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RSS Rant (feliciaday.com)
278 points by hollerith on Oct 27, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments

Sadly, RSS is like many other platforms without a default client. Well-engineered, extremely useful, but impossible to explain to non-technical people. Before you can use RSS, you have to know what it is, look for it on a website, and have a client downloaded or an account on a web service. For this to make sense you need a mental model of a server with information, a client requesting it, and a technical specification that teaches them to talk to each other.

Compare with Facebook or Twitter, where you click a link to the default client and can start using it right away.

Ultimately, you can google "Twitter" or "Facebook" and start using the platform right away. Google "RSS" and you get technical explanations, a Wikipedia page, and competing choices for feed readers.

The web has no default client.

Email has no default client.

TV has no default client.

The telephone network, after a lengthy battle involving AT&T, has no default client.

SMS has no default client.

Somehow, people find a way to use these things. It took many years from when the first web browser was written in 1990 to get to ubiquity. We got RSS in 1999 and it is in widespread use among web publishers; I can't think of a major news site that does not use it. Where we are lacking is in user uptake. Give it time. Open standards always take longer, but one will eventually get us there.

The default client for email and web is the one that comes with your computer. The default client for SMS is your phone. The default client for TV is to turn it on and flip through channels.

The point of the OP was not about having a single standardized client, but rather having the functionality baked into product(s) without the user having to seek it out on their own, or even learn what "RSS" means. The feeble attempts from Safari and Firefox are the closest we've come, but ideally this was a push that should have happened at the OS level, both on desktop and mobile.

What you said is is way more reasonable than what the original posting said.

The original posting referred to "platforms without a default client," whereas you refer to, roughly, "a commonplace convention for some higher level platform to select a default client" (my words).

The original posting further implied it is a problem that there are "competing choices for feed readers," which you did not state. (This was silly, not least because the counterexample of Twitter also has competing choices for feed readers.)

I completely agree that stronger RSS choices and less asking the user, especially at the browser level, would be a great thing. More defaults would be great. But the original post was supporting the idea of a single, global default vendor.

This is one of the things we're working on at Start.Me (http://thestart.me) . We're trying to speed up your online browsing routine and figure out how to add both RSS and non-RSS sites to feeds without users necessarily having to know what RSS means; just what sites they want to keep up with. Would love anyone's feedback after we release something next week.

Not to be a debbie downer, but you can enter any website in Google Reader and get a feed subscription back too, without having to know what RSS means. (It doesn't, strictly speaking, work on non-RSS sites, true, but despite the recent trend we're talking about here, most sites still have 'em if you look hard enough.)

That said, it's a marketing thing. If you can make things click for the everyday joe, all the more power to you!

I had a site I used that feature for, but google took it away like a year ago

Could you try not loading a hover box on first page load? It looks like you're doing something neat, but I hate having to have 'no' as my first response.

Good work though.

Agreed, but there needs to be a mechanism to tell me how to use it. I like the idea of flicking around to browse, and this is not something I would have guessed without the info boxes.

Yeah, we were really trying to get users to click the "Try Demo" button to bring up the info boxes that teach the flicking to navigate but I do hear both your thoughts on creating less friction at first interaction.

There is no default client for television transmissions. You have to buy a receiver and they're not trivially cheap. You even have to decide which one you want, picking from a dizzying variety of brands, models and sizes.

I suppose that's true these days; I haven't used a TV as anything but a dumb monitor for about 7 years, so I guess I haven't kept up.

But TV is something that people already know that they want, so they're more willing to jump through hoops; they'll fiddle with it until it works, or call up the cable company and say "make it play HBO and sports". RSS, on the other hand, is something people won't want until they've used it and integrated it into their lives. This is a microcosm of adoption of the internet itself, which only took off once (a) browsers were part of the OS, and (b) AOL disks were everywhere, combined with social forces turning it into a de facto "default client".

By "receiver" I meant a television set. The big box that takes some sort of a signal, whether off the air or off a cable, and shows it on a screen. There is no default TV.

No, there is not, but there doesn't need to be.

There's no default oven or toaster or blender either. Because you buy the product to perform a function. If you buy a TV, you want to receive TV signals, or play content on a device that plugs into a TV.

