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Why RSS still matters

Why RSS still matters


Think that Twitter can replace RSS? Think again

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Google Reader stock 1020
Google Reader stock 1020

Google's bombshell last night that it would be shutting down the Google Reader RSS client hit the web, well, like a bomb. Just as with any major tech event, it spurred a raft of reactions on what is currently our best real-time conversation broadcasting network, Twitter. Reactions ranged from outrage to sadness to smugness — the latter epitomized by the camp who say that RSS was already a confusing mess that needed to be shot down completely and besides, it had been replaced by Twitter itself anyway.

Well, no. RSS matters.

Let's start out with some distinctions and, yes, some education — because even though RSS is over a decade old, it never really caught on with regular web users. It stands for "Real Simple Syndication," and on a high level it means you can get a list all of the recent "new stuff" that a site or a user or a channel (or whatever) has published. You can read RSS in any number of apps on your phone or computer or tablet, of which Google Reader became the most popular. (For the purposes of this article, I'm using RSS as a catch-all term, so please, partisans of RSS 2.0 and Atom and other XML standards, know that I'm trying to defend you too).

Google Reader centralized a lot of features

Google Reader was great because it centralized a lot of features that made RSS much better for users — you could organize stuff into folders and it would remember what you had and hadn't read, plus you could easily save and share articles. It also provided a way for apps to sync those features — so if I read something with Press on my Android phone I wouldn't have to see it again on Reeder on my iPad.

In my own small way, I've been trying to evangelize RSS to my friends and coworkers since 1999, but it has always been a losing battle. It never helped that almost every single app that utilized RSS in some way — from Netscape in 1999 to Feedly in 2013 — kind of sucks. So with the death of Google Reader, I'm actually amenable to Dave Winer's assertion that we will see a "newly revitalized market for RSS products, now that the dominant product, the 800-pound gorilla, is withdrawing." Marco Arment is thinking along the same lines, but I'm nervous that both he and Winer could be wrong. Google Reader came in and sucked a lot of the air out of the centralized RSS reader app world, and I worry that its absence will hurt RSS' chances of coming back to life and adapting to the modern web.

It never helped that almost every single RSS app kind of sucks

In fact, I'm a little nervous that this open web standard that I love and that has enriched my life could die off. Yes, I'm fully aware that writing that I love a web standard and that it has enriched my life makes me sound awfully nerdy. Whatever: open web standards have enriched your life too, and in fact that's the first of several reasons why I deeply disagree with the argument that Twitter can replace RSS.

First and foremost, Twitter is not an open web standard, it's a service from a private company that once offered a relatively open API but now does not. Depending on a single company's largess when it comes to creating an open and viable third-party app ecosystem is a fool's game. We've seen Twitter locked down, Netflix dry up, and even Google itself has threatened a class of apps with the closure of Google Reader. I don't trust Twitter to replace RSS because Twitter isn't a standard. As a way to disseminate news, it serves at the pleasure of Dick Costolo. RSS, by comparison, is like a web page: anybody can create a feed, anybody can host it, anybody can make an app for it, anybody can read it.

As a way to disseminate news, Twitter serves at the pleasure of Dick Costolo

RSS is built so deeply into the bones of so many websites and web services that we take it for granted. Your Tumblrs and your YouTube users and your Flickr friends and your favorite websites and blogs all usually offer RSS, automatically, with very little effort from their developers. It matters for the web that websites have a structured way to send their data out to apps and to other websites. Many of the apps that are suggested as a viable replacement for Google Reader — Flipboard comes to mind — pull just as much from RSS as they do from social feeds. More importantly, they pull from RSS freely, but they pull from Facebook and Twitter only because those companies let them.

Let's set aside the open vs. closed argument for now, though, because even if that weren't an issue I still find claims that Twitter and Facebook are effective replacements for RSS to be completely unconvincing. In fact, I find them smug.

Let's talk honestly about what Twitter is, what it is not, and who is privileged enough to use it for getting news and information. Yes, Twitter is closed, but more important to my case here is that Twitter solves an entirely different problem than RSS does.

Twitter is realtime and RSS is time-shifted

Trying to get caught up on more than a day or so of Tweets is virtually impossible for anybody who follows more than a few dozen active users — you simply can't comprehensively take in the full stream. With RSS, on the other hand, you can scan through headlines and save them (or, yes, share them) and it's possible to do so after a few days off the internet. Or a few hours. Woe betide the nine to fiver who wants to come home and quickly catch up on the day’s news via Twitter. Not everybody has the luxury of being able to keep tabs on Twitter all day. Twitter is realtime and RSS is time-shifted. Both are important. Just tell these same people you’re taking their DVR away and see what happens.

RSS apps also offer more features for consuming news than any Twitter app ever could, including read/unread status, private star/saves, and organizational folders. I could imagine a world where a third-party Twitter client could match those features using some combination of lists and stars and the like, but Twitter has limited that world to 100,000 users per app.

Get ready to hunt for alternative RSS reader apps

So what does the death of Google Reader mean? For many, it's going to mean a hunt for alternative RSS reader apps, both on the web and on their phones. Fortunately, there are many of them, ranging from casual news apps like Flipboard to hardcore apps like Reeder. However, many of those apps used Google Reader as a source for syncing feeds and read-states and the like. Fortunately, lots of companies are promising to fill in the gaps there too, including both Feedly and Digg.

There are also petitions to try to get Google to save Reader, but I think that's a lost cause. Google clearly isn’t that interested in promoting RSS — by killing off Google Reader it may be pushing people to Google+ or some other product. Plus, let's face it, Google Reader was always an ugly and hard-to-use product. Whatever its motives, we should at least recognize that Google is not the same thing as the web, and so we're better off throwing support behind developers who actually care about RSS.

The open web isn't something we should take for granted

More innovation and competition in the RSS space sounds like a bright future for news junkies, but that will only happen if there's a market for it. That's the main reason why crowing about how "RSS is dead!" rubs me the wrong way. An open way for websites to provide their information to apps and services is important, and claiming it's not does a disservice to the entire internet and to the people that use it.

Killing Google Reader isn't the same thing as killing the open web, but the open web isn't something we should take for granted. We should fight for it, and we should fight for RSS to continue as a part of it.