I’ve always used RSS readers to keep up-to-date with what my favourite websites are publishing. It’s just easier and quicker than checking them all individually. Yes I was sad to see Google Reader go in 2013—for me that was more useful than Gmail—but moved on to Feedbin, then Feedly, and have been happily skimming the web there ever since.
I’ve not met anyone IRL that uses RSS, or even knows what I’m talking about. So when the tech pundits are saying RSS is back, was it ever here in the first place?
Here’s Thomas Ricker from The Verge back in 2015, trying to big-up RSS.
You can have your ad blockers, I’ll stick with RSS
RSS has never been fashionable — it’s always been a news gathering tool for nerds, not norms. But now, more than two years after the untimely demise of Google Reader, RSS almost feels cool — like listening to vinyl or hating things on Twitter.
One of the benefits of reading websites via their feeds is the lack of ads cluttering up the place.
With interest so low, RSS users like me can fly under the radar, quickly consuming vast quantities of news almost completely devoid of ads. Sure, some sites only feed headlines and a few choice blurbs, but many publish the entire content of their stories. Regardless, it’s still the best solution I’ve found for keeping up with news.
Three years later and here we are again. The emphasis isn’t on getting past the ads this time, but on avoiding the algorithm.
It’s time for an RSS revival
The modern web contains no shortage of horrors, from ubiquitous ad trackers to all-consuming platforms to YouTube comments, generally. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for what ails this internet we’ve built. But anyone weary of black-box algorithms controlling what you see online at least has a respite, one that’s been there all along but has often gone ignored. Tired of Twitter? Facebook fatigued? It’s time to head back to RSS.
“There are multiple approaches to connecting to news. Social felt pretty interesting at first, but when you mix social and algorithmic, you can easily get into these noise bubbles, or areas where you don’t necessarily feel 100 percent in control of the algorithm,” says Edwin Khodabakchian, cofounder and CEO of popular RSS reader Feedly. “A tool like Feedly gives you a more transparent and controllable way to connect to the information you need.”
Wired’s call for a revival might be a little over-optimistic. Here’s TechCruch’s view.
RSS is undead
Don’t get me wrong, I love RSS. At its core, it is a beautiful manifestation of some of the most visionary principles of the internet, namely transparency and openness. The protocol really is simple and human-readable. It feels like how the internet was originally designed with static, full-text articles in HTML. Perhaps most importantly, it is decentralized, with no power structure trying to stuff other content in front of your face.
It’s wonderfully idealistic, but the reality of RSS is that it lacks the features required by nearly every actor in the modern content ecosystem, and I would strongly suspect that its return is not forthcoming.
Using RSS readers is seen as a way of taking back control over the updates you’re presented with, rather than relying on social media algorithms. Ben Evans has a great rundown of where Facebook’s algorithmic newsfeed came from and why it’s so difficult to get right. Say you ‘friend’ 200 or 300 people, “and each of them post a couple of pictures, tap like on a few news stories or comment a couple of times, then, by the inexorable law of multiplication, yes, you will have something over a thousand new items in your feed every single day.” …
The death of the newsfeed
This overload means it now makes little sense to ask for the ‘chronological feed’ back. If you have 1,500 or 3,000 items a day, then the chronological feed is actually just the items you can be bothered to scroll through before giving up, which can only be 10% or 20% of what’s actually there. This will be sorted by no logical order at all except whether your friends happened to post them within the last hour. It’s not so much chronological in any useful sense as a random sample, where the randomizer is simply whatever time you yourself happen to open the app. ’What did any of the 300 people that I friended in the last 5 years post between 16:32 and 17:03?’ Meanwhile, giving us detailed manual controls and filters makes little more sense – the entire history of the tech industry tells us that actual normal people would never use them, even if they worked. People don’t file.
This is the logic that led Facebook inexorably to the ‘algorithmic feed’.