19 Oct 2014

The Shrinking RSS Pie

This piece was initially published on Medium. I’m resharing here, for when Medium will go away…

We all know that RSS and openness are key to the web’s resilience and independence, yet the RSS ecosystem is still shrinking. It’s because of us, players of that ecosystem: we tend to try growing our slice of the pie, at the expense of other players rather than growing the whole pie!

There is not a week where a blogger does not write about dropping RSS support. Some of the new blogging platforms took months before they eventually added RSS (looking at you Medium!)… Even traditional advocates of the open web tend to promote email as a way to follow their content, rather than feeds. Even though we’ve seen a bloom of new RSS readers in the last 3 months, they all tend to look the same and provide a very similar experience. At the same time, silos which allow us to follow other users, brands, or products are easier and easier to use and their grip is getting stronger with every new user.

Why are we going there?

My answer is simple: each and every player is building features to compete with the other players, while at the same time, misses the big picture.

As soon as one of the readers announces compatibility with the great Reeder, all the others immediately jump on the bandwagon and start adding support as well. As soon as one of the readers adds the a share on Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest/Buffer/Read Later… button, all the others add it…

As a result, all readers have the same capabilities: they look nice on desktop and mobile, they import and export OPML files, they have a way to star stories, they can share to every single social network (and their mother!) and they all ask me to login with Twitter/Facebook or Google.

Feedly, the Old Reader and the Digg Reader, side by side.

Changing course

Don’t get me wrong these features are all important, but they won’t move the needle for the people who do use Twitter, Google+ or Facebook to follow news sites, blogs and brands. At best this will move a couple users from the Digg Reader to Feedly to the AOL Reader to The Old Reader and back to the Digg Reader.

This is sad, because, while we now have a lot of very similar readers, users are offered the ability to follow more and more content. Most modern content applications now offer Follow buttons to keep us engaged with their content.

Follow buttons on Vimeo, Spotify, About.me, Storify, Youtube, Medium, Instagram, Pinterest, Quora and more!

The open web community should leverage that trend and decouple the publishing platform from the subscribing platform, while still provide a great experience to the user.

Let’s grow this open-follow market. If we want RSS to thrive again, we need to bring new users to any of the readers. And to get new subscribers who have never used an RSS reader before or who think that silos are the best way to get the data they care about, we need to provide a better experience which fits their needs and expectations.

Call for ideas!

I have practical ideas on how to do that. They involve making it easier for people to subscribe using feeds (we came up with SubToMe as a first iteration, help us improve it!), and making sure that the data flows in realtime between the publisher and the subscriber as tweets or Facebook statuses do (we believe that PubSubHubbub is a good solution to that). We should also talk about filtering, curating and ranking, things like analytics… Finally, we must talk with the publishers and see how they can benefit from a better open-follow ecosystem as well.

The point here is not blame anyone; the point is to acknowledge that even though users want to follow more and content, we have been unable to provide them with an great solution. Let’s just be creative: get started, blog about it and share the link with everyone (including me!)

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