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Is RSS Dying?

This item has been sitting in my draft folder for a long time. In December of 2010, Experian Hitwise published statistical data on the most popular search terms. According to their data, “facebook login” was the second most frequent term U.S. Internet users searched for in 2010. In fact, four searches that included the word “facebook” made it into the top ten. Up there as well were “youtube,” “myspace,” and “craigslist.”

One conclusion (and the one I tend to believe) is, that more and more users of the Internet do not understand some of the fundamental concepts of surfing the web, such as bookmarks or URLs. They enter into search engines even sites and pages they are familiar with, instead of entering the URL directly into their browser’s address field or utilizing browser bookmarks. Google & Co. are for them what they think makes the web work.

One has to admire portals like Google for brainwashing enough people into thinking that their search field and that search field alone is the gateway to the Internet. At the same time, I’m shocked at the speed with which Web surfers seem to have become Internet-illiterate. It will be interesting to see the numbers at the end of this year. One aspect, though, should worry every Internet user: The more it becomes the rule to surf the web through portals like Facebook or Google, which by the very nature of their operation have no interest in serving neutral, unbiased results, the more we lose of the “free” in free Internet.

Which leads me to the demise (or supposed demise) of RSS – “really simple syndication” or, as some say, “rich site summary.” I have been a great fan of RSS feeds because they make it easy to check newly posted content and to decide what to read and what to ignore (the link to this blog’s RSS feed is here) – and they are spam-free. When websites offer RSS feeds, anyone interested can subscribe to those feeds with the help of special applications or browser extensions. After that, they see in one place all newly published posts either as headlines or in full.

There are probably reasons why the popularity of using RSS feeds has fallen off. The appearance of feeds is kind of bland (unless the broadcasters pep up their feeds with something like Feedburner), and subscribing is not an easy, one-step process. It is necessary to use an additional application. In this day and age, RSS feeds seem to fight a losing battle against Facebook’s “Like” or Twitter’s “Follow” buttons, which offer very similar functionality – albeit only inside their own universe. Columnist M.G. Siegler wrote in January in his blog:

[…] I do agree that the RSS problem is largely an aesthetic one. And while that may sound simple enough to fix, obviously, it hasn’t been. Now Facebook and Twitter are fixing it for everyone by stabbing it repeatedly in the stomach.

Just as surfers are abandoning their unbiased browser functions for navigating the Web in favor of the search box in the portal of their choice, RSS subscribers are abandoning unbiased feed aggregators for “Liked” subjects, topics trending on Twitter, and similar crowd-based or paid-for ranking.

But RSS feeds are a long way from dead. True, there are sites that display neither a link to their feeds nor the RSS icon anymore, but many are still generating feeds. A lot of sharing that goes on between sites is, under the hood, based on RSS feeds. For example, this blog lists the latest tweets of @TranslateThis in the side bar on the right; based on RSS feeds. All this makes me think that the announcement of an RSS demise was quite premature.

Where then, when you visit the web interface of Twitter, can you find a link to the news feed? Well, Twitter is one of those services that have quietly removed links to RSS feeds. But they are still there. Here’s the address of your (or anyone’s) Twitter feed:

http://api.twitter.com/1/statuses/
user_timeline.rss?screen_name=xxxxx

Just replace the xxxxx with the appropriate Twitter name, for example http://api.twitter.com/1/statuses/user_timeline.rss?screen_name=TranslateThis.

Maybe it is inevitable that surfing the web or aggregating news feeds will slowly be taken over, repackaged, and controlled by large organizations. For them, there is value in knowing the behavior of surfers and in bias towards their paying customers. But it probably won’t hurt to make the free methods your methods of choice – “free as in free speech, not as in free beer,” to quote Richard Stallman.

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7 Responses to “Is RSS Dying?”

  1. Bettina Winterfeld says:

    This is something I also wonder about. I also know quite a few very internet-savvy people who do not use RSS feeds but just “surf” their blogroll or follow other people’s links, something I understand even less than the behaviour of less computer-literate people. The fact that Firefox dropped the RSS button seems to indicate that Mozilla have resigned to this fact. (Of course you can get the button back http://www.webmonkey.com/2011/01/firefox-4-ditches-the-rss-button-heres-how-to-get-it-back/)

    • Michael says:

      Yes, there used to be an RSS icon in the right portion of the URL field. Whenever I navigated to a page with feed, I could subscribe by simply clicking on that icon. But the command is still there. You can pull an RSS icon to the tool bar by going to View > Toolbars > Customize. According to a Mozilla users study, only three percent of users ever clicked on the RSS button. They said that “from a user’s point of view it remains an awkward tool with a terrible user interface.” Whimps, that’s all I can say.

      And here’s a bit of irony: As of December, Google Reader (which is a RSS feed aggregator, after all) no longer has the Share button which once let you create feeds of news items you wanted to share with other sites. You now have to use Google+ or Twitter or one of those services. That’s really a terrible move. Not only does it make curating large amounts of content more difficult, it also severs the connection to all the accumulated, curated content of the past.

  2. John says:

    Great post, Michael. I think you are right. I got a chuckle over the description of people typing their destination into the Google search engine. That’s exactly how Google Chrome is designed (a browser that is now number 2 in the market). You can use the address bar to type in a site or type in search terms. They’re very crafty!

  3. EP says:

    How did that old Frank Zappa saying go about jazz (we’ll replace it with RSS here)? RSS isn’t dead, it just smells funny.

  4. Luca says:

    Great post! I personally think it will always be possible to get feeds thanks to scripts or add ons: I hear you because this means that your blog needs to find readers via different means like twitter, google+ and facebook, but for the internet user aware of the feeds existence this facilitates instead their popularity in the social websites mentioned few lines above.

    As for typing in the search engine the address, you would not believe this: my wife’s aunt (she is 76) has been taught to do exactly like that in a basic computer course for senior citizens.

  5. Michael says:

    I suppose that the teachers of the computer course for seniors thought that it would be easier to introduce just one method and that it wouldn’t matter to their audience. But their is a larger issue here, and since I mentioned Richard Stallman in my post, I wanted to point you to the article Richard Stallman Was Right All Along.

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