How would I improve RSS? Three ideas

19.40, Wednesday 29 Jul 2020 Link to this post

RSS should be how we read our favourite content on the web. But it’s not.

I was trying to figure out the other day how I would describe RSS and its history. Maybe something like… (Skip this section if you already know what RSS is.)

  • RSS is a technology that lets you subscribe to new content on websites, just like you can subscribe to podcasts to get the latest episodes, or follow people on Twitter for their updates. It makes following and reading the latest content really easy. You need an RSS reader to subscribe to feeds (a reader is an app which is either downloadable or web-based).
  • RSS was invented in 1999, and it’s not as popular as it once was. It was part of the explosion of blogs in the early 2000s, and blogs were symbiotic with the rise of Google and the web itself (because blogs were the best way to share new products and services before social media). But when Facebook and Twitter took off, blogs and RSS became less relevant, and when Google shut their reader app in 2013, that really took RSS out of the mainstream.
  • Yet RSS is still surprisingly popular. Peek beneath the surface of many, many sites and you’ll find an RSS feed that you can subscribe to. The RSS technology is incredibly simple and easy to implement for publishers, so it got added to everything in its heyday and never went away. But also RSS is provided by default for WordPress sites, and WordPress is the site builder for 37% of the web. Without WordPress’ support, I don’t think RSS would still be around.
  • Using an RSS reader is a little like using Twitter or Facebook, but where you’re totally in control. It’s the same in that you have a stream of the latest content. But unlike those platforms, RSS is decentralised. Nobody gets all of that data in one place, so nobody can use it to nudge your behaviour. There’s no algorithm inserting engagement-boosting posts. Content is only there if you subscribed to a feed. There are no ads except for the ads in feeds that you subscribed to. There’s no spam.

Once upon a time, the ecosystem around RSS was extremely rich. Almost all sites would provide a feed for their latest content, from the New York Times and the BBC through to the latest news for an artist’s portfolio site. And, because of that, there were RSS-specific search engines and even tools to manage “blogrolls” which is what we called a public list of subscriptions that you would put in the sidebar of your personal site – a bit like your list of follows on Twitter. Even browsers had built-in RSS readers. So much of that has gone.

Instead we have engagement algorithms in social media walled gardens, notifications, and email newsletters.

Yet:

My sense is that RSS is having a mini resurgence. People are getting wary of the social media platforms and their rapacious appetite for data. We’re getting fatigued from notifications; our inboxes are overflowing. And people are saying that maybe, just maybe, RSS can help. So I’m seeing RSS being discussed more in 2020 than I have done for years. There are signs of life in the ecosystem.

My fear is that these signs of life aren’t enough for a real comeback.


My personal experience is that, after years away from it, I started getting back into RSS.

I use the feed reader NetNewsWire (iOS/Mac) which is excellent and also free. It’s fast and simple. I also use Feedbin (which is excellent and cheap) which is a cloud service that can plug into NetNewsWire, and its sync subscriptions between my laptop and my phone. Additionally Feedbin lets me auto-forward email newsletters from GMail so I can see them alongside the regular feeds, which is a much saner way to read newsletters.

I love it. Looking at the stats on my phone, in terms of hours per week, my top 5 social media apps are:

  • Twitter: 4 hours (argh I’m an addict. I need to do something about that)
  • Reddit: 3 hours (I love reading advice columns and you can’t make me stop)
  • NetNewsWire: 1.5 hours
  • Instagram: 1 hour
  • Facebook: 30 minutes

As of today I have about 160 subscriptions, and here they are on a single ugly page.

If you have a feed reader, you can subscribe to Interconnected with this feed. If you don’t have one, then do check out NetNewsWire (iOS/Mac) – and if you know of equivalently awesome readers on other platforms, please drop me a note.


My view:

It would be a good thing if RSS were more popular. When RSS is popular, it shifts the balance of power away from the social media platforms, which means that it doesn’t feed their ad targeting engines, or move people towards extremism. Plus it’s a less hectic, more egalitarian way to read.

