Swallowing the orange pill: RSS- we hardly knew you.

While rummaging through my local independent bookshop prior to Christmas, I picked up “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, opening up at the part where Aslan is resurrected on the Stone Table by the Deeper Magic from the Dawn of Time. In the social media-driven world of today, this blog post is going to look at some magic from the pre-social media world.

With so much new content on the web added daily, it can be tough to keep up with what’s happening online. One solution that sometimes gets overlooked is an old-school one: The RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. RSS feeds were the mark of the geek in the early web 2.0 world.

A definition for the non-geek; RSS also known as a web feed was an XML file that allows users to access updates to websites in a readable format. It allows users to track any number of websites on a single web page. Each time a website publishes a new piece of content, details about that content—including the full-text of the content or a summary, publication date, author, link, etc.—are automatically generated in the XML file and displayed in reverse chronological order in your feed reader which allowed you read it within a webpage.

RSS was pretty big before social media took its mantle. Nearly every web browser and social media platform in the early days provided a feed. You would add this feed to an aggregator such as Feedly or Google Reader or in the old days, Bloglines itself using the RSS button. A single click was all it took. RSS feeds were very much part of the architecture of blogs even to the present day.  It is a default feature with WordPress and Blogger blogs.

RSS icon
The orange RSS button

As it grew more popular, major companies such as Google, Microsoft, Twitter, etc. provided users with RSS feeds. The interesting content came to you rather than you searching out for it. As the content was usually displayed in your feed reader, it removed ads and prevented the website from finding out too much about you. This was the main reason for RSS’s decline.

The first big assault on RSS feeds came with the launch of Google+ where Google decided that RSS was not the format that they wanted to use to get people to visit their social network. Ironically by 2013, Google had the most popular feed reader (Google Reader) which they sent to the Google graveyard. Not long later Twitter removed the ability to create a feed from a hashtag or a user. There are various hacks and plugins to retain this feature but sadly it is not native on any feed reader today. Podcasts gave RSS a lifeline but the moves by Spotify to create a walled garden for podcast content is one that RSS has seen before.

My Feedly page
My Feedly RSS reader

I still use RSS.  It is still useful to manage content and track a range of topics that I have an interest in. Using Feedly, I can skim hundreds of websites from one location without any algorithm dictating what I read. There is a lot of value in managing your own content consumption in this mad social media world. It still has a place in your tech toolbelt even if you have never used it before.

There is always talk of a resurgence of RSS as an open format but whether it will rise from its own Stone Table like Aslan, that chapter has yet to be written.

PS: A great history of RSS can be found here  


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