Why Big Media Wants to Kill RSS, and Why We Shouldn't Let It

RSS is dead. Long live RSS!

Another year, another attempt to kill RSS.  Sigh.

That means I must once again bring truth to a cacophony of greed and hysteria, where repetitive games of not-really-farming and being not-really a gangster are valued more than anything other than Facebook, the platform where you not-really play said games.

This discussion cycle seems about as boring as I imagine Farmville to be, but we can’t ignore it.  Because there are armies of media companies, developers and investors out there, with dollar signs in our eyes, who can’t wait to usher RSS off to the deadpool.  For one reason and one reason only: they can’t make as much money if we read their content our way- in Google Reader or the equivalent app of our choice- as they can if they can force us to read it their way- at their site, complete with scads of browser-clogging tracking scripts and ads galore.

Let me say it another way.

Anyone- and I mean anyone- who is concerned with the end user experience should be actively promoting and supporting RSS. Unfortunately, like the very important but much maligned climate control movement, those who favor RSS as a medium for content management are on the wrong side of the ledger.  They are waging war against those who have deeper pockets and much to lose.

I can understand why someone who thinks of our eyeballs only as currency would not want us to manage several hundred web site subscriptions and the related content from a single, convenient, web-based app.  I can understand why big media sites want us to click wildly from page to page and site to site, all in the name of page views and ad serves.  Hell, even Google, who makes mint serving ads on so many web sites, doesn’t have much incentive to promote RSS and its handler, the wonderful Google Reader.

In a recent post, Louis Gray sums up my view of online utopia:

I don’t want more places to play games.  I don’t want more places that I can share photos with an increasing array of effects.  I do want better filters so that the best stuff comes to me, from all networks, without my having to sift through the noise.  That’s important to me, and part of what I am working to do.

That sounds a lot more like Google Reader than it does bouncing around between web sites, Twitter and Facebook.  The only people who have a material interest in promoting RSS is us.  The people, who want to control the manner in which we select and consume content.

Someone reading this is about to say, “but wait, what about Twitter!?  Facebook!  RSS is so last decade!”  To them I say, put down the joint or the deposit slip (depending on which bias has possessed their senses).  Twitter is, at the end of the day, nothing more that legitimized spam.  It’s brilliant.  But that’s what it is.  Big media loves Twitter, because it allows them and their hoodwinked fence painters to relentlessly spam people with the equivalent of partial feeds, which lead the end user back- you guessed it- to the content provider’s web site.  Complete with boggy scripts and ads-a-plenty.

Facebook is great.  For conversing with your friends in far off places, or catching up with the freshman roommate you once hated.  But in no way, shape or form is it the place to catalog, access and consume your news and other web-based content.

Again, only those with skin in the game will try to convince you otherwise.

The people can save RSS.  And we should, because if we don’t, we’re the ones who will suffer.  Not old or new media.  Not Twitter or Facebook.

And certainly not those who see our eyeballs as currency.

12 thoughts on “Why Big Media Wants to Kill RSS, and Why We Shouldn't Let It

  1. Good one Kent. That seems about right. It’s true that RSS subscription UI needs some minor improvements but it still beats any other option by far.

  2. This post is assuming way too much and proving far too little.

    RSS needs to be saved? You haven’t even bothered to define what RSS is. RSS is (loosely speaking…you can google around if you want more detail) an open technical standard that can be used by websites & computer software to read and broadcast content. Saying that “RSS is in danger” is like saying that POP email or HTML is in danger. RSS isn’t one thing that has a specific source that can be cut off destroyed.

    Different ways of communicating fit different temperaments and situations. The fact is, if a website owner wants to put out an RSS feed that is their choice. If someone wants to consume TechCrunch through RSS or through Twitter or through a third-party site linking to it that is also their choice. Just because a slightly different medium is being used by more people does not mean that people who stick to using RSS are at risk of losing anything. RSS news-junkies will continue to benefit from the many websites that have full or partial RSS/atom feeds built in to their design. This includes a huge pool of content created by free hosted blog sites like WordPress.com, Blogger (Blogspot.com) and Tumblr.com (with many more up and coming).

