On Feeds and Fads

In 2004 ‘web feeds’ were becoming extremely popular in the tech community. People were keen to label ‘web pages’ as old, obsolete, clumsy and resource ‘heavy’. It was the time of ‘Web 2.0’, the time when web ‘surfers’ were gradually getting rid of Internet Explorer 6, when Ajax was starting to make its appearance on more and more web applications.

Suddenly everyone started expecting feeds. Everywhere. Feeds for everything any site had in store: calendar/event information, news, media, archives, categories, tags, software updates etc. Feeds were demanded (and almost exclusively found) in loosely defined quasi-machine readable formats, like RSS and Atom: immature syndication formats ‘abused’, tasked to provide functionality not originally envisioned by their authors. Functionality that people ‘wanted now’, that was tangible, contrary to the elusive dream of a Semantic Web, an abstract notion that perhaps only Tim Berners-Lee might try to explain. From a tech-only convenience, feeds became mainstream.

Feeds gradually became the ‘de facto’ medium through which millions of people around the world found and consumed information — a use well beyond their original purpose (syndication and notification of new or updated content, not consumption of said content). Many companies touted RSS support in their products and services in 2005. Among them, Apple, when Steve Jobs, in his typical used-car salesman fashion, touted Safari’s support for RSS. The incorporation of RSS in desktop applications and the browser never worked for most of us; web aggregators and feed readers soon became the dominant medium through which feeds were accessed. Among all feed readers, Google Reader, rapidly became the most popular; part of the daily routine for the vast majority of people and the main source of their text media consumption.

The years since 2005 brought many changes to the web. The proliferation of ‘standards’, the rise of social networking, the increased centralisation of the internet. A few days ago paidContent published an article titled “The Death of the RSS Reader”. In this article it presented the argument that people have gradually moved away from RSS feeds; the reason for this, as stated in this article, was the increased use of Facebook and twitter.

I have long stated my belief that web feeds, like so many internet and web technologies before them, were a good thing. I was always sorry to see the standards being abused, I was sorry to see stagnation reigning, both in terms of innovation on the core web technologies and the applications. Innovation that would enable us to have a richer, more open and more sophisticated internet experience. Still, ‘web feeds’ were good and a move forward, despite their drawbacks.

On the other hand, I have never — personally — found any meaning to twitter and Facebook as media consumption/notification mechanisms; they definitely do not replace RSS as a content syndication medium; they most assuredly do not provide a (superior) content notification mechanism (let alone a presentation mechanism); what those social networking sites do, and arguably do better than any alternative, is provide social context. They let me see what friends and acquaintances ‘like’. They let me express whether I like or dislike something. And that’s very different to what RSS does.

What Tartakoff’s article fails to explain are the reasons why people seem to move away from RSS readers; First, it is — in my opinion — inevitable, for the RSS reader model to saturate one’s reading experience; reading text on a feed reader is dull and tiring. It is æsthetically mediocre and ergonomically flawed. Then there’s interaction: in 2010 people online seem to read ‘fewer’ coherent texts, but interact more through smaller text snippets or status updates.

The fundamental issue behind those trends have nothing to do with RSS. It has to do with consumption of media. With information overload. Social networking sites provide a bizarre way out; the ‘nuclear option’: resigning. It is my impression that people just stopped using feed readers, just stopped reading. I know several people that have done exactly that; and it is sad. When thinking of information overload, the logical next step would be to consider content filtering and recommendation. Picking needles in a haystack of articles, posts, status updates, news and editorials. Picking the right needles.

This is something that people have been trying to do for a long time. Think Slashdot, one of the early attempts at community aggregation of interesting content online. Google itself shyly included some social functionality in Google Reader. Then there’s quasi-algorithmic selection; this is where things become a bit harder; there has been no winner in this field (and perhaps this is one area where a great technical and usable implementation, backed by sufficient funding might result in a killer web application), although many have tried (an example is Techmeme, a popular technology news aggregator that used to use computers to do the picking, but has now turned to human editors).

In an ideal world, social networking sites like Facebook and twitter would never have affected people’s habits of consuming and producing meaningful information online. They might even be considered grotesque centralised monstrosities; attempts by corporations to control expression and mine people’s lives purely for monetary gain. HTML, FOAF, RSS, OpenID, (a working) OAuth (and their successors) and a whole lot of other three to five letter acronyms, all names for open technologies that power the ‘web’, would provide the necessary social context, semantic content representation, notification and delivery of information in a distributed, open, usable and æsthetically pleasing manner. Beyond the walled garden of any one megacorp.

Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world. And while most of the internet, the web and a number of related technologies were created with a fully decentralised model in mind, today we depend on an extremely small number of companies for an increasingly large part of our everyday experience. And that’s sad, not only because these companies have never proven that they are worthy of our trust, not only because they provide no guarantees for their service, not merely because they are not regulated or controlled in any way, but — most importantly of all — because those companies provide extremely little control to us over our own data.