If you have a computer, it can do damn near anything so there needs to be defaults for the things it can do, to expres to new users that it can do them. If every computer came with a default feedreader pre-populated with a set of feeds and explained "hey, click the [icon] on your favorite websites, and we'll show you new updates right here, like a customized newspaper" there'd be larger uptake.

Being able to do damn near anything makes a computer sound more like electricity than a toaster or a blender.

People buy toasters not because there is a default one but because they've used one in the past and got used to the idea. We need to focus on getting the idea of possibility of RSS-like functionality across, not on a nitpick like lack of a "default" client.

It would be an interesting twist to see RSS explained as "Twitter for any website."

I have no idea why Apple insist on the default RSS client under Mac OS being Safari. Mail has support built in, and is a far more appropriate place to keep it since people already think of it as the place to go for asynchronous updates.

  > The web has no default client.
Every computer comes with a browser. Back in the dark days, ISPs geared towards new users were full-on content providers ala AOL.

  > Email has no default client.
Again, either your ISP sets it up for you, you're using your OS's built-in (Windows Mail, Mail.app) or you're using GMail or similar.

  > TV has no default client.
Sure it does, it's baked into every television set ever sold, and it's started when you turn the set on.

  > SMS has no default client.
Again, buy a phone and it's got an "SMS client." Receive SMS, phone alerts you, you can respond.

However, RSS has no default client. If you see a link that says "contact us via email" and you click it, your mail client responds to the mailto: link. There should absolutely be an rss:// (or whatever) protocol link that browsers can either handle internally or ship to whatever client.

>Every computer comes with a browser.

There was a time when this was not true. No computers came with browser. Then the web got really, really popular. Browsers were added after the fact.

Even today, the share of non bundled web browsers matches that of bundled web browsers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_Web_browsers

Bundling is nice. RSS should be bundled! But it's a red herring to say the lack of bundling, or the fact that it's got multiple vendors, is why RSS has not succeeded enough.

Missing the point. Because RSS has a more convenient alternative in the form FB Likes and Twitter feeds its not so popular to use. If the web/email/tv/phone had a super convenient alternative, we're talking one-click integration to a system you've already adopted, that people would use it don't you think?

SMS and the telephone network did have default clients for a long time after they were introduced -- in both cases, the default client was the phone you had. Mosaic, Navigator, and IE were all so close that Wikipedia describes the latter two as being based on Mosaic. It does help adoption to have a single, obvious client, but a close second would be having the clients be indistinguishable save for branding for non-expert users.

As someone who started an RSS-based company (that's now defunct) I think the issue isn't just a lack of a default client, it's a lack of a tangible conceptual model for people. I spent years explaining the RSS concept, testing lots of different metaphors, and almost always got the "blank stare" or "nodding along so you think I understand".

I think the deeper problem is that it takes a kind of abstract thinking, that content and presentation are different things and that the content of a website or blog can be a resource as much as a particular presentation of it, that's just not normal for non-technical people. I think most people still think of websites as "places" you "go" to, and the idea of the content/data packaged in a format for easy syndication is a mental leap regardless of the metaphor you use.

Reading your second paragraph made me chuckle. Your point is likely spot on but I couldn't help thinking how most of that paragraph involved jargon that most people I know would get glossy eyed over. I wonder if rewording it to laymans or non 'geeks' terms might help.

Information on a webpage and 'the' webpage are not exactly the same. Rss uses information from the webpage to create a title and a short description in a way that you can view hundreds of titles and descriptions very quickly. When you find a title and or description that interests you a single click delivers the webpage in its authors intended form...

I think you're correct. If somebody said that to me before I had used Rss I might have glossed over as well.

edit: Sorry about the defunct company part.

Heh, I was intentionally not using any of the explanatory metaphors. :) Trust me, in the many years we were at it I tried lots and lots of non-jargony, more-concrete, ways to get the concept across. I never found the one that seemed to click with everyone.

We also had the additional problem of trying to be the "next generation" of using RSS (application platform, dynamic filters, etc...) before anyone other than tech-inclined people "got" the first generation.

Learned lots of painful lessons from that company. :)

Also agree with the main points of the parent and yours. But I must admit, as a technician myself, it has always troubled me that a feed is bound to a webpage, thus I never used the RSS icon in the navigator bar. For me, a RSS feed is linked to some kind of information, a topic, a person. What is the CNN main page RSS feed about? The TV program? Breaking news? ALL news? No clue.

