The problem with RSS

RSS logoGoogle shuts down its RSS reader soon, and this has the usual suspects talking about what’s “wrong” with RSS. I’ve written much about the technology, and I’ve always been an enormous fan. Dave Winer basically invented the concept of moving content around the Web sans formatting, and it’s always “worked” for me. I built aggregators in Nashville that were enormously popular among the web crowd, and I’ve supported Dave at every turn. Dave likes news rivers, and I do, too, but I don’t believe that’s the best use of RSS. One of the interesting things about RSS is its versatility, as Dave explains:

“…people who believe in mailbox-style RSS readers are in a RDF. If I say “I like a river style of news” they almost explode in passion and sometimes rage. They tell you what they need. At length, in great detail. I never understood why they do this. But I have found the solution. Just say ‘Hey I can have a river and you can have a mailbox and the earth will still revolve around the sun, birds will sing in the morning, people will fall in love and have babies, etc etc.’ My getting what I want won’t effect you getting what you want.”

In my view, RSS is an XML software that stands alone in the distribution of unbundled media. The reason it hasn’t blossomed into what it could be is that the people who make the content that we presumably want to read/watch make their money via THEIR infrastructures, not the content directly. Therefore, they are disincentivized to participate in anything that lessens the need for that infrastructure. This has led to media companies using the “headline and couple sentence” format in their RSS distribution.

Imagine Twitter being handled this way. Instead of 140 characters, everybody sent just 40 characters, with the requirement that the user had to click on the Twitter item in order to read the remaining 100 characters. Obviously, that would be a pain-in-the-ass, and Twitter would soon cease to exist. This is different than tweets that contain links. In my example, access to the link would be beyond the first 40 characters. To me, this has been the misuse of this great piece of technology. I profoundly believe in full-feed RSS. To me, that’s its most powerful product, and until we find a way to play in that environment, RSS will never reach its full potential.

The dawn of so-called “Native Advertising” could bring with it a market for distributing this kind of content via RSS, and that might open the flood gates of revenue for entrepreneurs and those who make the content.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


  1. The concept of Native Advertising makes me want to put my head in a tumble dryer. At first I thought Wikipedia was going to tell me about companies creating exactly the kind of content they would like to sponsor, rather than creating advertising to interrupt the kind of content they would like to sponsor. That would seem an intelligent approach. Instead of trying to match their brand to something which was approximately correct, they take control, dis-intermediate, and follow an approach which suits the medium and it’s users. It’s better targeted. It’s more relevant. It’s more efficient. Cheaper if you want it to be. The internet comes of age. And I thought, why use the word “advertising” in the name? It’s not really advertising. It’s just sympathetic, resonant content that is an expression of a brand in the same way the content people create and edit is an expression of them. Hey, here’s another approach: brand curating. Instead of creating content you curate it. This also beckons every person you curate. Then I read further and discovered Native Advertising was about slight tweaks to analog-based advertising using digital media. This prompted the tumble dryer image, which was accompanied by a silent scream of despair, a chair spin, and ultimately a face palm. (Then self-doubt.)

    I love RSS. And NetNewsWire. I don’t understand how people function without RSS. It is the life blood of the internet. But I need my smart phone to sync to my desktop at all costs. I pay for a separate offline reader from buying But an RSS service that combined syncing and ‘read later’ seems like a good option.

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