BUT, the user experience around RSS has some sharp edges, and there are missing pieces that mean that RSS is unlikely to return to the mainstream. A corporate-owned platform could fix these missing pieces; it’s harder for RSS with its decentralised model.

In that spirit, I’ve been thinking about how to improve RSS. Three ideas!


1. Onboarding sucks

If you don’t know what RSS is, it’s really hard to start using it. This is because, unlike a social media platform, it doesn’t have a homepage. Nobody owns it. It’s nobody’s job to explain it.

I’d like to see a website called something like what is rss .com which explains RSS, feeds, and readers for a general audience. Then provides download links to a couple of readers for different platforms with animations that show how to subscribe to feeds.

The site should be designed to be linked to from a small “what is this?” link next to every RSS feed on every site, maybe even customising the site for that feed.

Perhaps I’ll built that site myself.

Bonus points: shift the language from “RSS” to feed and subscribe as these are more mainstream words (though still refer to RSS to provide continuity). And provide buttons for site publishers to use.

2. Newsletters and the money thing

The “competition” for RSS is email newsletters. If RSS is going to get taken challenge email as a channel, it could use a few extra features:

  • the ability to go paidSubstack offers newsletter authors a platform with built-in free and premium tiers. It offers RSS, but it’s kinda janky: the premium RSS is a private feed address that the user needs to discover and add separately. Maybe the “Upgrade to premium” button could be inside the feed reader itself, and tapping it would seamlessly upgrade the feed?
  • virality and community – you can forward an email, and anybody you forward it to can subscribe from the footer. Likewise, you can reply to a newsletter and start a conversation with the author… which might even get rolled into future editions. These social features are great, and they should be built into RSS readers.
  • analytics like open rates and click counting. Yeah, RSS doesn’t need this, and email is moving away from it too.

The killer app of Feedbin (as mentioned above) is being able to receive email newsletters and have them appear as RSS. Maybe this a feature that hosted email clients like Gmail could offer – everything I tag “newsletter” could show up in a private bundle of RSS feeds which I can then subscribe to? (There’s another format called “OPML” which is how you could subscribe to a changing bundle of RSS feeds.)

3. Discovery

What social media does really well is help me discover new content. It does that by

  • looking at my behaviour and making recommendations of content or people
  • making visible the behaviour of people around me.

So I feel like RSS needs something similar. Rebuilding my own list of subscriptions recently was a difficult process. I would love to see an (optional) service that provides a whole set of discovery RSS feeds…

  • from my browsing: a local feed from my browser history about all the sites that I’ve encountered that have an RSS feed, together with a subscribe button, right there.
  • smart recommendations: a feed that suggests feeds that I don’t yet know about, based on my existing subscriptions (perhaps based on other people’s subscriptions, or maybe just by looking at the links in the posts across my subscriptions). I should be able to configure my reader to securely auto-upload my subscriptions to this service.
  • from my existing contacts: a feed that suggests feeds from people I’m connected with on social media or my email inbox (it would crawl their social media profiles and look for feeds).
  • related posts: based on posts that I privately favourite, or share on Twitter or email: related posts using some kind of auto-generated content graph.

This would put content and feed discovery exactly where I’m ready for it: within the reader itself. But - critically - without necessarily having to change the reader itself.


What I wouldn’t do

I wouldn’t do anything that changed the RSS protocol. It has wide adoption; there’s a ton of software to create and read RSS feeds. The foundation is here to stay.

I wouldn’t do anything that forces adoption of particular app. Having premium feeds (for example) only work in one reader is a bit like having a premium email newsletter that only works if you switch email client. Ain’t never gonna happen. Anyway, the point of this exercise is to figure out how to grow the absolute number of users and publishers. That’s an ecosystem play.

So the way to do all of this is 3rd party services and published UX patterns, all of which are usable without changing the reader apps – but if those apps chose to add integrations, the experience gets better.

And what if it worked?

These ideas are a roadmap for someone. Any benevolent publishers out there?

I have a ton of ideas of things to do in a resurgent RSS ecosystem. But those are thoughts for another day.