RSS is back. Again. Except it isn’t.

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 2013for me that was more useful than Gmailbut 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’.

 

Back under the bonnet

Russell Davies on the backward steps we’ve taken with how we relate to the web.

Let’s make the grimy architecture of the web visible again
And, for a while, domain names and URLs became part of the fun of the web. While the more commercial parts of town got excited about the money changing hands for cars.com, the bohemian quarters were creating baroque constructions like del.icio.us or mucking about with ridiculously domains. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as when I realised I could buy agoodplaceforacupofteaandathink.com. Surely, I thought, this must already have been snapped up. And then the URL shorteners arrived.

[…]

It’s increasingly apparent that a more digitally literate citizenry would be good for a thousand different reasons. A great way to start would be to make URLs visible again, to let people see the infrastructure they’re living in. Perhaps it’s time for some pro-URL sloganising: Beneath The Shorteners, The Web!

Agreed. Another example of this has been prevalent in TV and radio advertising for a while now — adverts ending with calls to search specific keywords or hashtags, rather than directing potential customers to web addresses. As well as reinforcing this move to de-emphasise URLs, dumbing-down the internet and creating more reliance on search engines, it can also work against those companies themselves.

The lunacy of search term CTAs in TV ads
Additionally, it is very difficult to dominate page one of the search results for those generic terms. Taking the Mini Original commercial shown above, the search query they told viewers to search for online was ‘New Original’. When conducting this search on Google, the first page of results are no where near dominated by Mini. As you can see from the screenshot below, seven of the listings are nothing to do with the car.

Big bad numbers

TechCrunch has a summary of the latest report from Google on its attempts to clear up its mess. Some of the numbers are incredible.

In 2017, Google removed 3.2B ‘bad ads’ and blocked 320K publishers, 90K sites, 700K mobile apps
Google also removed 130 million ads for malicious activity abuses, such as trying to get around Google’s ad review. And 79 million ads were blocked because clicking on them led to sites with malware, while 400,000 sites containing malware were also removed as part of that process. Google also identified and blocked 66 million “trick to click” ads and 48 million ads that tricked you into downloading software.

Sounds impressive, but that’s not all they’re trying to tackle currently.

The bad ads report publication comes in the wake of Google taking a much more proactive stance tackling harmful content on one of its most popular platforms, YouTube. In February, the company announced that it would be getting more serious about how it evaluated videos posted to the site, and penalising creators a through a series of “strikes” if they were found to be running afoul of Google’s policies.

The strikes have been intended to hit creators where it hurts them most: by curtailing monetising and discoverability of the videos.

This week, Google started to propose a second line of attack to try to raise the level of conversation around questionable content: it plans to post alternative facts from Wikipedia alongside videos that carry conspiracy theories (although it’s not clear how Google will determine which videos are conspiracies, and which are not).

That sounds quite intractable. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Reviewing my reading habits

It’s occurred to me that I’m becoming an increasingly lazy reader, preferring to read reviews of books than the books themselves. Below are some snippets from the latest to have caught my eye.

Reviews of books about dark Jewish comedians and insightful Australian art critics. Books on how the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge, how word processors have changed literature, and about how art can save us from our bone-deep solitude.

The wondrous critic
The most manifest virtue of these essays is their language, marked by an uncommon command of vocabulary and (in our day) a far rarer mastery of syntax, allied to a thoroughly antiquated respect for the rules of grammar. Open this anthology anywhere and you will be hard put to find a sentence that is not as memorable for its very phrasing as it is for its thought.

The lonely city
She tells us that she often moved through New York feeling so invisibly alone that she felt like a ghost, and so started to think of other ghosts as suitable company. The dead, for Laing, are not so much historical figures as they are very vibrant modern companions, and she invokes them with an ease and familiarity of old friends. She allows Warhol to pop up in the chapter on the web, Hopper to pop up in a chapter on Warhol, and so on. In Laing’s head, all of these artists are still alive somewhere – perhaps even in communion with one another. This thought makes her feel less alone, and she passes it along to us.

Rethinking knowledge in the Internet Age
In fact, knowledge is now networked: made up of loose-edged groups of people who discuss and spread ideas, creating a web of links among different viewpoints. That’s how scholars in virtually every discipline do their work — from their initial research, to the conversations that forge research into ideas, to carrying ideas into public discourse. Scholar or not, whatever topic initially piques our interest, the net encourages us to learn more. Perhaps we follow links, or are involved in multiyear conversations on stable mailing lists, or throw ideas out onto Twitter, or post first drafts at arXiv.org, or set up Facebook pages, or pose and answer questions at Quora or Stack Overflow, or do “post-publication peer review” at PubPeer.com. There has never been a better time to be curious, and that’s not only because there are so many facts available — it’s because there are so many people with whom we can interact.

How literature became word perfect
The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key oment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M.

Jews on the Loose
In his movie roles Groucho, for Lee Siegel, represents not an amusing attack on pretension but “the spirit of nihilism.” Siegel disputes the view that Woody Allen is Groucho’s descendant, for he feels that “Allen is simply too funny to be Groucho’s direct descendant.” Groucho is—and he is right about this—much darker. “No other comedians of the time,” Siegel writes, “come close to the wraithlike sociopath Groucho portrays in the Marx Brothers’ best films.”

