The rebirth of RSS?

by jeremy on June 29, 2013

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy. 

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