> I think most people still think of websites as "places" you "go" to

Not arguing against you -- just pointing out -- who is it to blame for making people think of websites as places? I don't think it's the people themselves, it might well be us.

When the web was popularized in the 1990s, "place" was the metaphor that was pushed onto people. It wasn't a natural metaphor nor it was a necessary one. You don't "go to" a TV channel -- you "turn on" a TV channel. For some reason, though, you "go to" a web "site". Why?

I started using google reader when I came from a completely non-tech understanding of the web. Heck, I still just paste in the website of a blog I want to follow into google reader, and it pulls up the RSS, should it have one. One huge plus of RSS is that I follow lots of artsy things, so I get the actual pictures, not unlike tumblr (which also is, IMO, a far better mechanism than twitter or FB for following blogs/sites).

I'm a fairly technical person and I've started just putting sites homepage URLs into Google Reader. I'm tired of having to go to the site, hunt for a little RSS button, or if they don't have one I have to pull up the source and find the meta or link tag or whatever and then copy out the HREF because Chrome doesn't have an RSS button in the location bar.

I feel like RSS has gotten harder to use lately.

Putting the url of the site in should usually work. There is a standard called RSS autodiscovery that lets a reader discover the address of a RSS feed without there being a badge on the site etc.

There is an official Chrome extension for RSS:


I have no idea why it is not part of the default install though.

Posting to Twitter and Facebook does not preclude providing RSS.

Right, but after one of these big social platforms eliminates the other big social platforms, it will be in its best interests to stop providing RSS feeds because that will be an easy way to force more people to use their platform. (And non-techies will not take the trouble to post the same post to Twitter or Facebook and to a service that provides RSS.)

True but that doesn't mean your own service/whatever should only offer updates via facebook, instead of having RSS for your blog/whatever.


I suspect some individuals inside companies are motivated to increase number of followers/fans, and figure an RSS option would dilute that figure. More likely, it's just ignorance ... Facebook and Twitter show you're down with the kids.

> Sadly, RSS is like many other platforms without a default client.

While that may be true, I'll bet that almost everyone has a decent client.

For example, IE7-9 all have RSS readers. Yes, they manage and create subscriptions. The RSS icon turns orange and becomes active when there's a feed available on the current page.

I'll bet that the other major browsers do as well or better.

Firefox 4 removed the RSS icon from the address bar on pages that have RSS feeds. Chrome doesn't even have an RSS parser now.

Sorry to hear. Opera has an RSS icon in address bar and a built-in RSS reader. Subscribing to a feed is three clicks: first on the icon, second on the feed to use (admittedly problematic), third on Subscribe button on feed preview page.

I guess this is not in the interest of Google to promote free and decentralized information systems - how can they then analyze it and sell ads with that. They rather push a centralized stream à la Google+.

Google search indexes and analyzes the whole web, which is by definition a decentralised information system. How would popularisation of RSS negatively affect their business? Not to mention that Google Reader is still the best web RSS client out there.

Well then why do they want to close it?

1) Why did they create it in the first place? 2) Nobody said they want to close it. 3) The burden is on you to provide a proof for your conspiracy theory.

Actually it was just an opinion from me, I may have expressed myself a bit wrong on the words. But I suppose it is so. I won't be able to "prove" it as I have no insider access to Google executives.

1. They probably created it like one of the many products they did without a profit purpose at the beginning. Even with search, they didn't know where to head before a few years.

2. Right. I was just trying to explain why there could be rumors. They are closing a lot of services that aren't key to their business, though. I can understand that from a financial point of view very well. They may also want to consolidate the brand, and making it easier to grasp for non-geeks. All valuable goals.

3. "Conspiracy theory" is a big word. Think again about it. Companies try to move markets to their products, sometime using offensive methods. Remember Google suspended whole accounts (including Gmail, Gdocs) because users used pseudonyms on Google Plus. They're definitely serious about G+. But I won't search literacy on that topic for you. The world out here is competitive and brutal, that's all.

