Death of RSS readers? I don't think so.

RSSEarly on in my Web education, I discovered RSS, and it changed my news consumption habits completely. Thank God for Dave Winer. I don’t think anybody who knows of me and my work would be surprised by that, but RSS has not lived up to my expectations as a distribution mechanism for traditional news. I think this is traditional media’s fault, because we don’t see the benefits of playing the RSS game.

There’s a meme out there — and it’s been around forever — that RSS is just too complicated for the average Joe, that you need some technical chops to be able to use it. I sayBS. That may have been true at one time, but this is 2010, for crying out loud. If people can load apps, they can load an RSS reader. In fact, that’s what many apps are!

RSS doesn’t work for the masses, because the news industry doesn’t want it to work for the masses. Nobody has unlocked the secret sauce of monetizing place-based content, and so the best we can do with RSS is to make it a teaser tool, a way to get people to our websites where we can blind them with traditional online display or other marketing. This is a shame, for all it does is display our ignorance.

WordPress, that maker of many, many RSS feeds through its marvelous blogging software, announced this week a new form of reader service via called, cleverly, Subscriptions. The service is built upon the complexity meme:

Do you have trouble keeping track of all the blogs you read each morning? You may use RSS feeds to keep track, but those can be tricky to manage for a non-technical person…Let’s face it, keeping up to speed with multiple blogs is tougher than it should be.


RSS is the easiest technology around to manage. All you need is a simple RSS reader. The reason RSS hasn’t caught on is because the vast majority of “real” news isn’t available via RSS, only a headline and a snippet. Until this changes — and change it will — RSS readers will simply flounder with the general public.

In fact, Joseph Tartakoff at thinks they’ve already jumped the shark, but he’s not seeing the whole picture. He writes of Bloglines shutting down and adds that to shrinking Google Reader numbers to conclude “The Death Of The RSS Reader.” This, again, is bullshit, but here’s his thinking:

Likely to blame is that people are increasingly turning to services like Facebook and Twitter to manage what they read instead of RSS readers.

In announcing their decision, Bloglines referenced certain realities about consumer behavior. It’s pretty hard to disagree, but it doesn’t change the fact that traditional media RSS feeds are garbage.

Today RSS is the enabling technology — the infrastructure, the delivery system. RSS is a means to an end, not a consumer experience in and of itself. As a result, RSS aggregator usage has slowed significantly, and Bloglines isn’t the only service to feel the impact. The writing is on the wall.

I use RSS Graffiti via Facebook to share my blog entries with my friends on Facebook, so the above is correct in that RSS is the infrastructure for place-based distribution. But what traditional media is distributing is helping determine how feeds are used, and I still firmly believe we’ve just scratched the surface with RSS.

One of the real beauties of Washington’s is its RSS feed. It’s a great example of a new media company offering everything it has via RSS. Could you create a business model that would work for everybody, if this was the way media organizations treated RSS? Absolutely, but traditional media — like the record companies before them — are terrified of disconnecting content from its source. Do we really have a choice here?

Are readers dead? Hell no! Everything is becoming a form of RSS reader, and even those that simply pull feeds from wherever and display them in a box have a solid future, if and when media companies realize their value.

(I’ve used Feedreader for years, and I love it. Same with Viigo on my Blackberry.)


  1. I agree that a large part of why RSS is unattractive to the average user is that the content publishers choose to put into RSS feeds is often not very good, both from a content and formatting standpoint. One of the key principles behind Activorous ( is to turn the tables, and let the user define what goes into their feeds, with the whole web on the menu.

    Maybe a little pressure from other alternatives will force RSS to evolve — if not, the technology may be replaced, but the function of a feed reader will only continue to become more essential.


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