A call to revisit RSS
A 20 year old standard for distributing web content offers an alternative to algorithm driven newsfeeds. But it’s the past rather than the future of the web and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
RSS is a throwback to the advent of the web. It’s an acronym for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple syndication and was created as a means of distributing content. The first version of RSS was created by Dan Libby and Ramanathan V. Guha at Netscape in March 1999. It’s typically available on blogs and news websites.
A mobile or web app called an RSS Reader enables you to subscribe to a publication via its RSS feed. This is a machine-readable format based on an open standard. You can check out the RSS feed for my site at wadds.co.uk/?format=rss.
Article headlines, summaries or full articles appear in an RSS Reader organised by publisher or date. The layout is stripped back to text and images.
A fix for the newsfeed
The key difference between an RSS feed and an algorithm driven newsfeed such as Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, is that you are completely in control of the content that you consume.
Social networks create bubbles and biases that aren’t obvious to the user. Articles are served by an algorithm based factors including engagement on the platform and within a community or network, likes or favourites, comments and whether the publisher has paid to promote its content. It's unlikely that you'd every be served content that was contrary to your opinion.
In contrast, an RSS Reader allows you to subscribe to a blog or publication and decide which articles you want to read. It’s as close to a traditional print product or newsstand as is possible to find on the web.
Not every website publishes an RSS feed of its content but most do. You’ll often need to poke around a website to find the feed. Even sites with a paywall such as The Economist make snippets available via RSS for free. You’ll need to follow links and pay for the full article.
RSS fell out of popularity as a standard in 2013 when Google retired its Google Reader product. Google, like Facebook and Twitter, backed the newsfeed driven approach of its Google+ social network. Google+ reached a peak of a billion active users in 2015 but has since fallen back to around 400 million.
Apple ditched its native service around the same time, followed by Yahoo! which closed its Yahoo! Pipes aggregation service in 2015.
Rediscover an RSS Reader
There’s not a day goes by when I don’t miss Google Reader. But the RSS standard is alive and well for hard core web users. We use services such as the RSS Feed Reader Chrome app, or mobile and web apps such as Feedly, Feedreader and Newsblur. They generate revenue either via sponsored content or subscriptions.
RSS never really went away and may yet make a comeback as a reaction to algorithm newsfeeds. In the meantime to subscribe to the RSS for my blog, please point your RSS Reader at wadds.co.uk/?format=rss.
My thanks to vintage bloggers and web users David Brain, Stuart Bruce, Mike Butcher, Paul Fabretti, Ged Carroll, Craig McGill, Mandy Pearce, David Pearson, Julio Romo, Andrew Smith, and James Whatley, for their comments and insight on RSS in response to a post on my Facebook feed.