The ‘net is much more than any single company or group of companies. More than Google, Facebook or twitter. That’s how it started and that’s how it still is. In the eleven years of its existence RSS and its descendants are today found almost everywhere. From blogs like this one to complex web services. That it has stopped being the current ‘fad’, the ephemeral buzzword of this month or year is irrelevant. It still matters and it’s still important; what people should be concerned about is not ‘the death of RSS’ for it is not dead, but how they’ve moved from ‘open’ RSS and blogging to ‘closed’ Facebook and twitter in the short time of five years. Was it worth it?

6 Responses to “On Feeds and Fads”

  1. orestisf says:

    Very interesting post. A few rough thoughts:

    I think the move from RSS to FB/Twitter might be worth it once the average user will have an easy and affordable way to deploy locally -ideally from his home, similar services (for example something like diaspora/status.net). That way, he will be able to at least “physically” own his content – or his replication of a third person’s content.

    Similarly, if we had never moved from corp-hosted blogging (Blogger, WP.com and such) to self hosted (or at least, hosted where the owner decides) this very same question would still probably apply to blogging media.

  2. Kostis says:

    Readers are alive and well, despite Facebook and Twitter. The latter, as you point out, don’t really offer a reading experience. And as we’ve discussed in the past, I disagree with you that the reading experience on feed readers is mediocre and bland.

    The ideal (for now) and what most people I know use these days is Google Reader with its base as a feed reader but expanded social settings. Not so much liking (which is largely useless) but sharing (seamlessly, within one’s existing stream) and commenting. It’s a great way to, above all, find new content and make one’s reading selection richer and more varied.

  3. cosmix says:

    Hello orestisf. The main difference between ‘corp-hosted’ blogs and Facebook/twitter is that blogging was (and is) based on open standards, open protocols and the data is available to everyone; for example, on wordpress.com, information is typically freely available, databases can be backed up and migrated to other (self-hosted) systems. On blogger a number of tools exist that allow you to migrate/backup your data.

    Nothing like that exists on Facebook. And by this I don’t mean a simple crawler. I mean something that can extract the semantics, the relationships behind the data; the social graph. Facebook doesn’t provide any such mechanism and there is no (established) open standard for doing so. (viz. my mention of stagnation, FOAF, etc.) even if it did.

    That’s a huge difference there. We may have gained something by using such services and exploiting the representation of those relationships of our personal data, but the price we paid for it is huge.

    @kostis: The fact that feed readers are losing ground is backed by hard numbers, by multiple metrics organisations, no matter whether you or I still use them.

    If you’re happy reading stuff off Google Reader that’s great. I am not, and even though I use it all the time (and I agree it’s by far the best feed reader out there), it fails miserably as a reading platform (and arguably as a sharing platform); Google is trapped in ‘bland’ and ‘mediocre’ interfaces (from its Apps, to Wave, to Reader to Android), they lack the usability, the elegance and thought required to make them great; in one sense Google has excelled by following Microsoft’s example: lots of (pioneering in some areas) functionality cheaper than the competition (or in the case of Google, often free), mediocre products (viz. the perpetual beta tags, the lack of SLAs etc.)

    When I think of reading platforms I don’t mean a blog on blogger or wordpress.com, that makes use of a mediocre pre-made template. Those suck too. I am referring to the reading experience offered by an outstanding (printed) magazine or web site. In my view that reading experience is infinitely better than that offered by Reader.

  4. vrypan says:

    @cosmix: I agree with most of what you say.

    Of course, most people judging RSS, are unable to define what RSS is (or make the distinction between RSS-over-HTTP and RSS-over-somethingelse, or RSS and ATOM).

    Regarding the “presentation layer”: why don’t you try defining a presentation layer standard, that could be enclosed in RSS enclosures? (The simplest way I could think of is defining an microformat and render it using a CSS payload -or some kind of template system)

  5. cosmix says:

    @vrypan: I am afraid I don’t see presentation as being as simple as that.

    Presentation is an extremely complex thing; take for example Flipboard (for the iPad). Flipboard is an application that embeds rules that replicate professional typesetting and publishing templates, with your content and images as well as providing social context and interactivity options.

    Is Flipboard what we need? No, but it’s a move in the right direction. There is a major problem with Flipboard; it enforces it’s own ‘æsthetics’, which means that content providers lose all ability to define how their content looks. The other problem with it is that it’s an iPad app, not a web app, that all the ingenuity is locked inside an application, and not available as a presentation mechanism/template language/set of standards.

    One thing that Flipboard does great is provide the notion of a ‘container’, that is a place where content lives and is formatted coherently, as opposed to merely a placeholder where feed content is rendered.

    So in a way, a great first step would be a web-Flipboard, that would: a) provide a professionally designed environment for reading, b) allow for ‘hints’ by the content providers (microformats come here) that affect how the content is laid out, c) provide social context ala Google Reader, by in an abstracted, inclusive way that liberates the social graph from any one company (this currently breaks the terms of use of many social networking sites) by being an open standard, d) presents content by profiling each user and putting stuff that matters ‘first’ and e) groups/clusters similar content in dynamic sections (e.g. Gardening, Ecology, Technology, etc.) which might have subsections (e.g. Python, Kernel Development, C++ for Technology and so on).

    Anyway, these are merely first thoughts and I’m sure there’d be much to think and do before we could have something solid (even as a high-level spec), but you get the idea =)


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