RSS revisited

by Ian Rosenwach on 10.24.2013

Summary: Standard publishing formats are necessary on the web, but as consumer behavior and demands change, the keepers of those standard formats must change with it. 

In 2009 I wrote two posts with feedback about RSS (Really Simple Syndication) as a publishing medium. What’s happened since then? Is RSS dead?

For whatever reason I was always drawn to RSS. The first two web products I worked on were powered by RSS – RSSColumns in 2006 and WordTube in 2009. (the sites are down, there are a few old archived pages) RSSColumns was a curated directory of RSS feeds with 1-click subscription options to Google Reader and My Yahoo, the most popular readers of the time. WordTube took that a step further in actually displaying the content to the consumer in mobile-friendly format. There was a curated directory and aggregated channels.

A standard format

RSS is the product/brand name for a content syndication format; RSS is not a company. That format was adopted by several large publishers, including the nytimes.com. Netscape’s early web browser played a role in popularizing RSS by supporting it, and soon other browsers followed. This in turn created the need for RSS readers so people could actually read their RSS “feeds”.

The stakes were high. Netscape wanted to be the place where readers consume this content, so did Yahoo, AOL, Google, Ask.com, and the other major web players. For more history, see Wikipedia’s entry on RSS.

Barriers to mass adoption

It’s debatable as to if RSS ever was adopted beyond a group of more technical users. But it’s safe to say that other methods of content consumption have either replaced RSS, or popularized the internet streaming content platform that RSS started.

These are a few factors that I think contributed to RSS being vulnerable to incumbent products –

  • Lack of conversation – you can think of RSS feeds as not just a syndication format, but as the establishment of a relationship between the publisher and the reader. But with RSS, conversations couldn’t happen. There’s no contact between the producer and the reader.
  • Lack of consumer interface standards – since there was no “official” RSS feed reader, companies built them with their own consumption experience in mind. That’s as if Twitter started with just a lot of tweets and different ways to read them. That will hurt adoption for any consumer product.
  • Twitter – I think the single biggest driver of RSS’s failure to go mainstream is Twitter. Another way to look at it is that Twitter has popularized some key behaviors of RSS, meaning there could be fewer barriers to adoption in the past.

I wouldn’t say all of these are net positives. For example, with Twitter publishers now have the freedom to communicate with their followers any time. This might be good for publishers, but it could clutter the reading experience. Twitter could be vulnerable in that regard.

Is RSS dead?

The concept is alive and well. The web will always need broadly adopted mediums that make it easy for publishers to reach readers, and readers to consume content.

RSS is one format among many, and this format is not dead. There was vocal opposition to Google retiring Google Reader, and a modern RSS reader in Digg Reader. Digg Reader doesn’t require users to copy and paste the URL of an RSS feed. You can browse categories and choose which publishers to “Follow”. In a sense, it’s a less intimidating Twitter. One key question is how heavily publishers will engage in the platform. If it’s one of many places that they syndicate their RSS feed, I don’t know if this outlet will command the type of attention that a Twitter or Instagram does.

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