The Rise and Demise of RSS
Before the internet was consolidated into centralized information silos, RSS imagined a better way to let users control their online personas.
The story of how this happened is really two stories. The first is a story about a broad vision for the web’s future that never quite came to fruition. The second is a story about how a collaborative effort to improve a popular standard devolved into one of the most contentious forks in the history of open-source software development.
RSS was one of the standards that promised to deliver this syndicated future. To Werbach, RSS was “the leading example of a lightweight syndication protocol.” Another contemporaneous article called RSS the first protocol to realize the potential of Extensible Markup Language (XML), a general-purpose markup language similar to HTML that had recently been developed. It was going to be a way for both users and content aggregators to create their own customized channels out of everything the web had to offer. And yet, two decades later, after the rise of social media and Google’s decision to shut down Google Reader, RSS appears to be a slowly dying technology, now used chiefly by podcasters, programmers with tech blogs, and the occasional journalist. Though of course some people really do still rely on RSS readers, stubbornly adding an RSS feed to your blog, even in 2019, is a political statement. That little tangerine bubble has become a wistful symbol of defiance against a centralized web increasingly controlled by a handful of corporations, a web that hardly resembles the syndicated web of Werbach’s imagining.
RSS would fork again in 2003, when several developers frustrated with the bickering in the RSS community sought to create an entirely new format. These developers created Atom, a format that did away with RDF but embraced XML namespaces. Atom would eventually be specified by a standard submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force, the organization responsible for establishing and promoting the internet’s rules of the road. After the introduction of Atom, there were three competing versions of RSS: Winer’s RSS 0.92 (updated to RSS 2.0 in 2002 and renamed “Really Simple Syndication”), the RSS-DEV Working Group’s RSS 1.0, and Atom. Today we mostly use RSS 2.0 and Atom.
For a while, before a third of the planet had signed up for Facebook, RSS was simply how many people stayed abreast of news on the internet.
Today, RSS is not dead. But neither is it anywhere near as popular as it once was. Lots of people have offered explanations for why RSS lost its broad appeal. Perhaps the most persuasive explanation is exactly the one offered by Gillmor in 2009. Social networks, just like RSS, provide a feed featuring all the latest news on the internet. Social networks took over from RSS because they were simply better feeds. They also provide more benefits to the companies that own them. Some people have accused Google, for example, of shutting down Google Reader in order to encourage people to use Google+.
RSS might have been able to overcome some of these limitations if it had been further developed. Maybe RSS could have been extended somehow so that friends subscribed to the same channel could syndicate their thoughts about an article to each other. Maybe browser support could have been improved. But whereas a company like Facebook was able to “move fast and break things,” the RSS developer community was stuck trying to achieve consensus. When they failed to agree on a single standard, effort that could have gone into improving RSS was instead squandered on duplicating work that had already been done. Davis told me, for example, that Atom would not have been necessary if the members of the Syndication mailing list had been able to compromise and collaborate, and “all that cleanup work could have been put into RSS to strengthen it.” So if we are asking ourselves why RSS is no longer popular, a good first-order explanation is that social networks supplanted it. If we ask ourselves why social networks were able to supplant it, then the answer may be that the people trying to make RSS succeed faced a problem much harder than, say, building Facebook. As Dornfest wrote to the Syndication mailing list at one point, “currently it’s the politics far more than the serialization that’s far from simple.”