The Past is the Future: Why I Love RSS

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Human history is filled with stories of technological advancement. Guns have replaced swords, cars have replaced carriages, and digital media have replaced analog formats. There are people who spend their lives studying obsolete technology that most have never heard of, but how often is it the case that the technology that society has deemed obsolete is superior to its replacement? The sound quality of vinyl records has encouraged many music enthusiasts to turn off their music streaming services and dust off their gramophones to enjoy their music in a much purer format. Vinyl has managed to outlive both the casette and CD, technologies that were meant to replace it. I'm sure anyone who has taken the time to learn about their hobbies can find one example of a technology or practice that society has deemed obsolete within their hobby which they would prefer were still commonplace.

I'm a student of computer science and technology, computers and the internet have evolved so rapidly that there are many technologies that have been pushed into obsolescence before their full potential was realized. RSS, however, is one that I feel was choked there.

What is RSS?

As somebody who has only become interested in traditional blogging in 2020 I wondered how producers of online content informed their fans of new content before the age of social media. The answer was a protocol known as Really Simple Syndication. RSS stood up to its name of simple because it is indeed simple for a creator to set up and with the right program or browser extension subscribing to a feed can be a one click activity with no need for any sort of online account.

RSS readers allowed a user to see content from every site they are subscribed to in one place. News stories, blog posts, internet forum discussions and even tweets could all be seen anonymously from one program. On startup, and whenever requested, a decent RSS reader would collect the recent updates to all of the feeds that is user is subscribed to and will list them out for them to read. No need to open your browser and sequentially visit all your favorite sites to check for new content. For a comparison to what is more familiar these days, imagine if you could look at posts from your friends on all social media accounts from one app.

What killed RSS?

RSS began development in the late 90s and reached its final form in 2003. 2005 saw the launch of Google Reader which became the most popular RSS reader but in 2013 after a decline of users and a shift in the focus of the internet the RSS reader was discontinued. This event can be considered the death of RSS as it used to exist.

During this time period I was young and had no idea then of what RSS was and can offer no kind of personal reflection on the use of RSS in the golden age of the internet, but I can look at it from the perspective of one familiar with what the internet has become.

In 2009 Facebook became the most used social networking service, it reached 500 million active users the next year and by the time Google Reader was discontinued Facebook had well surpassed one billion users. Since then we have seen the rise and transformation of many social media platforms as they have become a part of everyday life.

Social media companies make money by showing us adds and collecting our personal data. RSS readers allow users to deny social media companies the ability to do either of those things. Take Twitter as an example, it has been reported that up to 90% of tweets come from only about 10% of Twitter users and many of the remaining 90% of active users have never posted a single original tweet, so for the majority of Twitter users Twitter is a platform for them to simply consume content. In theory, all of these users could bypass the need for a Twitter account if they could subscribe to an RSS feed which posted the tweets of the people they follow. Users would see no adds and Twitter would know nothing about them. Interestingly, Twitter used to have a feature like this but their executives must have realized (as I have) that they could make no money with this sort of thing and discontinued the feature. In the realm of internet services, what is best for the customer is rarely what is best for the company.

RSS now

Contrary to what I have alluded to RSS is not really dead, noting on the internet truly dies, but its use has changed and is much less common. I had no idea what it was up until a couple days ago. While we don't realize this applications like Apple Podcasts, which allow users to subscribe to different podcasts are really just specialized RSS readers, this is why likely up until a few months from now you could access nearly any podcast from any podcast service, podcasts are published using RSS. (Joe Rogan's move to exclusivity on Spotify will likely change this).

News and other popular sites continue to publish rss feeds, but they all also have dedicated apps these days which they would prefer you use. But again the default news app on your phone or computer is really just a modified RSS reader. These of course are much different from a traditional RSS reader because the content you see is determined by some algorithm rather than your personal subscriptions, and of course you can't subscribe to anything the corporations in charge don't want you to. Free speech is not an option there.

RSS readers still exist today, but if you are on Windows, as nearly all the world is, the only decent services are web based or browser extensions. I don't like either of these options because web based services collect your data and can still offer adds and suggest you things which you don't want, and browser extensions can leave you more vulnerable to hacking. I came to love the idea of RSS by seeing the benefits of the free and open source RSS readers available on Linux.

Why I love RSS

While I doubt the future will include that many people using RSS as it was in the past but I personally am making an effort to use RSS in as many situations as I can to increase my productivity by decreasing the amount of time I spend scrolling through sites looking for something I'd find interesting. I spend more time than I am willing to admit watching YouTube videos and I know that that time can be better spent, the problem is that I can't completely quit because there exists a handful of channels that I enjoy keeping up with. It is possible to subscribe to an RSS feed for any YouTube channel, so I can put those into an RSS reader and I will only ever see what I want to rather than what YouTube wants me to waste my time with. Additionally, as I have begun writing a blog of sorts I have gained an interest in reading other blogs, I can subscribe to the interesting ones I find and hopefully be presented with new information in that way. I of course have set up an RSS feed for this site and will keep it updated (making the feed was simple as all RSS does is look at an XML file that is formatted in a certain way). I will also be looking for other ways to convert my internet usage to be more dependent on RSS, if I ever decide I want to consume Reddit content I can do so via RSS as each subreddit has a dedicated RSS feed whose post oder doesn't sift like it does when going to the actual site. Also while Twitter no longer provides RSS feeds there still exist services which put Tweets into RSS feeds, so there if I wanted to I could follow people on Twitter without a Twitter account (I have never been closer to deleting my Twitter than I am now).

I've mentioned that I'm not satisfied with any Windows RSS readers, and while I have already decided that this computer will be my last computer that doesn't run Linux, I haven't switched yet. Nevertheless I'm a computer programmer and have decided to make an RSS reader of my own which fits my needs. So far I've been satisfied with Newsify on my iPhone.

I'm sure that I could have done a better job presenting the benefits of using RSS than I have, heck I didn't even include a picture of the RSS logo. But I encourage you to look into RSS and see how it can help you avoid wasting time on the internet, by allowing you to see only what you want to see.