Security warnings that fail to be helpful: Who are you trying to confuse?

Warning: This file may contain malicious code, by executing it your system may be compromised.

If your average user is a computer security professional, this warning, found in a web application for corporate intranets, may be appropriate.  But does the average person want to understand the concepts of ‘malicious code’ or a ‘compromised’ system?

Wouldn’t they rather just be gently reminded that you can’t trust every file that you download on the web?

Let’s consider for a second that a user sees the original warning and doesn’t ignore it.  They may ask, ‘what is malicious code?’  Well, it is code, erm …  Well, computer programs are written in what’s called code … and sometimes that code might be erm … written to do bad things to your computer.  If they are not confused enough already they might try and ask what a compromised system is.  And no, it doesn’t really have much to do with a ‘compromise’ on anyone’s part.

If you really want to scare people, you could at least use terms that are more likely to be widely understood, like ‘files may contain viruses!’  ‘Be careful!’

Writing language that people are likely to understand is not dumbing down.  It would be dumbing down if you removed some of the most relevant and important details from your message, leaving your users feeling cheated because details were withheld.  But in this case, the fact that software is made up of code, and some code may be a bit nefarious, or the concept of a compromised system, detracts from the most important detail of the message, which is that it might not be safe to trust the file you are downloading.  There are also some more clear, more concise alternatives, such as the word ‘virus’.  This word has come to collectively signify everything nasty that you could let loose on your computer without meaning to.

RSS feeds not fit for human consumption

It’s not feeds that I have a problem with, just using the term ‘RSS feeds’ or ‘RSS’ to describe them.

The term ‘RSS’ is hairy to begin with.  It isn’t sure if it should stand for ‘Really Simple Syndication’, ‘Rich Site Summary’ or ‘RDF Site Summary’.  That third one, with the nested acronym, is particularly hideous.  Passable for people who work with RDF perhaps, but that isn’t many people these days.  Besides which, ‘syndication’, and ‘site summary’ just don’t seem to convey the right idea to me.  They don’t reach out and tell me about grabbing headlines and bits of articles from a site and viewing them in other ways.  ‘Site Summary’ is a fairly vague term which could just as easily refer to a website’s ‘About Us’ page, and ‘Syndication’ is not really what feeds are used for these days.

Then there’s the issue that not all feeds are RSS, and not even all RSS is RSS.  RSS is a name used by two separate, competing and incompatible formats (or more if you count previous versions which are not forwards-compatible).  RSS is therefore not only useless in referring to the concept of a feed, but it’s useless in referring to a particular format of feed.  Yet another format is called Atom – not RSS at all.  The term ‘RSS’ unfairly excludes other implementations of the same concept.

Feeds are being increasingly used by web users due in part to better integration of feed readers or subscription mechanisms for feeds into browsers.  But along with this we need to use an appropriate name for them.

I am a fan of the term ‘web feeds’.  Firefox 2.0 used the term ‘feed’ as in ‘subscribe to this feed’.  The upcoming Firefox 3.0 gets more specific by calling them ‘web feeds’.  Internet Explorer 7.0 simply calls them ‘feeds’.  Opera 9.x muddies things by alternating between the terms ‘feeds’, ‘subscriptions’ and even ‘newsfeeds’.  And last but not least, Safari 3.1 refers to them as ‘RSS’.  Not even ‘RSS feeds’ – just ‘RSS’.

Google Reader simply calls them ‘subscriptions’ as far as I can tell, which is a decent term.  In other locations Google also uses the term ‘feeds’.  Wikipedia’s main page about feeds is now called ‘Web feed’.

With the exception of Safari, then, the major browsers and the other companies I mentioned have all opted to avoid the technically vague and misleading ‘RSS’ term and go with a more general term for the concept, with ‘feed’ by far the most popular, followed by ‘subscription’ and trailed by variants upon the word ‘feed’ such as ‘web feed’ or ‘newsfeed’.

So, is ‘feed’ a suitable term?  The word itself doesn’t describe the function; feed could easily be something I give to an animal.  The usage of the word seems to come from the context of radio or television broadcasting, where a ‘feed’ is some content that has been sourced or ‘streamed’ from another network.  It’s not an obvious link, to me at least, but once realised the analogy holds up.  I can subscribe to a feed of content sourced from another website.

What is certain is that the term ‘RSS’ really has to go.  It isn’t specific enough to be used as a technical term because it could refer to one of multiple competing formats.  At the same time, it isn’t inclusive enough as a general term as there are feeds that are not actually using any RSS-named technology.  With the exception of Safari, the term ‘RSS’ is not exposed to end users in any of the major web browsers, which instead opt for the more general ‘feed’ or ‘subscription’.  Most of all, it’s a confusing, alienating three letter acronym that doesn’t become more self-explanatory after expanding it into any of its many alternative backronyms.