Why Circa doesn’t have RSS (yet)


By Matt Galligan, co-founder and CEO of Circa.


RSS Logo

RSS pioneer Dave Winer wrote up a blog post asking the question “Where’s Circa’s RSS feed?”. In it he describes a desire to use an RSS feed of Circa’s news to be alerted when things are going on, hopefully leading to sharing of that content. Seeing as how most news organizations do publish some form of RSS feed, he’s curious as to why we don’t have one.

[T]here’s no way a tech-informed pub like Circa never considered having RSS feeds, they must have decided for whatever reason not to have them.

Dave’s prediction is indeed correct — it’s not that we never considered having an RSS feed all, but rather chose not to publish one yet.

Of course we’d want Dave to share our stories, so why don’t we use RSS? The reasons were many, but I’ll try to dive into just a few of them here:

Circa doesn’t publish traditional articles

This is a very important one, and the main reason why we didn’t pursue RSS intitially. RSS has traditionally been used for websites that publish articles. Those articles get sent out stripped of rich formatting and are easily consumed in “RSS readers.” Because most web publications follow the traditional article format, this makes a lot of sense. However, Circa doesn’t begin to adhere to a traditional article format and that’s where things get a bit more difficult.

Stories constantly update and evolve

A major complication of bringing Circa to RSS is that our stories are constantly updating. While traditional news organizations will publish brand new articles with each advancement in a story, Circa simply updates whatever story we’ve previously run about that news. Within the Circa News app, anyone that happens to be following that story sees only the new points as they’re added since we know what they’ve already seen. This is an amazing user experience for anyone that’s tried to keep up with developing news.

However it’s quite possible that because of the way this works, someone following along with Circa via RSS might likely see a lot of duplicative content. We have no way of knowing what’s been read before, so we can’t intelligently re-sort things that the reader hasn’t seen yet. This will likely lead to the exact thing we set out to prevent in someone’s news reading experience — re-reading stuff they’ve seen already.

Other sources would add the words “UPDATE” and whatever the new information is on top of the article they wrote, then push that back out via RSS. However because more than 50% of our writings are updates it would lead to quite a poor reading experience. Imagine something like this:

  • Update 4
  • Update 3
  • Update 2
  • Update 1
  • Original story

If you were reading it in such a way, it would make nearly no sense…or at least you’d have to read backwards in some way. Therefore, to do RSS well we have to assume that someone hasn’t seen the story before and provide it with only considering the editorial order — not chronological or updated order.

Excerpt from Circa story

Points, not paragraphs

A typical Circa story consists of news, atomized into individual points, and structured in a format that’s easy to read within our apps. This is a departure from how paragraphs would otherwise be formatted. While Circa’s points might look like paragraphs, they’re not treated as such when considering how we write them. Instead, they’re treated as bits of news that in and of themselves could be separated from the story and exist on their own.

While our writers intend on a story to read smoothly as though it might otherwise be a traditional article, the reality is that it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes when adding to a story we’re re-using points that we’ve written before then shuffling them around in an order that makes sense. It’s because of this process that we explicitly do not follow traditional transition language such as “therefore”, “additionally”, and “furthermore” that helps to make a traditional article read more smoothly.

Pronouns

Point from a Circa story in our card format

This may seem like an odd reason not to have RSS, but the user experience around pronoun usage and Circa is important. Because we intend every point to be potentially reusable, we have to write it in such a way that it would still make sense if the rest of the story wasn’t present. It’s with these instances that pronouns aren’t often used when continuing to mention a person, place, or thing within a Circa story. A reader may see an individual’s name many times within one of our stories. Whereas in a traditional article most of those instances would be replaced with pronouns, because Circa uses the visual medium of “Cards” it’s easier for the reader to separate those bits of information as different things — not a free flowing article.

RSS’s format stripping = no more cards

Because the visual medium that Circa relies upon is not possible with RSS, the problems described above with the lack of transitionary language, pronouns, and otherwise free flowing words, make the user experience of reading an RSS-based Circa story poor. Some stories may read a bit disjointed paragraph-to-paragraph. We don’t exactly think this is a positive user experience. In the case of reading news with an RSS format, historically we’ve thought people would be more keen to read something that flows better.

Experience

We truly believe that the best Circa experience is had when using the apps — especially when following stories. We’ve spent an incredible amount of time thinking through the best possible user experience for news and built all of that into our DNA.

I’ve said previously in various interviews that in the case of Circa, the product cannot be easily divorced from the content without great sacrifice. The experience of our app is tightly intertwined with our content — and the editorial process that we adhere to is tightly integrated with how our app experiences work. Therefore when you strip the experience away and leave only the content behind, we’re just any other news content and historically that’s not something we’ve been keen on promoting.

Prioritization

This reasoning is easy — we’re a small team and just haven’t really had the time to dedicate to what a high quality RSS-based Circa experience would be like.

I think they’re overlooking something that’s almost no cost to them and has a significant upside.

Dave’s point here isn’t exactly right. While RSS would be easy to roll out, it’s not easy to roll out well. Our CMS is 100% custom, so it’s not like we’re able to drop in some pre-built plugin to make an RSS implementation work. Developing an RSS feed will take time, which diverts those resources from other priorities. While we do understand the potential benefit, we want to have a high quality experience around it and have to juggle that with all of the other things on our plate.

A Circa RSS feed is coming

The above points are all still very valid to this day and we still don’t take lightly the notion of how RSS might work for Circa. However we can’t deny its potential use, and think that for a small subset of our audience it may be one way they’d like to consume our news. Therefore when we get ready to launch our upcoming web experience, we’re hoping to include with it an RSS feed of our news in a format that we think will best work for the medium.