Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

one more plea for RSS

As I’ve said many times over the years, I’m a big fan of RSS as a way of reading the internet, though I have had little success convincing others that it’s the way to go — that’s why I’m back on Twitter. Most of us who praise, and for that matter just use, RSS have become rather self-conscious about our attachement to the Good Old Internet Days — we tend to use a lot of “old man shakes fist at cloud” images.

But darn it, there are good reasons for using RSS! As Molly McHugh recently wrote, in one of several pieces I’ve read about Digg Reader’s demise,

The end of Digg Reader is another blow to chronological consumption of the internet. Users are curators of their internet experiences, from who they follow on Instagram to what news sources they see on Facebook, but no one is entirely responsible for what content is put in front of them. User input is selected and fed into these machines, which then decide what is laid out in feeds and when; often, that tends to be viral, salacious content.... RSS readers are not social applications, and they certainly are not flashy—which is probably why they are a dying breed. Headlines aren’t altered for maximum shareability by the platform, and the simplest among them eschew images altogether. Readers are nothing more than a timestamped list of stories from places the user trusts.

Why isn’t RSS more popular? As McHugh rightly says, “There is no argument as to whether RSS readers are better than Twitter or Facebook for news gathering; they are.” However: “there is no currency in a self-contained internet experience; how far something can move across the web is its value.” As long as we want clicks and likes and shares and RTs more than we want genuine understanding, we’ll use social media platforms rather than RSS.

So does RSS have a future at all? Bryan Alexander considers that question:

A giant company (Google) exited the RSS space. One smaller company (Digg) jumped in, then exited. Are all of the other RSS readers provided by start-ups and tiny firms? Has RSS reading become that marginalized? Are we this bound up with the “helpful”, AI-driven feeds so many experience through Facebook and the like? For another science fiction reference, we might collectively accustom ourselves to benevolent AI oversight, as with Iain Banks’ Culture universe (thanks to Crainist for the idea). This is one future path.

One would think that the rising disgust at giant social media and other tech firms might drive people back to RSS, as an open, easy to use standard. Perhaps we’ll see the RSS reader equivalent of Mastodon. There will be a reactionary movement growing in strength. RSS could ride alongside people seeking social media detoxes and setting up their own, tiny social networks. Call it the Butlerian Jihad for RSS and the open web. That’s another way forward.

Or maybe a small number of us will tend the open flame, huddled around a shrinking number of oddball RSS reader, stolidly blogging away. We’ll be like the Amish in Pennsylvania, plodding along while the others whiz past. Or we’ll become something like a minority religion, somewhat tolerated, sometimes disdained, often sidestepped.


I’ll be content as a member of that despised tech-Amish tribe, if it comes to that, but I’m not going to give up on the possibility of a Butlerian Jihad against social media platforms and for the open web. And along those lines, if you haven’t read my recent essay on tending the digital commons, please do.

If a Butlerian Jihad is going to happen, the geeks will need to get on board with it, and perhaps lead it — but will they? Boone Gorges is a little worried about that, and has some important words for said geeks:

The more worrisome trend is content that's not available through RSS simply because there's no feed mechanism. A shamefully large number of my geekier aquantainces have moved their blogs to Jekyll and other static-site-generation tools, which don't appear to have feed support out of the box; and – this is the "shameful" part – since these folks, geeky as they may be, think so little of RSS, they don't bother setting up the secondary plugins or whatever necessary to serve feeds. I expect that kind of behavior from lock-up-my-content companies and technically-clueless organizations that rely heavily on proprietary and bespoke software, but not from people who ought to know better.

For all of its lumbering bloatedness, one of the truly wonderful things about CMSes like WordPress is that they give you things like RSS – along with a pile of other boring-but-critical-to-the-future-of-the-open-web tools – by default. You don't need to make the decision to support RSS readers (or responsive images, or markup that is accessible to assistive technologies, etc) – the system provides them for you, and you have to go out of your way to turn them off.

