RSS: there's nothing better

“An RSS feed? That’s so 2007!”

“Well then what do you suggest instead?”

“Everyone gets their updates through their Facebook feeds these days! Just make a Facebook page!”

“That sounds great! Then half of my subscribers will see half of my updates, during weeks in which Zuckerberg chooses to weigh the algorithms more towards news and less towards friends’ photos. Also everyone has to have a Facebook account.”

“Yeah, okay, point made. Twitter is better anyway: it’s totally public, doesn’t force people to sign in to see feeds, and its feeds aren’t subject to algorithmic manipulation.”

“Wonderful! With Twitter, people can keep up with updates interspersed with cat photos, stolen jokes, retweeted jokes and celebrities’ political opinions! Subscribers to multiple sites can enjoy the user-friendliness of having them all mushed up together, or having to laboriously visit each outlet’s page to see new updates they missed in the firehose of minutiae!”

“Anyone who wants to do that can use Twitter lists!”

“Provided Twitter’s not A/B testing their site/app with an excitingly new and different way to hide that feature.”

“I guess.”

“Twitter works as an auxiliary promotion medium, but I wouldn’t want it to be my main distribution platform. That would be like if magazine subscriptions were delivered by hiding them in junk mail.”

“Hey! I’ve got an idea, let’s go old-school.”

“Yes, finally!”

“Let’s make… an email newsletter! And we can get people to sign up with one of those modal popups! They really drive up engagement you know!”

“Implying the world doesn’t already have enough spam email.”

“But it’ll work! Everyone has email, and most people these days even get real-time notifications on their devices when they receive emails! There’s no way updates can be algorithmically manipulated, because there’s no algorithm, and with email, updates can’t get lost in the noise!”

“Things won’t get lost in the noise? I’d like to have your inbox. Regardless, this solution is little better than Twitter or Facebook. People get lots of emails for lots of reasons. Most of my inbox is worthless marketing spam punishing me for forgetting to uncheck some ‘I’d like to receive updates about this service’ checkbox hidden away at the bottom of a registration form. Without tonnes of mail rules that I am far too lazy to set up, email newsletters – even ones I value – would get completely lost before I could read them.”

“Damn. If only there was some system which allowed you to follow updates to blogs and websites you care about in a manner that ensured you never missed an update, could find new updates at a glance, and didn’t have to wade through masses of noise to do so. …Hey, this would be a great idea for a startup!”

“I think you’ll find it’s already been done.”

“Really? Who by? Why didn’t you mention this earlier?”

“It’s this really cool open standard called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS for short. It’s already integrated into major blogging platforms such as Wordpress and Blogger and most static site generators, and is supported by all major news sites that haven’t completely revamped their websites in the past couple of years. All you have to do to support it in your own site is produce an XML document of recent posts conforming to the simple schema.

“Despite the untimely demise of Google Reader, RSS feeds can still be followed, monitored and aggregated by individuals using a wide range of slick and modern cloud applications including Inoreader, Feedly and The Old Reader – all of which allow you to aggregate your feeds in powerful ways while never missing an update.

“It’s also trivial to write code or use services like If This Then That to automatically update things like Facebook and Twitter with new content. And because RSS is a simple, open standard, it’s not going to suddenly shut down or go out of business and immediately stop existing.”

“But, but, XML is gross! RSS is dead! 2007!”

“Yes, the technology is dated, but it remains the best at what it does and isn’t closed source or tied to some Silicon Valley company. It still works, is widely supported and does what it does better than any alternative that’s come out since. Sometimes, newer isn’t better. Sometimes the problem has already been solved. No blog or news website should be too new or too minimal to support RSS.”


A decade of progress

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Postscript (2017-11-14)

This article made the top of Hacker News on 2017-11-11 and generated quite a bit of discussion. I want to address a couple of the points brought up repeatedly there and elsewhere:

The RSS/Atom debate. When I say RSS, I mean RSS or Atom feeds – they’re fairly similar. This very site uses an Atom feed rather than an RSS feed. I like to use the term RSS because people will instantly know it’s Really Simple Syndication, whereas a post entitled “Atom: there’s nothing better” would have attracted a comments section full of people saying “Haha, thought you meant the Github text editor!” (plus a couple of downvoted anti-Electron screeds). Atom may be the superior spec, but it’s definitely the inferior name.

What about jsonfeed? I’m aware of jsonfeed in a cursory sort of way, but I don’t think it does enough better than RSS/Atom to be worth switching to. Being a very new standard, it also doesn’t have the widespread support that makes RSS/Atom as great as it is. I also don’t feel that JSON is a good format for dealing with lots of complicated body text – the escaping gets nasty.

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