RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is one of the technologies that helped blogging grow hugely. By offering a simple method for others to subscribe to or otherwise access the content of a dynamic site, it made blogs, with their rapid pace of updates, more accessible and approachable.
For a time, an RSS feed literally determined, to many, whether a site was a blog or not. RSS was even touted as the future of content reading on the Web and was widely adopted by various mainstream media outlets in a variety of ways. Soon enough, RSS was everywhere: forums, social networks and more were all using the format and, since it was an open standard, developers were building a wide variety of products on it.
However, RSS came with its own set of problems. For content creators, it enabled scraping and other forms of content theft, kept visitors off the site and discouraged discussion on posts. For readers, though it enabled them to read more blogs and sites than would have otherwise been possible, there was still a serious problem with information overload and most people found that their RSS readers were filled with garbage.
For years, bloggers and others have been encouraging readers and friends to skip on using an RSS reader, instead using tools like Twitter and Facebook to keep on top of the news that’s relevant to them.
However, RSS may be in worse shape than previously thought. Recently both Facebook and Twitter disabled RSS functionality in their services, favoring a complete “walled garden” approach.
The future of RSS is starting to look pretty bleak and, though it likely won’t “die” anytime soon, it’s already lost much of its relevance.
That, in turn, could have a drastic impact on the future of the Web, perhaps bigger than anyone realizes right now.
Burying the Open Standard
Although RSS was never a perfect standard, it has always been an open one. More than that, it’s easy for developers to either add into their existing products, such as blogging platforms and CMSes, or to create new products, such as RSS readers.
We’re talking more than just Google Reader here. Yahoo! Pipes, for example, enabled users to create and build applications on RSS with nothing but a few clicks, while FriendFeed, especially during the early days, relied on RSS to make its product run.
However, with both Twitter and Facebook shifting away from RSS, the usefulness of the technology as an aggregation tool is severely limited. With so much of the average user’s data now locked up behind walled gardens, RSS simply can’t provide the “all in one” experience it was thought to be ideal for.
To make matters worse, with so many blogs and other sites already using Twitter and Facebook as their main forms of syndication, RSS just isn’t that critical to bloggers either. After all, when most of your “subscribers” are on RSS-free social networks, the standard starts to become less important.
RSS is rapidly becoming less useful for readers and less important for bloggers. As such, it’s likely just a matter of time before it starts to slip into the sunset, a forgotten technology that is barely used.
Looking Ahead to an RSS-less Web
Most “average” Web users won’t notice much difference if RSS disappears. Although they’ve seen the icons and maybe clicked on them a few times, most people never really used RSS, finding it too complex or not seeing how it met any of their needs.
For most, the shift to walled gardens like Facebook and Twitter had been happening for a long time and the loss of RSS as a competitive standard doesn’t really change anything.
One thing that does change, however, is who can develop applications for these gardens. Previously, anyone could have build tools and services for Facebook and Twitter using RSS (or at least tools to read and parse them). However, without it, Twitter and Facebook get to control who build upon their platforms, making sure every tools meets their standards.
This has the potential, depending on how Twitter and Facebook use this power, to severely limit what users can do with their services. That, in turn, can greatly impact how bloggers, webmasters and companies interact with their fans as many of them rely on Twitter and Facebook as part of their marketing.
What was important about RSS wasn’t that thousands used it to subscribe to blogs or that people built cool applications using it; instead, what was important was that it was there, preventing lockdown and ensuring companies had open platforms. RSS was, and for many sites still is, a way to retrieve content when all else fails, a way to avoid being trapped or tied down needlessly to a service or site.
Without RSS, that option is no longer there and it may wind up being a technology we don’t fight for or even miss until it’s far too late to do anything about it.
All in all, RSS is in jeopardy and few people seem to be interested in doing anything about it. RSS’ problems may have pushed it to the backseat, but its importance and usefulness should mean it has a place, even if it’s only as an open protocol for development.
Just because it never caught on with the public doesn’t mean that RSS isn’t an important part of the Web. Letting RSS go quietly into the night is a very dangerous proposition and one that may cause problems even for those who have never heard of RSS or looked at a reader.
Unfortunately, the dangers to RSS are greater than I thought. If RSS isn’t dying, both as a means of subscription and as a protocol for development, it is certainly very sick and has seen much better days.
For all of its flaws, the Web needs RSS (or something like it) to ensure that we can’t be boxed in needlessly and that sites can’t simply locks users and developers down. It’s an escape hatch from walled gardens and, without it, the Web is just one step closer to being a virtual prison for our data.
While this is the way the Web’s been going for a long time, the loss of RSS may mark a major turning point in that process – a turning point few are going to notice as it happens.
Missed These Awesome Posts?
Get exclusive content, deals & much more when you join our weekly newsletter. Simply enter your email address below and hit the [Submit] button.