Is RSS Dead Yet?

So I’m building these web apps in my spare time (because that’s what I do), and I’m adding RSS feeds for certain types of updates, et cetera. But when I think of my immediate friends & family, I don’t picture them using RSS. Not everyone can be so serious about computers, I guess.

So, on a whim, I type into Google something like “Who uses RSS?” But all the articles start with something more like “Who uses RSS any more?

As if it were a fad.

(In case you forgot, RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication”, which is a standardized file format for news or updates from a website. Its purpose is to relieve you from visiting a website every day unless the RSS feed shows that something new interests you. This matters if you’re following so many sites that you couldn’t possibly keep up with them otherwise. Oh, I’m using “RSS” to mean both RSS and Atom formats because if I say “web feeds”, you might not know what I was talking about. I apologize for that incorrectness.)

So it’s worth noting that some of those disparaging articles were unbelievably thick, and the replies were unanimously in favor of RSS. It seems most of that speculation was simply prompted by the announcement that Google Reader would be discontinued. This is even more amusing because Google Reader was pretty buggy. It was only useful because it let you be lazy instead of installing an RSS app. Basically this is telling me that some uninvested people got bored of playing around with Google Reader a while ago and can’t understand why they should keep seeing RSS icons especially now that Google Reader is gone.

However, RSS is intrinsically valuable, and it’s going to be around for a while. The reason is simple:

Nobody owns RSS. Nobody can turn it off. RSS can’t go offline (unless your whole Internet goes offline). You don’t need to pay for it. You don’t need to give RSS your email address.

To treat RSS as if Google owns it is silly.

RSS is easy for a programmer to support. Producing an RSS file takes “less than one page” of code. There are some undocumented features, but they aren’t too much trouble. If you support RSS, you’ll inevitably have to support Atom (and the old RSS 1.0 if you’re Japanese), but the specs are some of the least annoying I’ve had to follow. It’s pretty hard to mess up.

All of this adds up to a very versatile medium of communication that’s ubiquitous. Because RSS is so easy to support, there are zillions of apps that consume it, and practically every blog is offering it automatically. The implication is that it simplifies your ability to automatically collect information from the Web.

Furthermore, nobody can tell you how to use RSS.

If I attempt to “aggregate” the stuffs I want to look at using Facebook or Twitter or Google Plus or Pinterest, then in a lot of ways, I don’t have control over what I can do.

I suppose it goes without saying that all of this only matters if you actually want to keep up with news or updates or images from a whole lot of websites. If you’re happy reading about what Wesley Crusher is having for lunch (I’m not making this up), then Twitter is all you need.

Twitter is worth mentioning here because Twitter used to support RSS, but doesn’t now. I suspect this is because Twitter and RSS have often overlapping purposes, so Twitter doesn’t want to promote the use of something that might cause you to maybe not use Twitter.

I suspect Google is feeling the same way. Google Reader was a drain of Google resources, and they got nothing from providing it. Well, they could show you advertisements and collect your “fingerprint” while you’re using it, but they’re already doing that on all their other pages. It’s more important for them to continue trying to be Microsoft and Facebook, and RSS competes with the function of Google Plus.

It’s hard for Google and Twitter to “own” your dependence upon RSS. So it’s in their best interests to get you to forget about RSS, even just subtly. But it’s silly to feel that you’re powerless against this, even if you’re not a programmer.

I talked about RSS before. I’m using it to collect over 300 blogs into one place where I can view the “news” I want to read. I didn’t have to be a programmer to do this; I could have used one of those zillion apps that are available, such as Thunderbird. I only did it my way because it was easy. However, it may be hard to notice, but I’m also demonstrating how easily RSS feeds can be automatically processed and reorganized. RSS is designed for this.

In other words, RSS is not only useful for an individual, it also facilitates goals achievable through software. All the web pages on practically all the blogs on the Web are available in a standardized, easy-to-process format. What could you do with that…? Facebook or Twitter or Google Plus aren’t going to help you here.

The very same facilities also benefit the producers of web pages. With no special effort, RSS makes your blog easier to disseminate. RSS helps spread people’s words. Automatically. If you’re blogging, why wouldn’t you want that?

(In case you’re paranoid about people stealing your content, don’t worry, that’s a sign you’re doing something right. Just configure your feed to show only a “preview” of your body text. Lots of people do it, and it’s okay. Really.)

So I’m hoping to impress upon you that RSS is more awesome than is initially apparent. It’s an unregulated, self-perpetuating standard due to its own merits. And just because you may only be willing to digest 140 characters at a time doesn’t mean you should ignore this undervalued medium for sharing information.

* * *

A “page of code” is an tricky measurement, so I try to err towards big fonts, especially since I’ve been known to work at “size 6”. Also, what’s up with people who write code in Arial? Yechhh.

Bradley Macomber

Bradley Macomber

Bradley is one of those guys who's been programming computers since childhood. Now he's a Senior Software Engineer at Art+Logic. Bradley gets a little too excited about OpenGL, C++, Python, Berkeley sockets, and mechanics/physics simulation.
Bradley Macomber

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