EDIT - Reformatted blank lines

I think you bring up a few of the reasons why I'm finding RSS feeds more difficult to locate on sites. Several times recently I've only been able to find them by knowing where WordPress automatically publishes the feed or by viewing the source of the page.

No one publishes only on RSS, so the non-techie's can go to a web page to see what's new on the Foo blog. I think a bigger problem is that Foo blog's web site is different in hundreds of small details from Bar blog's web site. In other words, one reason non-techies are more likely to follow someone on FB is that they are already familiar with FB's user interface.

The bigger problem though comes when the non-techie has written something online that I want to read...

Well, beta users really don't need to use RSS. It's like IRC. You have to dig into it if you want to use it, and you would so because you have to.

Actually I stopped using RSS years ago. It's a time consumer, you lose the charisma of every different websites and their way of browsing (I don't see myself using reddit or HN's RSS), a lot of website just truncate their articles in their RSS feed...

I agree that RSS is a poor way to consume to consume social news sites like Hacker News. It's a fantastic way to consume blogs, especially infrequently-updated ones. Why would I flip though 100 tabs in my browser every day to see which ten blogs have new posts when I can open my RSS reader instead and see all the new content at once?

Exactly, that's the time consuming part. Not a lot of people are following a 100 blog, I was. I remember checking my rss reader every 2 minutes to check a new article.

The only solution I found to get back to normal life was ditching my rss reader. Now I just the read 3-4 blogs frequently and check the others from time to time. I enjoy the design of each blogs. It's part of the atmosphere and of the read.

RSS has been my preferred interface to HN, news sites, and blogs for years.

Having to go to websites to get the same information is so cumbersome, primitive, and time consuming in comparison.

I don't really care about the "charisma" of websites. I'm much more interested in just getting the information they have to offer in the most efficient way possible. I couldn't consume nearly as much information efficiently without something like RSS.

Really depends on how you feed on information. Like I said in another response I was an avid user of Google Reader and netnewswire. I was checking it every 2minutes to read a new article, I had basically no life beside my rss reader (and before that I had no life because of IRC, another story).

The only way to go back to my normal life was to ditch my RSS readers. Now I'm enjoying a few websites and I realize I really don't need all those informations. Some websites I don't even need to check their new articles "in time".

And I found out I did care about the "charisma" of websites. It was like reading a different news paper, different texture, different layout, different feeling.

I understand both part, but I think very few people need a RSS reader (do we all read 100+ websites everyday? I was and I don't anymore). And I think a lot of RSS reader users would actually enjoy going back to the tranquility of reading directly through a blog's interface. I know it's less practical, you change the UI everytime and if you read a lot you only need the information. But juste give it a try, don't use your RSS reader for like a week, or at least a few days if you really need it. You'll see a difference :)

TL;DR:Internet doesn't have to be all about information.

What does it matter that most people can't use RSS. Even if 1% of the internet population uses RSS it's still a useful technology. People can learn how to use these things over time, maybe a long time. The knowledge can be transmitted.

Firefox made an attempt at this problem with an RSS icon, but failed.

I wouldn't go quite that far. Their icon is what introduced me to the technology. And I'm still using it daily.

I miss that icon. Installed an extension just to add it back in.

Not to be pedantic, but there are some of us who don't use Twitter but still want to follow tweets (e.g. in Google Reader). It's possible to get an RSS feed of tweets through the Twitter API: http://api.twitter.com/1/statuses/user_timeline.rss?screen_n...

That's not really a solution, however. Kind of a drag that Twitter pulled RSS links down off of user pages..

Fun fact: Google Reader will understand http://twitter.com/username as an RSS feed. The trick is to remove the hashbang that Twitter automatically adds to the URL (i.e. http://twitter.com/#!/username) before attempting to add it as a feed.

This is awesome. Thanks!

and it's a good move of twitter who force you to use their website if you want to follow tweets.

Force you? There are millions of alternative Twitter clients.

This reminds me of the stupidity of Spotify going to Facebook only. Don't lock yourself into ONLY using someone else's platform that only they control for authentication (facebook/twitter/etc). At least have an option for something like OAuth where you can host your own as well and no one group holds control.

I wonder when people will realize handing over the keys this way is a terrible idea. Support those platforms if you want, certainly. But don't make them the only way to interact with you.

