Drink! Feck! Girls! RSS!

The world it seems is full of blog posts about RSS – really simple syndication, for the non-dorks. Apparently it’s dead. Or dying. Or very much alive.

RSS is a standard for publishing the latest content on a site with regular updates – such as a news site, or a blog – in a machine readable form which can then be used by other sites or applications to republish it.

Here’s an example of the sort of panicky things people are saying:

If RSS isn’t saved now, if browser vendors don’t realise the potential of RSS to save users a whole bunch of time and make the web better for them, then the alternative is that I will have to have a Facebook account, or a Twitter account, or some such corporate-controlled identity, where I have to “Like” or “Follow” every website’s partner account that I’m interested in, and then have to deal with the privacy violations and problems related with corporate-owned identity owning a list of every website I’m interested in (and wanting to monetise that list), and they, and every website I’m interested in, knowing every other website I’m interested in following, and then I have to log in and check this corporate owned identity every day in order to find out what’s new on other websites, whilst I’m advertised to, because they are only interested in making the biggest and the best walled garden that I can’t leave.

Anyone still awake?

Here’s the thing for me: RSS cannot ‘die’ because it is a standard and not a service. Even if every website on the planet stopped producing an RSS feed, it wouldn’t die. It just wouldn’t be used much. There is no RSS corporation and so talking about its death is, well, exaggerated.

The other point is that this is a discussion about consumer use of RSS, which tends to be in the form of using an aggregator to pull in the latest content from all your favourite sites into one place. I use Google Reader to subscribe to about 750 sites, for instance.

I said ‘tends to’ but if I am honest a tiny number of people actually do this. Most get their links from Twitter or Facebook and by having bookmarks to their real favourites. Indeed, quite a few people who used to use an aggregator are now relying on social networks rather than managing their own list of feeds.

To this I respond, so what? People move on. I’m still in love with Google Reader, but there are plenty of others who are just as connected and up to speed as me (if not more so) who have given up. The world won’t end.

It’s also irrelevant for the future of RSS, which will continue to be an important part of the infastructure of the web. Lots of sites and applications use RSS feeds as the source of their content. This won’t end soon.

At the end of the day, RSS was never going to be a consumer technology, and it didn’t take off in the enterprise either. It just wasn’t good enough at tackling the issue of infobesity, and people have turned instead to using their friends and contacts on social networks as their filters.

Fair enough.

Update: Thanks to @baskers who pointed out I had missed the ‘Drink!’ out of the title originally.

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

5 thoughts on “Drink! Feck! Girls! RSS!”

  1. This old chestnut again!

    RSS is an easy and standardised way of moving data between applications. Some of those applications are feed reader apps used by end users, like Google Reader. But many of them are not. RSS is plumbing. If you don’t want to attach your mouth to the end of a pipe, fine. There are plenty of other uses, like the criminally-underused RSS to email and my very own Barcode Posters.

    1. Spot on, Adrian! Plumbing is just the right metaphor, mouths and pipes just as accurate if somewhat unpleasant. Hopefully this kerfuffle is sufficiently localised in nerd circles to not reach those in local gov who need to make sure their sites have RSS feeds, as per your campaign!

  2. The standard might not die, but with changing browser support, it’s usability can get pretty dead as browsers change the way they handle it…

    In Firefox, when I view an RSS feed, it tries to display it in a relatively friendly way – and gives me a link to subscribe with a range of RSS subscription tools. In Chrome, I get a lot of code and no idea of how to ‘action’ this feed or subscribe to it. For the end user that’s a big difference…

    Of course, the publisher or RSS does have an option to bring their feeds back to life. If the feed happened to be running through Feedburner – then, hey-presto – even if my browser doesn’t support it I get a friendly interstitial page that makes RSS really simple for me. Or if instead of/as well as a direct link to the feed, I can find links to an explanation of how to subscribe to the feeds, their usability is at least on life-support.

    Perhaps testing how users experience RSS with their current browsers – and thinking about how changing browser functionality might require a change in site design / RSS implementation to keep it flowing is what’s needed?

    1. To be honest though Tim, did anyone outside geek circles really know what to do with that orange button anyway?

      As for Feedburner, that of course does turn RSS from a standard to a service. If Google stopped supporting it, quite a few bloggers, including me, would be in bother. I seriously regret ever starting to use it, to be honest, though the stats are nice (when I bother to check them).

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