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Really Intelligent Syndication

The other day, Art Kavanagh wrote a piece about RSS (Really Simple Syndication) that raised some interesting questions. And no, I'm not just mentioning this because he mentions my blog. :)

I stopped using RSS around the same time that Google closed Google Reader, but not because of that. As far as I remember, I hadn’t really been aware of Google Reader till I read the announcement of its end. I’ve never really liked web-based readers or used them much: I preferred an approach that allowed me to read feeds in the browser (as both Safari and IE11 did) and it was when Safari dropped that feature that I gave up on feeds, a decision reinforced by the fact that I was then relying more on Twitter to let me know when updates had been posted.

I think my first feed reading experience was with Radio Userland, the software that Dave Winer made back the late 1990s and early 2000s. That was interesting, but also very bare-bones. I subsequently used FeedDemon for a time — I was still very much a Windows user at this point — before signing up with Google Reader. I didn't stay there exclusively, I also tried out Bloglines (RIP) for a while.

I'm pretty sure that Google Reader is the primary reason why browsers stopped supporting reading feeds directly in the browser, and eventually phasing out the detection and promotion of RSS feeds altogether. Google's product pretty much was RSS for many years. Then Google canned it in 2013, and the market for RSS services reappeared, but the only people who were using, let alone buying, where those already in the know.

I have some reservations about RSS, though. First, I suppose, is the fact that it’s in XML, which I’ve always thought to be unnecessarily complex for many (obviously not all) of the uses it’s been put to. Brent Simmons (again) and Manton Reece have demonstrated this point by creating the specification for JSON Feed, which is a lot more straightforward. My own site consists of static web pages (including this post) from which I can’t automatically generate a feed, so I’ve been offering just a JSON Feed, which I update by hand whenever I post something new.

I think the whole XML vs JSON debate is a distraction, much like the RSS vs ATOM debate was back in the 2000s. The bigger issue, which Art alludes to and I've griped about here previously, is that sites actually bother to syndicate their content somehow.

My second reservation is that the RSS approach depends on individual readers following the feeds of sites they want to be updated about. I’m personally not very taken with the “following” model. It strikes me as too insistent, too FOMO, almost obsessive. I’m not going to read everything that John Naughton or Richard Murphy posts (probably not even most of it), and if there were an alternative I wouldn’t want to be notified every time they put out something new. On the other hand, I’m even less keen that an algorithm should choose which posts it’s going to tell me about. Experience with Twitter, Facebook and other social media suggests that algorithms really aren’t very good at this. Ideally, I’d like my browser to pop up an unobtrusive notification saying something like “You haven’t visited Alan Ralph’s site for a few weeks. There are some new posts. Would you like to take a look?”

This a valid concern, and I suspect it's something that might put off many people being introduced to RSS feeds for the first time — "holy cow, I've got 100s of unread messages, WTF?" The traditional approach taken by RSS feed reader apps has been to place a big 'Mark All Read' button somewhere, but that's not really solving the problem. Some services, like Inoreader, offer some tools to filter content and make the River of News more manageable, but those require a paid plan to take full advantage. And that requires that the user figure out how to cut out the stuff they're not interested in reading. I suspect most folks, faced with that task, will opt to dispense with RSS feeds altogether and opt for email newsletters or even (ugh) Facebook and/or Twitter.

Part of the problem, I think, is the 'really simple' part in RSS, which boils down to 'here are the last X items posted to this website'. If you're lucky that information might include things like the author's name and the categories and tags applied to each item, but those aren't guaranteed. And that is pretty much all that RSS will give you.

What would be helpful would be for websites to have a mechanism where they could provide more general information about their contents — for instance, who writes for the site, what are the topics covered, how often does the site update. At the moment, however, there isn't a standard way to do this, since things like sitemaps are not guaranteed.

The third reservation is that your feed reader presents everything in the same style. If we’re going to read every story in black San Francisco on a white background, why should anybody bother paying attention to what their site looks like? If the design and style are more than just incidental decoration, shouldn’t we be reading the page in its intended setting? (Not everybody would agree with this, of course. On, @Miraz said that she has set her Safari preferences so that sites open in Reader View by default.)

A big part of why applying a uniform, readability-focussed view to articles is so popular? Many websites are either designed for advertising instead of readability, or disregard the eyesight of those trying to read said articles. Some sites are indeed beautiful to look at, but they are the exception. And way too many sites begrudge the reader who chooses to read their content via RSS and either truncate it or provide incomplete content.

Unfortunately, I don't know what the best way forward is for getting updates from websites and people you're interested in. Art mentions that he'd like to see this take place within the browser, which I think it a great idea but one that would require a browser maker willing to put users at the centre of their design decisions. Right now, the only ones who even come close to that, as I see it, appear to be Mozilla and the folks making Vivaldi. Google, Apple and Microsoft, on the other hand, might talk the talk but their priorities appear to be theirs first, with users and developers a distant second.

The other parts of the solution would require site owners to give more consideration to how visitors want to read their content. Sadly, most of the Corporate Web, which included most commercial services, see visitors as resources to be mined for extra income rather than people. So, if there is going to be any movement on that front, it'll be by those of us on the Open Web and the organizations that support it.

For now, RSS feed readers are an imperfect solution, but they sure as heck beat being at the mercy of the algorithms that control your news feed on the social networks.

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