How RSS feeds lost the web

RSS feeds
How will you ever make it big? (Wikimedia Commons)

July 1 has come and gone: Welcome to the post-Google Reader world. For some of us, it is a poorer one, since we've had to re-wire our brains to consume words through a different filtering device. Others, like Ezra, have decided to dispense with RSS feeds entirely, figuring that they contributed to the narrowing of his media diet to a defined set of blogs.

Many more people, though, never adopted RSS feeds in the first place; even Google's numbers were on the decline. For all the moaning in the blogosphere, it's fair to say the average Internet user hasn't even heard of an RSS feed, let alone set up a web application to mainline content directly into their brains. Sure, services like Digg Reader and Feedly will make a go of the medium, but their eventual peak user base seems limited. Why did RSS never become universal in the way that Facebook has, and Twitter seems on track to do?

A few reasons.

1. RSS feeds are a linear stream of content. Even if you categorize different types of blogs, the idea is to prevent you from missing anything. Unless you're a reporter and need to consume all information about a certain subject, or just a true obsessive who's bothered by leaving anything unread, for the casual reader there's not a lot of marginal utility to a channel that puts it all in front of your face.

2. Web sites were never completely sold on allowing their stuff to be RSS'ed. Some of them offered a whole page full of easy-to-plug-in feeds, but others made it difficult, since somebody who reads the full text of a post in a reader isn't contributing a page view to your site--which is how writers get paid by advertisers. Some popular bloggers found that diehard RSS users circulated content much more widely, leading to higher readership overall, but if everyone read things through a reader, the online advertising economy would be much harder to sustain. So news sites were much more enthusiastic about adding a Tweet button or a Facebook Like button, because all of sharer's followers or friends would have to visit that site to see what the fuss was about.

3. As easy as they might seem to power users, RSS readers are a relatively sophisticated tool for navigating the web. Just like desktop e-mail and chat clients, there's a higher barrier to entry, and on an ongoing basis, they can feel like a chore--it's easy to fall off the wagon and not get back on. Besides, they solve a problem that most people don't even know they have. How many Internet users think, "Huh, there sure is a lot to read out there, where can I find a good RSS reader?"

4. Web sites are a lot better than they used to be. Readers are a great way to homogenize content that's hosted on disparate, ugly interfaces. But it's downright pleasant these days to read blogs hosted at the New York Times, Wired, or the Verge--or at least, there's less of a compulsion to strip them of garish colors and typefaces in favor of bland, featureless text.

5. People are narcissists. When someone shares content on Twitter or Facebook, their own message is primary, and the link comes second. Retweets and likes provide an endorphin rush of validation. That kind of active propagation makes the sharer a co-creator, and who doesn't want to feel like they were part of something's success?

6. RSS readers, as Andrew Chen points out, lack the kind of reply function native to a blog post or e-mail subscription. Your comments are visible only to your friends, so it's difficult to participate in a really public conversation--and even comment sections have gotten more valuable as the web's matured, making the opportunity cost a little higher.

7. The Internet is a hurly burly place these days (it was even in 2009, when Steve Gillmor wrote RSS's original obituary). There's joy in unpredictability, and excitement in the new, the simultaneous, the immediate. Which doesn't mean more dedicated readers can't balance their consumption with an RSS-based application that allows them to catch up on what they've missed. But for the most Internet users, the social online world is enough.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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