I happen to have worked on a SaaS offering entirely focused on aggregating and consolidating RSS feeds, and I can truly say that only a tiny minority of technically inclined people ever gave a shit about RSS feeds, or even understood what it meant. The fact of the matter is that most people have no urge to fuss with news aggregating tools.

RSS was also useful for streaming playlists and status items to thin clients, but they too are increasingly supporting full-on web browsers instead.

> I can truly say that only a tiny minority of technically inclined people ever gave a shit about RSS feeds

So what? It's in your best interest to keep the nerds happy because they are the ones doing the actual work to push technology forward.

It goes back to the old 80/20 principle, and most content publishers are realizing what I learned: spending resources to keep a small minority of nerds happy doesn't put food on the table.

I think most nerds don't use RSS, but it would be interesting to see a poll.

I expect this link is getting attention solely because it was written by Felicia Day, but I too have a list of a number of sites that I don't read as I wish I could because of their lack of RSS.

And taking it a step further, RSS without full-text is little better than no RSS.

There have been a few sites I have found interesting and wanted to follow, but ultimately don't because they don't have an RSS feed. I don't have the time, energy, or organization to go to the site every few days and check for updates. There are plenty of other things that I can read in my RSS aggregator.

"RSS without full-text is little better than no RSS."

I totally agree. I use Reeder on both my phone and computer, because it's able to take those annoying excerpts, and use readability to turn it into the full text right in the feed reader.

* shameless plug * You can use Feedity - http://feedity.com to instantly create RSS feeds for any public webpage.

Hell yes, please just just include a full posting in rss, When I'm on my phone I'm not going to click over to your website.

I too have a list of a number of site that I don't read as I wish I could because of their lack of RSS.

Yahoo! Pipes has helped me with that (it can fetch pages and turn them into RSS feeds), although it requires some knowledge of HTML and possibly regexes.

I look at this and say to myself "Felicia is using the wrong Twitter client. She should switch to the one that she actually wants. The only difficulty is that it might not exist yet."

Does it exist? What I think we might be looking for is a Twitter client that displays the usual timeline, but also can act like an RSS reader: For a subset of your followers, you can display a list of all their Tweets over the last 7 days that included a link, along with a preview of the content at that link. Surf down that display and mark a Tweet "read" and it disappears from that display (though it remains in the usual timeline).

Actually this might scream "Instapaper addon". I'd love to be able to select a subset of my Twitter followers and have their Tweeted URLs beamed directly into Instapaper to be read at my leisure. Come to think of it, I wonder if I could hack that up myself.

I look at this and say to myself, "This dude's missing the point."

Twitter is not a superset of RSS. It does a small part of what I do with RSS, but not all of it, and not in as nice of a way.

The Twitter-Instapaper thing is a good idea, but it's just not the same as RSS.

Alas, it doesn't matter how well RSS works for its current users. What matters is how well it works for publishers.

It's not merely that Twitter is easier to subscribe to, that the feeds are easier to set up and serve (there's almost nothing to do; Twitter's engineers do all the work), that the Twitter link-sharing protocol is intuitively obvious, that Twitter has a legendary brand while nobody knows what RSS is, that Twitter clients show the actual rendered HTML of the linked page (complete with those ads) rather than an often-incomplete text teaser or a bunch of broken formatting.

No, the killer feature of Twitter is the viral loop. Any individual tweet can be trivially forwarded, or trivially broadcast to an entire hashtag. And every tweet or retweet is also a self-contained advertisement for its author and a call to action: It takes only one click to bring up the entire history of its author's Twitter stream, and only one click to subscribe to that author's future Tweets.

I think what Felicia (a girl BTW) is saying is that it's really easy to "subscribe" to someone's Twitter or Facebook feed, but not so easy to "subscribe" to a RSS feed, therefore websites are removing the RSS feed.

I personally don't want to "subscribe" to a blog via Twitter or Facebook. I agree with Felicia that RSS is the way to go, but how long will it last if it's so difficult to set up for the end user?

Just to clarify, I think the grandparent's "this dude" referred to mechanical_fish.

It is an almost trivial observation to say that those who don't understand RSS are condemned to reinvent it, poorly - but if you are going to reinvent it, why make it extra-difficult and do it using a proprietary platform and an as-of-yet non-existent client for that platform?