Those who build their own systems for old-school things like bloggish content distribution, or who rely on teh new hotness to do these tasks in ways that are slicker than the old-school tools, should beware the dangers of discarding the automated systems that are the result of many years and many minds and many mistakes. If you must reinvent the wheel, then do your due diligence. RSS feeds, like other assistive technologies, should not be an afterthought.

Geeky folk, please read and heed!

10 comments:

  • A minor total-geek quibble in defense of Jekyll: it totally does have RSS support out of the box, at least if you use the version required for hosting through GitHub Pages. (Which you should do, since it provides totally free hosting.) And since Jekyll readily enables some other very nice open-web type things like writing in Markdown—thus ensuring that your content can be easily migrated—I think Jekyllites can already often be classed among the ranks of the Butlerian Jihadis.

  • That's great to know, Matt!

  • I had to click out of my RSS reader (Feedly) to comment on this! I wonder if part of the problem is that the web developed as free content for everyone- which really isn't fair or ideal. If consumers don't pay then profits have to come from other less direct means. I'm happy to pay for services that I use (like Feedly) in order to ensure they don't go the way of Google reader.

  • I use Feedly too, the free service, which isn't as good as Google Reader was. I guess I'm spoiled by free content, too!

  • Wanted to also recommend RSS site NewsBlur. It has completely changed my relationship with the internet and made it so much more enjoyable.

  • I read you on Feedly, so I’m with you 100%!

  • I also read this blog exclusively on Feedly, and for what it's worth I switched from Twitter to RSS solely because of your recommendations (for which I'm grateful!).

    Ben Mooneyham

  • I also read you on Feedly, and for what it's worth I switched from Twitter to RSS solely because of your advice (for which I'm grateful!).

  • Another RSS user here, and three cheers for it — I have become devoted to Newsblur since the demise of Google Reader. But I've noticed lately that my reading habits have changed since I first started using RSS. I am now much more interested in following specific writers than I am in following publications. In an age where everyone's freelancing, if you were in The Week last month and the Washington Post this week and have a thing coming out in Deadspin soon and here's a one-off on Medium, and I don't have all these publications in my feeds, how am I to know you've done all these things if I'm not following you on Facebook or Twitter? (The problem is compounded if you're an Alan Jacobs type who might appear in places across the political and disciplinary spectrum.) If you are very kind or thorough you might maintain a personal site with a feed that will direct me to wherever you might publish, but who does that anymore?

    This is not a huge problem of course, but I'm wondering why I've started reading in this people-over-places way. No doubt some of it's just personal taste: good prose is good prose, and it's rare enough that I want to keep tabs on people who can write it. Some of it is the nature of the game, the dominance of the freelance life now.

    But there are other reasons that relate to the interests of this blog. One is the decline of the blog, a format perfectly suited to RSS. The typical content-firehose site, which might publish two or three things a month that I'd want to read, is not. The second reason is that Twitter has, I think, made me more attuned to individual writers, their particular concerns and sensibilities and styles: the triumph of the Personal Brand over the House Style. A third is that, as Freddie deBoer lamented a few years ago (in a post I can only find now because it's preserved in my Newsblur feed!), so many publications are indistinguishable, and I have no desire to scroll through fifty pieces about the latest Marvel movie or Trump tweet to find what I actually want to read.

    So the method these days is: RSS for bloggers, writers who have a home base with a regular column or something, and publications where I'm interested in let's say >40% of the content; Twitter for the homeless freelancers. The economic conditions enabled by the rise of social media ensure that lots of great writers have to use the same social media to get their stuff out, which means as much as I'd like to, I'm stuck on those damn sites as long as I want to support freelancers I like.

    (I could, of course, close the laptop and read books, or even, yes, print magazines. And I find myself doing just that more and more.)

  • One of the best decisions I've made with RSS is to skip the reader entirely. I use If This Then That to bring RSS feeds to my email, then I filter them into folders. Everything's consolidated.

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