I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

Digital Publishing: Making RSS Suck Less

Posted: March 9, 2016

Magazines are rad, especially the weird counter-culture zines that gave rise to websites like BoingBoing. A lot of early blogs and online publications were born directly out of Zine culture, and most digital publications still operate under at least some of the same paradigms as traditional publishing. One of the earliest victories for the young web was RSS, a way to subscribe to blogs and websites that mirrored the idea of (but was fundamentally removed from) traditional magazine subscriptions.

RSS is neat. It’s the technology that powers Podcasting, and it enables people to follow web pages on their own terms. RSS, and its successor ATOM, have long been heralded as the method through which we would escape from the walled-gardens of Facebook (and Medium!) and into the waiting arms of a federated, open internet. But, unless we’re talking about podcasts, the tools for interacting with RSS and ATOM feeds pretty much suck. The best tool we had was Google Reader, which Google killed because no one was using it.

So let’s talk a little bit about what RSS/ATOM is, how it’s currently used, and how it could be turned into something revolutionary.

It’s like this, an RSS (or ATOM) feed is a list of articles/posts/content that can be read by an RSS reader. That RSS reader takes feeds from all kinds of different websites, and displays them for you in one list (which can be sorted in to sub-lists.) For the most part, an RSS reader makes the whole web behave like emails.

Let’s admit it, that sounds pretty shitty! Everyone hates email!

RSS does have some benefits. You can be sure that you’re always up to date on the releases from the [webcomic/blog/podcast/newspaper] you follow. You can have all the content you’re interested in reading at your fingertips, accessible from the same place (without having to go look for it!) You can know, for sure, if you’ve read that article. But, for a lot of people the email-style format sucks. It makes RSS readers feel cramped, crowded, and overwhelming, and it’s still impossible to figure out which new things are worth reading. There has got to be a better way.

See, services like Tumblr and Twitter got it right. They make it simple to publish. They put each user’s content in to its own feed, which can be referenced in the future. They allow you to subscribe (in a very RSS way) to the feeds of multiple users. They display all of this (in a very RSS way) in one convenient stream, and give you the ability to re-post it to your own feed.

On the other hand, services like Twitter and Tumblr are giant walled gardens that own their platforms entirely, and can take an actively antagonistic stance to developers. (Who remembers all the warnings and pop-ups surrounding The Missing E?) That won’t do for the open web.

And it doesn’t have to. There’s nothing stopping us from turning every Wordpress, Blogspot, and Jekyll blog (and every other website that publishes an RSS feed) into an item on your endlessly scrolling dashboard, and building an open web implementation of the tumblr dashboard.

Make it self hosted, and toss in an open standard for Likes and Reblogs, and (with a little luck) you’ve got yourself an RSS reader that people would actually want to use, and a way to handle syndication that isn’t overwhelming or annoying. The same general idea could be applied to Twitter (and lord knows there are plenty of Wordpress plugins that have tried to solve half that equation), but it would take a lot of effort for either idea to get enough adoption that it took off. (And who is going to pay to market open web standards?)

A better crop of RSS/ATOM readers would make the web a more open, and weirder place, and encourage more general RSS/ATOM usage. There’s no reason for Podcasts to have all the fun.

Of course, the Internet of Things will depend heavily on protocols like RSS/ATOM. Mesh networking, and peer to peer internet replacements will come to depend heavily on open syndication standards as well. Ultimately, we’re shaping the future of the internet, so let’s make sure it’s plenty weird.

Let’s syndicate everything.

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