And RSS is a poor reinvention of Usenet. (But I support it.)

But it's got XML, so it's obviously better. (I kid.)

Because nobody planned to reinvent RSS. We can't even be perfectly sure that Twitter planned to invent Twitter! ;)

> Because nobody planned to reinvent RSS.

Indeed, there is not a lot of planning going on when developing brave new platforms. Lack of awareness or understanding of RSS leads people to devise strategies like Twitter lists and custom Twitter clients to keep track of periodically updated hypertext content they are interested in.

About the only thing Twitter-as-RSS does better than plain RSS is consolidation of multiple feeds into one easy-to-poll source which enables easier push-like functionality - essentially a Google Reader.

I found no combination of people with quite my taste on Twitter. There are always bits and pieces that get left out. My RSS reader gives me a more comprehensive overview and allows me to be more effective.

A better Twitter client won’t help with that: It can’t display information that’s not there.

My biggest problem with Twitter and Facebook is too much information. I am constantly pruning my RSS feed in the morning to be things I'm interested in right then. I need it to be a set of the most articles and web comics to me that I can consume in 20-30 minutes while I eat breakfast and drink my coffee. I want relevant information, but that cannot be solved by just throwing everything at me.

The last thing I want to do is sift through a bunch of @replys and find myself done with my breakfast but feeling empty.

I've been looking, and to a point, coding what I actually want from twitter along these lines, but I really don't think that type of client will ever exist for general consumption. Heck, finding a twitter client that actually goes back a day and grabs all the tweets since your last look is pretty hard (even some that claim they will don't. Twitter's crackdown on clients pretty much ended a good chunk of the innovation.

I guess I don't understand the full extent of Twitter's client crackdown. It's certainly a big problem with my line of thinking in this little thread. If Twitter clients can't innovate than Twitter is a dead end.

Flipboard, Paper.li, Editions, News.me, Zite, right? Or are you talking about something else?

In the ground principle, this is right, but I find they miss the compact and efficient (but a bit boring - and unsuprising in keynotes) list system. Twitter has understood it all.

I haven't tried aiming any of these things at Twitter feeds. Perhaps I should! Thanks for the tip.

We're actually working on this, really early stage but you can register your interest @ http://getchirp.com

Outside of those of us that love Google Reader, I have to imagine that Search Engines and numerous content aggregators are ingesting RSS feeds. Removing them is going to degrade your distribution immensely and likely affect your SEO.

I prefer RSS/Atom as it is a "distributed" way of handling feeds, rather than relying on a single centralised service.

This is why my website will always have an RSS feed. I also have a Twitter feed for people who want it, but I'd prefer people to use RSS.

My tech blog seems to have about an equal number of RSS followers and Twitter followers. I'm not sure how much overlap there is.

RSS is the most useful thing ever; if you hide it behind the a lovely interface and make the user forget about it. It's pretty hard to understate the efficiency that developers would lose out on, if RSS were to go. That said, I am mostly using Twitter to catch up with he latest news - it's so darn efficient

"Basically I’ve noticed a huge trend not only in websites moving away from RSS to Twitter and FB, but REMOVING IT COMPLETELY!"

So why not subscribe to the Twitter or FB RSS feed of their content. Or am I missing something.

facebook doesn't offer rss

There's a reason I use FB and Twitter vs. RSS feeds. Because its so damn dominant, a lot of sources post to Twitter and FB exclusively. Furthermore, if there's anything particularly popular/huge/breaking, FB's algorithm populates the top of my feed with it. RSS feeds don't do that. Different clients' "magic" function doesn't work properly. RSS has become spam to me. For exclusive news, I thus rely on social clients.

For major news sources like Gawker, IGN, CNN, what have you, RSS is still there and probably won't be going away.

If a website is good enough, its not hard to just make a screen scaper and turn it into an RSS feed.

This scrapes the HN front page every hour and is a lot easier to check:


Why, you could even have the screen scraper export to RSS!

Why, you could just use http://news.ycombinator.com/rss !

You realize I was joking...

RSS - the internet's great underrated 'killer app'


unfortunately author is wrong G+ did not remove feeds..

If you look at your G+ profile page in view source in any browser you will see a Buzz activity atom feed for it..

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