About a year ago, when Google announced that it was closing the doors on its popular (but not popular enough) Reader application, there was a momentary flutter of interest in RSS (used generically to mean all subscribable newsfeeds, whether RSS or Atom), with various commentators taking to the Internet to declare that RSS was doomed. For example, my old buddy Drew Olanoff opined that RSS had to go because it lacked consumer appeal, and Ben Parr spoke of the death knell for RSS.
Today, the publisher MacMillan announced a new MacMillan eDeals site. Being an ebook deal addict, I went to take a look, then looked around the page for a link to the RSS feed.
There wasn’t one. Despite the fact that this — a regularly updated list of deals — is pretty much made to measure for delivery via some kind of feed, and despite the fact that — because the site was built using WordPress — it’s practically a one-line code change to generate and offer such a feed, it simply wasn’t there. Of course, because the site is built using WordPress, the feed is there if you know where to look (it’s at http://macmillanedeals.com/feed/), but the content is minimal. Apparently MacMillan are counting on users to revisit their page every day to see what has changed. That seems optimistic to me, but what do I know?
What indeed? I still like RSS. I check my newsreader daily. This apparently makes me a ‘power user’, where ‘power user’ means "someone who knows enough to click a ‘Subscribe’ button" or perhaps "someone who knows that the Internet doesn’t begin and end with Facebook and Twitter". Power user? Feh. If I were a power RSS user, I would have some kind of RSS client that supported old-fashioned Usenet-style kill and highlight filters, something like Laurent Humbert’s amazing NewsHopper client rewritten for RSS. The fact that no one — as far as I know — ever implemented such a thing may just bear out Olanoff and Parr’s theory that RSS was always doomed.
But why was it doomed? Olanoff posts a screenshot of Google Reader and says "people don’t want to read news like this", while Parr explains that once he got Twitter, Google Reader began to seem like "a chore". When I read these two statements it sounds to me as if they’re both saying "People are really fucking dumb. And lazy too." And maybe that’s the explanation.
Let’s get something straight. Twitter is a woeful way to keep up on anything that interests you. It’s a firehose. Every crumb of useful information comes submerged in a tsunami of kitten pictures, LOLs, and minute-by-minute re-tweets of “Downton Abbey” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” from everyone you have ever met in your entire life. If you think you’re keeping up with anything on Twitter, you’re deluding yourself. And your boss would probably like to know how you have quite so much spare time in your day that you can waste it combing through all this dreck.
And don’t get me started on Facebook. Facebook’s news feed seems to have been designed by Heraclitus to drive home the point that you cannot step twice into the same river. Every time you refresh it, it’s different. Want to find something that someone posted an hour ago? The day before? A week ago? Good luck with that. Much of the time, it simply can’t be done. Facebook seems to take a perverse pleasure in rearranging things and hiding things from you, probably in order to ensure that you spend as much time unproductively reading Facebook as possible.
Reading RSS through any half-decent reader, by contrast, is simple, elegant and efficient. You don’t have to wade upstream through a tsunami of nonsense: you can check a single feed, or group of feeds (because it only takes 5 seconds to put your newly-added technology news feed into the ‘Tech News’ folder). You can bookmark things that interest you so that you can come back to them later. You can even search for keywords. And contrary to the claims of its detractors, nothing to do with using feeds is in any way rocket science.
So why is RSS dying (or dead)? Currently, we’re in vicious circle territory: site owners don’t provide feeds because users don’t use RSS, and people don’t use RSS because site owners don’t offer feeds. Once begun, that downward spiral will continue until the technology withers away entirely, and I see no real chance of stopping it.
But why didn’t it take off in the first place? I still believe that it’s so clearly useful that the only reason why it didn’t catch on — except among geeks — was because it was never really ‘sold’ the right way. For a long time, subscribing to feeds required a separate application, which was apparently an insuperable burden to people who spend their whole lives in Internet Explorer. When the browser makers belatedly added RSS capabilities to their browsers, it was still too obscure: the availability of a feed was shown only by a tiny icon at the end of the address bar, and even clicking the button to see the feeds that you had subscribed to was seemingly too much of a cognitive hurdle for most users. Reader features lasted a version or two and then vanished: Safari, for example, no longer supports — or even acknowledges the existence of — RSS.
I don’t know how things could have been done better, but I think that the naysayers are probably right and that feeds are doomed. This is too bad. Some of us find them very useful, and the actual effort involved in providing a feed of your site is almost always minimal. Increasingly, however, fewer and fewer webmasters bother to make the effort.
There’s nothing really complex about RSS: it is still simple, useful and efficient. It’s trivial to provide, unchallenging to consume. The fact that it didn’t flourish tells us an unpleasant truth: that the average Internet user is even dumber and lazier than we’ve always assumed. Any technology that isn’t right there in their faces, serving up instant gratification in pre-chewed ready-to-swallow individual servings simply isn’t going to make it.