Rather than solely answering our “Should I buy the book or not?” question, these reviews act as companion pieces to the books, whether the reviewer is agreeing with the author or not. The dialogue only adds.

I need to resist the temptation of considering the review as a substitute to the book, though. Maybe I need to find a review of a book about tackling laziness or something…

Remembering Geocities, the future

Geocities was arguably where it all began, for me at least. It looks so ugly and ridiculous now – hopeless grammar, frames, silly gifs, pages forever ‘under construction’. So old-fashioned. But the 90s weren’t that long ago, were they? The future dates so fast.

Perhaps a difference between these pages and the blogs and sites of the present day is their lack of professionalism. Or rather, their joy in their amateurism, their spontaneity, their lack of polish.

The web today looks like television, like broadsheets, I can’t tell which is which. It’s all got very boring.

I wish I had kept a record of what I did then, but perhaps this could help. One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age is a Geocities research blog and accompanying tumblr by Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied.

Digging through the Geocities Torrent
The free web hosting service Geocities.com was founded by “Beverly Hills Internet” in July 1995 — exactly the time when the web left academia and started to be made by everyone of us.

Soon it became one of the most popular and inhabited places of the WWW and stayed that way through the second part of 1990′s. In January 1999, on the peak of Dot.com mania, it was bought by Yahoo!.

The new millennium proved Geocities to be a bad investment. Having a page on there became a synonym for dilettantism and bad taste. Furthermore, the time of personal home pages was counted, being replaced with profiles on social networks.

Ten years later, in April 2009, Yahoo! announced that they are going to shut down the service.

On the 26th of October 2009 Geocities seized to exist. In between the announcement and the official date of death a group of people calling themselves Archive Team managed to rescue almost a terabyte of Geocities pages. On the 26th of October 2010, the first anniversary of this Digital Holocaust, the Archive Team started to seed geocities.archiveteam.torrent.

On the 1st of November 2010 Olia and Dragan bought a 2 TB disk and started downloading the biggest torrent of all times.

The Internet Archive

Still can’t get my head around the scale of these things, the numbers involved.

Internet Archive
Internet Archive is a documentary focused on the future of long-term digital storage, the history of the Internet and attempts to preserve its contents on a massive scale.

Via Webmonkey. Don’t know why it makes me think of this though…

DNA/How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet

For instance, ‘interactivity’ is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

http://www.douglasadams.com/dna/19990901-00-a.html

In(ter)activity

interactivitySpeaking as an Interactive Arts graduate (who’s obviously putting his degree to very good use in his career, <ahem>), this Onion article really struck a chord and had me shouting “Yes! Exactly!” at the screen over and over again.

Internet Users Demand Less Interactivity
‘We Just Want To Visit Websites And Look At Them,’ Users Say

Tired of being bombarded with constant requests to share content on social media, bestow ratings, leave comments, and generally “join in on the discussion,” the nation’s Internet users demanded substantially less interactivity this week.

Speaking with reporters, web users expressed a near unanimous desire to visit a website and simply look at it, for once, without having every aspect of the user interface tailored to a set of demographic information culled from their previous browsing history. In addition, citizens overwhelmingly voiced their wish for a straightforward one-way conduit of information, and specifically one that did not require any kind of participation on their part.

“Every time I type a web address into my browser, I don’t need to be taken to a fully immersive, cross-platform, interactive viewing experience,” said San Diego office manager Keith Boscone. “I don’t want to take a moment to provide my feedback, open a free account, become part of a growing online community, or see what related links are available at various content partners.”

“All I want is to go to a website, enjoy it for the time I’ve decided to spend there, and then move on with my life,” he continued. “Is that so much to ask?”

In addition to demanding less interactivity, Internet users requested fewer links and clickable icons connected to social media outlets through which they could email, share, tweet, pin, blog, or re-blog content. Many said that when they did come across something they found interesting or amusing, nine times out of 10 they just wanted to keep it to themselves.

“Don’t always ask me to send everything I’ve read to everyone I know. And by the same token, I don’t need to know if they’ve read the same thing. That information means nothing to either of us,” said Glendale, AZ shopkeeper Dan Allenby, who could not think of a single instance where it would be helpful to sign into another website through his Facebook account. “If I wanted to tell someone about something, I’ll just tell them individually. Or better yet, they’ll stumble across it on their own.”

The header image for the article is great, just people reading the web, but sat next to it are the obligatory share-this-with-everyone buttons showing some impressive scores, so whilst it’s hitting a nerve with me, there are plenty of others on the other side of the in(ter)activity fence.

The web we lost – and how to rebuild it

We all know the web’s certainly a different place now than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but Anil Dash points out exactly how — and to what extent — things have changed.

“The tech industry and its press have treated the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people, a triumph of usability and empowerment. They seldom talk about what we’ve lost along the way in this transition, and I find that younger folks may not even know how the web used to be. So here’s a few glimpses of a web that’s mostly faded away:”

And then a few days later he writes an update on how to rebuild the web we lost.