    Also I find it ironic that you rail against a very vague threat, “armies of media companies” and then hang most of your argument on a blog post by TechCrunch which is now property of AOL (hard to get more “big media than that”). I don’t think that AOL has plans anytime soon to ditch RSS feeds for TechCrunch or any of their popular blogs (please let me know if I’m wrong about this).

    Sidenote: RSS is also not flawless when it comes to providing perfect end-user experience. Feed-readers themselves can easily display adds in-line or in a sidebar. Also, some feed-publishers (like Feedburner) support ad-integration in their feeds so that even if you don’t click through to the site you could still be seeing an ad for “free ipods” or some other worthless garbage.

  3. Totally agree.
    Its a big problem that Web sites want pageviews and visitors and RSS will not give them that. But, the dont actually see the benefits in the long term.

    There also a way to make “that” money via the way articles are written. You can also put the 60% of the article via RSS, the rest could be “read more” with a link to the article in the website.

    Twitter and Facebook ? The dont, EVER, substitute RSS.. even though i hear so many people claiming that.

  4. Doesn’t google have an interest in saving rss? They are practically the only place for my Internet eyeballs because of search and reader.

  5. Thanks for the comment.

    I didn’t define RSS, because I know what it is, and I think most people who would be interested in this topic would know what it is. In my earlier post that I linked to above, I linked to the Wikipedia RSS page. I should have done that above as well. Point for you 🙂

    My thesis, and I think I was reasonably clear, is that big media sites (old and new) want to reduce off-site consumption through feed readers, etc. and force readers to their sites where they can serve ads. I consider TechCrunch to be big media, and considered it so prior to the AOL acquisition. If you reread my post, I was not “hanging” my argument on a TechCrunch post. I was actually picking fun at it. Note the “Sigh.”

    I disagree that people who prefer RSS are not at risk of losing something. To the contrary, I think media sites from CNN on down would love for RSS to fade away so we have to visit their pages to get their content. At a minimum (and it goes further than this) we would lose choices. NPR and Fox News are both news sources, though I would always choose one over the other.

    I agree that RSS isn’t perfect. Partial feeds and excess ads are a problem. I just prefer to manage all my content from Google Reader, as opposed to bouncing around the web like its 1999.

  6. At one point, it looked like there would be a movement towards paid (or maybe premium/paid as an alternative) RSS feeds- maybe a few dollars a month for a full feed, etc. That never took off, but once the overall free/paid business gets settled, perhaps we’ll see that. Paid vs free is an issue for sure, but either way, I’d rather read content in Google Reader.

  7. I don’t know that RSS is critical for search, which is where Google makes most of its money. It is important for Reader, but I don’t sense that Reader is a core project for Google. I wish it were.

  8. Big media might want to kill RSS, but there is scant evidence that it does. Why should they care? RSS is simply another way of getting more visitors to your site, even if some RSS readers only scan the summary and don’t open the article itself.

    What the article you referenced shows is that people aren’t using RSS readers as much as they use social media to scout out content that’s interesting to them. That has less to do with what big media wants and more with how people feel about using an RSS reader.

    No one has really sat down yet to make a killer-app RSS reader. Perhaps google reader comes close, but in general I find the RSS reader interface less than sasisfying. I have used Shrook for some years and am currently using the RSS reader incorporated in Mac Mail. None of those really make me want to use them … and I really try. What about people who have hardly heard the word RSS, much less have an idea of what it is?

    RSS won’t die, but it will wither without a user-friendly and pleasurable interface.

  9. I think it’s all about ads- easier to serve at a web site.

    I agree about desktop readers- Google Reader is good, but not perfect. I think Reeder for iOS is pretty close to perfect.

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