I get it. RSS was made at a time when webpages took an eternity to load. When there were so many popup ads and kitschy animated GIFs and <blink> tags that it’d make your eyes vomit. Here’s a way to get only the text content you want off all your favorite weblogs, without unnecessary hypertext insanity, synced to your PC to read with no loading. And for a time, it was glorious.
Then the internet got less dominated by technophiles, more corporatized, and more monetized than ever before. If you’re a publisher, why in your right mind would you make a public, full-text RSS feed? You don’t get to serve the same ads. You can’t offer the same interactivity; and remember, in these days that meant Flash! You don’t get the same analytics. Your content is mashed up with whoever else’s content RSS readers subscribe to, a nightmare for brand recognition. And as your site grows and publishes more each day, the single feed grows less useful for everyone.
So, gradually, it dies. Blogs switch to only pushing article snippets to RSS, birthing the dreaded “Read more” link that undermines the entire concept of a reader. Some offer full-text feeds to their premium subscribers. Or they push sponsored posts (read: ads) through their RSS feed that aren’t on the main site. Larger publications split into multiple feeds, making it difficult for new subscribers to decide which feeds offer them the most valuable content. And some do away with the feed entirely, declaring that the Web has moved on.
When Google unceremoniously shuttered Reader in 2013, it seemed to support that assertion.
Speaking as a user of RSS feeds in 2019, it feels futile. It’s a veritable firehose of content, and it doesn’t really reflect how people read on the web. I admire the work of The Intercept, for instance, but I’m not going to read everything they post every day. But that’s exactly what an RSS feed does, a raw, chronological feed of anything and everything, and it’s up to you to sort through it.
Other than techies, who’ve been glued to their RSS readers since the turn of the millennium and will most likely stay that way until they die, people have decided they need someone to curate their news for them. There’s two predominant schools of thought here: algorithmic and hand-curated.
The vast majority is algorithmic, and for an obvious reason. You don’t need a human to tailor a daily briefing for every individual’s tastes. You get some headlines, rate them, and train the algorithm. Google News is the best example of this, being one of the successful outcomes of the company’s obsession with cramming machine learning wherever it might fit. Apple has a very different philosophy and hypes up their human curators any chance they get.
And then there’s social media.
This is by far how most people get their news now, and for good reason. What better place to find articles you’re likely to care about than what’s going on in your direct circle of friends? Their latest tweet or Facebook post is far more likely to interest you than a list of the latest headlines from the New York Times. But those publications are also sharing, and in this way social media functions as a hybrid of the two forms of curation; you choose which friends, reporters, and publications to follow, and they decide what you see via their posts. The platform where this all takes place is also a business, though, so they’re also tweaking what you see further via their mystical algorithms to make you stay on the app and see more ads. As long as media has a profit motive, ads will insidiously creep into our most personal spaces online.
The technology of RSS is woven into the fabric of the internet, and I’m not denying its value as a way to achieve Really Simple Syndication. Many of us use a form of RSS feedcatcher every day — podcast apps. But even these are beginning to be turned into Netflix-style centralized streaming services, in a charge led by Spotify and their acquisitions of home podcast-making app Anchor and pod network Gimlet.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. The few times I tried to set up an RSS reader, I was just…not interested. You can say what you want about social media creating filter bubbles, but at the end of the day my own little Twitter, Discord and Reddit communities bring me the most happiness, and I’d rather settle down and read that at the end of a long week.