The main trade that was carried out was in the skins of the NowWhattian boghog but it wasn’t a very successful one because no one in their right minds would want to buy a NowWhattian boghog skin. The trade only hung on by its fingernails because there was always a significant number of people in the Galaxy who were not in their right minds.
– Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams
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Every year for the past ten years or so, I’ve seen stories about how the feed reader is dead. I’ve seen stories about how Facebook or Flipboard or Google News or Google Reader or Twitter or Instapaper or PubSubHubbub or any given podcast app or Apple News or Facebook Instant Articles or fuck knows what is just the thing to slit this ancient dinosaur’s throat. And I’m so fucking sick of it because these stories never make sense to me.
Everyone I ever knew who used a feed reader used it because they wanted to follow updates on their sites and read new articles. Precisely zero of these people used it because it involved fetching RSS feeds. RSS feeds (by which I also mean Atom feeds) are now one of the foundational building blocks of the web. It is to podcasting what RF signals and antennas used to be to analogue TV. No one cares particularly about radio signals (or at least the ones who do don’t think the most interesting thing about it is that it lets us watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo), but we do care about what they let us do.
In this case, they let us follow more or less any site. This is a timeless idea. What can happen to a timeless idea to make it stop becoming applicable? The technology can change. If people stopped serving RSS, clearly it wouldn’t be as useful. Some social networks don’t, and a lot of sites don’t know that RSS exists, but that’s how it’s always been. It’s not a new development and it’s not declining.
RSS is still everywhere, it’s just gone from being a new technological hot topic to safe, known, bankable technology. We know it scales because it’s decentralized, we know it can be adapted, it is sane and of the web. (Or, well, Atom is sane; if you want to need a stiff drink at some point, try to decipher and resolve the litany of what-the-RSS-2.0-elements-actually-mean edicts.)
We’re in the 10s of this century, and this century, RSS is our analogue TV. It is the “regular” telephone net. It is boring and known and useful and a cornerstone and a foundation. There’s nothing ruling out a replacement, it’s just that no one’s going to work on one for an awfully long time because right now, there’s no obvious improvement.
But! I hear you protest. I didn’t mean my reactionary article like that. I just meant that your feed reader’s usefulness is irrelevant and its cute ass is grass, because there’s a new kid in town now, and its name is… which month is this again? It’s Flipboard. Or Apple News. Or Facebook Instant Articles. Or… fuck, is the Google Reader-but-not-Reader-mixed-with-the-scraps-of-Blogger-and-Google+ thing launching with Android Peanut Butter Jelly Time still under embargo?
Okay, enough. Flipboard, for one, is a better feed reader and some sort of repository for feeds. It eradicates RSS in the same way the iTunes Podcast directory eradicated podcasts. If anything it made the whole ecosystem a bit stronger. Apple News also uses RSS for the vast majority of sites that don’t yet produce articles in the Apple News format. Those who do publish to Apple News or Facebook Instant Articles or Google Don’t-Call-it-a-Reader – whose existence I prophecize here if only because every big technology company is turning into the same ginormous platform of accumulated crap – don’t do it with their full production and don’t to it to the detriment of any other platform. Sure, if something is so good it completely starves the lesser attempts, so be it. But if you see someone whose only source of news is Facebook, the advice from the man in the street is still going to be “run and don’t look back” for a good while.
I’m getting away from my point. The point is that along with everyone else, I watched the clock stop on feed readers a few years back. The clock stopped on feed readers because when mobile apps became a thing, you need sync. And sync for feed readers is frustratingly hard, for all the reasons that make RSS great.
Before that, I watched Apple and Microsoft and Mozilla all install RSS into their browsers in the most perfunctory fashion, and no one could figure out, particularly for IE and Safari, why the hell RSS was a thing to care about. The death knell for the reporting of RSS is obvious. It’s just not that fascinating and what little fascination there was relied on the technology proving itself and the kinks being worked out in standardization processes and by being applied.
Meanwhile, I’m using one every day during the entire day; it’s the first thing I check when I get home (I don’t use a mobile app for it or I’d never get anything done), it’s what I constantly switch to. For someone who doesn’t use Twitter and Facebook, this is my drug. Maybe Twitter and Facebook has subsumed this role for many people who used feed readers; I wouldn’t know, but it doesn’t seem like it.
Any way you turn it, feed readers provide utility. They did before and they still do, and for me at least, nothing has yet to replace them. I think feed readers would sooner die from being caught in a situation where everyone will demand syncing and no one will do it well enough to work than from being surpassed by apps like Flipboard or some sites having Twitter accounts.
And one last thing: feed readers were never broad, general public applications, popular with the masses. It was always for the people who didn’t want to stoop to the level of manually opening tabs for a few sites and checking for new items of interest manually like some sort of rube. I think the number of people who’re interested in using for an awesome feed reader with a good sync solution is constant. I used the quote in the beginning to show that I’m open to the possibility that I’m missing something and that it is my contingent that’s in fact not in the right mind. But if we are, there are at least a lot of us to sell feed readers to.