RE: Thoughts on RSS

a reply to Matt Rickard’s thoughts on RSS and and the problems it faces

Mon, 18 Jul 2022

Matt Rickard had posted some thoughts on RSS back in June that I thought interesting, but I don’t agree with all of them.

What is RSS? It stands for “Really Simple Syndication”1. It’s a XML feed that provides a dated list of blog posts, podcasts, etc. sorted in reverse chronological order. You can use a feed reader app to collect feeds and read posts at your convenience. It’s a great way to subscribe to people’s websites if you don’t like having stuff dumped in your email. Nobody controls it; anybody who wants to can provide a RSS feed for their site2, and there are online and offline feed readers galore, many of them free.

RSS is pretty stable; RSS 2 hasn’t been officially updated since 2009 since it can be extended using XML namespaces. Atom hasn’t been updated since 2007 with the release of RFC 5023. I suspect Rickard thinks this is a problem, given the following in his blog post:

It’s hard to gauge actual RSS usage. Substack has recently launched an RSS reader; otherwise, there isn’t a vibrant ecosystem pushing forward the protocol…

I’m not convinced the protocol needs to be “pushed forward”, but let’s have a look at some of the other forces acting on RSS that Rickard identified.

RSS readers act like email clients in how they render content via HTML. Unfortunately, email content isn’t as rich as the JavaScript-powered web today. Maybe that’s OK for email3 (and podcasts), but not for generic blog content.

This has me scratching my head. Why does “generic blog content” need JavaScript at all? Is it a question of definitions? I’m used to a blog post being mostly text, with occasional images. There might be embedded audio and video, but I prefer to read blogs that don’t have that because I remember dialup. Also, I think this is only really relevant for full-text feeds. I suspect that most feeds are headline and summary only, with a link to the full article that (depending on the reader) will open in your browser.

Substack has revitalized the blogging movement by giving away free hosting and email lists, and a business model for supporting writers. As email newsletters grow, RSS is a decent alternative to an increasingly cluttered email inbox.

I’m not convinced that Substack is anything but the Medium of newsletters, or that Substack isn’t another content farm with delusions of grandeur and sufficiently deep pockets to lure relatively big names into writing for them. However, I think that newsletters were a mistake, though perhaps one made out of necessity.

Commercial incentives work against RSS. The protocol competes with internet advertising models (Google search ads, Facebook feed ads) and subscription models. Walled garden content aggregation is significantly more profitable than free syndication (e.g., Reddit, Facebook)

I won’t dispute this because I think this is something we should lean into. Instead of merely being non-commercial, perhaps we should be pushing RSS as anti-commercial, something you use because getting your message out means more to you than making a few bucks in the process. That’s probably a hard sell for people who want to quit their day jobs and create for a living, thought.

RSS doesn’t have a true sponsor. Netscape initially developed it. Later, Aaron Swartz led a redesign and fork. Yahoo designed the Media RSS specification. There’s also been some political strife with the RSS Advisory Board.

Does it matter that RSS doesn’t have a “true sponsor”? For a while RSS had a huge advocate in Google – but that ended when Google shut down Google Reader. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Creator incentives work against RSS. The protocol does not benefit content creators4 because it doesn’t give them any insight into their audience (number of subscribers, emails, or other data).

I must be a terrible “content creator”, because I have no interest whatsoever in knowing how many subscribers, emails, followers, etc. I have. I provide a RSS feed instead of running a newsletter or doing social media because RSS is anonymous, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to know who you are. It’s none of my business, and safely storing and handling information about who visits my website and reads my stuff is a hassle I’m not willing to deal with.

RSS is one-way publishing; there is no way for content creators and their audience to interact (e.g., through comments or replies).

Again, I don’t see the problem with this. There’s a mailto link at the end of every post and page on my website. If somebody has something to say, they can email me. If you aren’t willing to use email then I don’t want to hear from you. I haven’t provided a comments section on my website in years; this is my soapbox, and you should get your own. If you want to comment, do it on your own website by linking to mine and quoting as needed. If you really want me to know that you’ve written something about something I’ve written, that’s what email is for.

Curation and discoverability are more difficult on RSS than on native platforms.

First off, curation is only valid when done by human beings. As soon as you try to automate that shit, you end up optimizing for “engagement” and implementing algorithms that lead people down rabbit holes that all end in a veritable Baskin Robbins of extremist ideologies: 31 flavors of self-inflicted psychosis.

Second, if by “native platforms” Rickard means social media platforms like Tiktok, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube: I’m not convinced they’re any better at discoverability than randomly surfing the net and collecting RSS feeds like Pokémon.

RSS had usability issues – discovering a feed and seeing raw XML was too technical for the average user.

This is true, and I’m not sure how best to fix this. I link directly to my RSS feed so that it’s easily discoverable, and I have a XSL transform in place so that if you access the feed with the browser you get a nicely styled web page instead of raw XML. However, expecting most bloggers to figure out XSL is about as realistic as expecting them to hand-code their HTML and CSS and upload to a host using rsync and ssh. Techies might manage it, but Movable Type broke the web in 2001 because it was more convenient for the vast majority of people putting stuff on the web than doing it yourself.

I don’t know how to fix this. Maybe if WordPress themes came with XSL transforms that made feeds resemble the rest of the site, that would help a bit. It would also help if the major browser developers (Google, Apple, Mozilla) did a better job of supporting RSS instead of leaving that functionality to extensions. For example, the Seamonkey project still includes a feed reader (as part of its built-in mail client) as well providing a subscribe button on the feed itself should you open it, and the feed gets rendered as if it were HTML.

If Seamonkey can still support RSS, why not Chrome, Safari, and Firefox?

TL;DR: RSS is good tech for people who want to express themselves online as long as they aren’t looking to go commercial, but the tech isn’t really accessible to the general public. I’m not sure how to fix that.

  1. RSS was the original standard, created in part by Aaron Swartz, but the Internet Engineering Task Force used it as the basis for Atom (another XML format), and then Manton Reece and Brent Simmons created the JSON feed.↩︎

  2. many blogging systems, like Wordpress, will build your feed for you.↩︎

  3. I disagree with this, too. HTML is not OK for email. HTML email enables spyware and phishing.↩︎

  4. This me being old and yelling at clouds, but I fucking loathe the phrase “content creator”. It is to writers/artists/musicians/photographers/filmmakers/journalists on the internet what “hack” used to be for novelists. Nor am I the only one who holds this opinion.↩︎