Feb 22

How RSS became a Thing (again)

RSS (originally RDF Site Summary; later, two competing approaches emerged, which used the backronyms Rich Site Summary and Really Simple Syndication respectively) is a web feed which allows users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardized, computer-readable format. Wikipedia

Cupertino city center
Cupertino City Center, home of Apple Advanced Technology Group 3

The emergence of RSS dates back to the 90ies when Ramanathan V. Guha started developing the Meta Content Framework at Apple Advanced Technology Group, a laboratory developing software and hardware, QuickTime amongst many others. The Meta Content Framework allowed website owners to present their website in a common format that was then used by the Apple experimental product HotSauce to navigate through a website in 3d. Despite the cool name it was never widely adopted and got stomped when Steve Jobs entered the company (again).

Netscape logo
Netscape Logo 4

V. Guha then went to Netscape where he developed RSS together with Dan Libby, a version that is known as RSS 0.9. From there on things become rather complicated, a version jungle that later led to different formats like Atom and others. I spare you the details as I don't know them either and I don't think they matter, most importantly RSS gives you common standard to consume a websites' content, without the stylesheets, javascript etc. that HTML includes. The most widespread RSS version probably is RSS 2.0.

The Rise and Fall

The same time RSS evolved, there was another thing people liked to back in the days called blogging. Before Wordpress there were online diaries, where users could publish stories. There was also a platform called OpenDiary, that according to Wikipedia relaunched in 2018, which innovated reader comments and other social network features. For bloggers who run their own blogs and post stories now and then and their readers, RSS is a great technology. Instead of checking all the blogs you like by visiting their websites you can just fetch their RSS feeds and get notified of new articles. There are blogs that post the whole content in RSS, so you would not even need to visit the website for reading the content. So blogging is a loosely coupled, open network of individuals.

It seemed that this kind of web found support of the also evolving big players like Google, Facebook and Twitter, that all provided RSS feeds, Google even created the popular Google Reader. But in 2013, two years after Google tried to build a competitor to Facebook with Google+ (R.I.P.), the G-Reader was discontinued. Facebook and Twitter also discontinued RSS Feeds, providing other proprietary ways to fetch content from their sites. Why was RSS suddenly not interesting anymore? I think the companies want total control about their content. With RSS you send the content out without any idea who reads it, you only know if someone clicks on a link in the feed. On the other hand those companies have APIs that lets anybody get the content, maybe RSS was not flexible enough? Or did they want to restrict the access per account? It is speculation. But websites like Facebook want the user to stay as long as possible on their website, so that they see and possibly click on as many ads as possible. There is no reason for them to provide a way to get to the content from the outside. But is it really a problem, that the internet giants do not care about RSS? And there is Youtube and Reddit that provide great RSS support. Wordpress, a CMS that powers a third of the websites on the internet, has RSS support as standard. Many of the major news companies offer RSS feeds, so what has really changed?

Success of social media

First of all, social media is where the user is these days. Social media has found ways to keep users come back and stay on the platform. Algorithms show popular content to the user, artificial intelligence calculates what you are probably interested in by knowing you as good as possible. A great side effect of knowing the user - it makes it easy to show ads that are relevant. In the other corner of the ring there is a RSS Reader, that lists articles from websites, sounds rather boring in comparison.

Especially extreme content works well on social media, news provoking a strong reaction like outrage, but also just animals that do funny stuff. Essential for social websites is the feed, the central place where everything comes together. So you start adding sources to your feed that may publish 20 items in a minute, how to decide what to show you? A company that wants to make money will show you the articles that most others engage with. Maybe you would have liked other content more, you will never know, but often the shown content is good enough to keep you coming back. Even if you follow serious newspapers because you want to stay informed, that may not really be what you get, the serious articles are just too boring or need too much time to get into. News companies also want to earn money, so they post content on Facebook, the place where users are, that they think could work on the platform, because otherwise they could also just not do it.

According to BuiltWith 47% (02/22/20) of the top 10k websites provide RSS feeds. When I switched to RSS I found a feed for every website I followed on Facebook or Twitter. So I think the problem for RSS spread is not really the publisher support. People just rather spend their time on social media and publishers want to reach them.

Problems of RSS

  1. The strength of RSS is providing a chronological, unfiltered feed, and that can also be a weakness considering how much content is produced by media companies. This might also be related to the realtime character that social media has. You need to be publishing articles fast to keep your followers happy and to get new followers. All this content in a chronological feed is hard to consume. In the times of blogging people were probably happy if a new article was published and a RSS reader was a perfect way to fulfill the task of showing new content. Today at the end of a day you would probably have to skip through a thousand items and look for articles you are interested in, not really a thing one likes to do.

  2. Another problem is feed discovery - how to find the feeds for the websites you are reading. The technology exists, website owners can put the feed sources in their markup so that feed readers can find them. But there are also popular websites that let you search for their feeds. But this is a problem easily solvable by sharing feed sources, so not everybody has to search again.

  3. Every website needs to care for their feed, there are many feeds out there that are missing things or are not valid. If there are enough people using RSS I am sure publishers will invest more time in caring for their feeds again.

  4. Analytics - publishers want to measure the success of their content. You can track a visitor coming from RSS in general, but that is not much compared to the analytics capabilities of other platforms.

Rumors of a Comeback

Especially Facebook had really bad news the last years, Cambridge Analytica, election manipulation, fake news, hate speech, data leaks amongst others. The numbers say all these news did not really change anything, which is remarkable. I cannot really understand it, but maybe a competitor is missing and in the end it is a closed system where you loose all your stuff and connections when leaving. This is another problem that was already solved for RSS. The OPML file format allows you to just import and export your feed collections and choose another service. Of course no company wants you to leave so closed systems are a common thing these days.

But I guess it was a little bit too many scandals so that Wired wrote in 2018 "It's Time for an RSS Revival - After years of letting algorithms make up our minds for us, the time is right to go back to basics." (Wired) The article points out that your social media feed is not only determined by algorithms, but also by ads, for the last twenty years the only way to make money on the internet. But that seems to change, as many newspapers are starting with paid content or an ad free experience. For my taste there are just too many ads on Google, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube, I think they are really hitting a limit of what is bearable and often an ad blocker will not help.

In my opinion the problem with social media is the mixture of social content and news content, a mixture mangled by the same algorithms. News content is just too serious for social media algorithms. Political ads are also very problematic. Of course they are also on TV or on posters, but everyone can see them, it is transparent. Social media lets parties show individual ads, maybe with fake content. So while there is obviously a place and demand for social media (hopefully MySpace), especially news content should be consumed differently and RSS is a great open format for it.

What does Nooshub bring to the table? We are working on a transparent way of emphasizing important content without filtering, so that the many news articles in your feeds do not overwhelm you. No ads, no trash, kind of a way of digital detox. Will RSS be mainstream anytime soon? RSS is just a technology that can be used for all kinds of things, and RSS together with OPML is a great open format. You can change RSS and OPML with some other, maybe better formats that may evolve, but it is mostly the idea behind it, closed vs. open, intransparent vs. transparent. In the end it is a decision of the web users - do they want algorithms to decide what to read or decide for themselves?

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