercial e-mail (legit or not), and there will be an excellent opportunity for RSS and/or Atom to step in and offer government, business, and other organizations a new, trustworthy channel for communicating with the public.
But wait — what if we make subscribing to feeds too easy? What if it becomes trivially simple to add a feed to a user’s subscription list with a script or disguised link, without the user being fully aware? Users could end up with apparently legit feeds with titles like “Daily News” full of spam; even worse, a user could end up with a feed entitled “Lloyd’s Bank” with a message to — you guessed it — go and confirm her password information.
Remember that one of the big problems with e-mail came from trying to make it easier for users, say, by running attachments automatically. Let’s make sure that subscribing to RSS or Atom feeds stays at least a little bit difficult, even for grandma and grampa. A bit of work to subscribe to each feed will be our best defence.