The Guarantee of RSS

It’s now been two days since Google has announced it is killing off Google Reader, and everything on the issue of RSS has probably been thrown out into the waves of the internet, pushed back and forth, come back to shore, and been pushed back out to sea again. People have both declared that RSS is dead, or that RSS will experience a rebirth. In some ways this is simply a ‘geek’ issue, and probably most ‘normal’ internet users have never used RSS or have any idea what it does. Yet, there still are millions of users that actually do use RSS, including myself. For them, this is an important issue, and having RSS disappear would fundamentally alter their internet experience.

To me, the main benefit of RSS is a guarantee with the user. If you put a feed from a website into RSS, you are guaranteeing yourself that you will see every single article that comes through that feed. You can choose, if you want, to ignore most of the articles and only read the ones that interest you, but there won’t be a time where an article will fall through the cracks, because it’s guaranteed to be there until you read it or mark it read. This appeals to people that like structure and order, and want everything nicely placed in one spot for them to read at their leisure.

However, the trend on the internet now seems to be going away from the order of RSS, to a social free-for-all, in which you simply encounter any articles you want to read by chance or by obsessively checking all your social networks. This is a fundamentally different experience than using RSS, and lets so many potentially great articles slip through the cracks for many people. If you use Twitter as a replacement for RSS, by following all your favorite sites and blogs, you miss any article they post when you aren’t on Twitter. Even if you are on Twitter all the time, the stream sometimes becomes so glommed up with other tweets you might accidently miss an article that flashes by. Thus, there is no guarantee you’ll see every article on a site you follow. This is the same for most social sites, including Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr.

I realize some may argue that articles that are worth reading will naturally be relinked and retweeted so many times that you are bound to naturally encounter them. However, that assumes the popular articles are always the best, and the ones you always want to read. I think that’s wrong, and there are many times an article can really interest me, even though no one else is linking to it. Simply relying on popularity as the measure of what articles to read can lead to a homogenization of content that only appeals to the widest possible audience and marginalizes smaller, more specific pieces.

This is why I think RSS must continue, and can never be replaced by any current social network. It’s the only method to guarantee you will see every article a site you love publishes, and it will be nicely organized and saved for you any time to want to check. Social networks like Twitter can never replace that, at least not it their current form. The only alternative if you want that guarantee is to actually personally visit every site you want to follow, every day, which is the chore RSS sought to relieve people of in the first place.