RSS: A Reply

14 Jan

RSS: A Reply

Update: Added Addendum, Mozilla’s reply to the subject.

I. Forward

Apparently I started a massive hoo-hah over RSS et al, but I would prefer to see it as that numerous bloggers all twinged the same feelings floating around the blogosphere at the same time. I drew from the same subtle undercurrent threaded through the news of the day, like a counterfeit strip in a bank note, as they.

As is with corporate-backed tech-news, a lot of people were writing and only few actually contributing. I have apologised for the mistake I made in my article by ranting and not contributing (which will be cleared up in this article). I have waited to write this article because a lot of exciting things have been washed up in the proceeding churn, so I am to quote and link to a lot of the people that are contributing out there.

Dave Winer—RSS visionary—was kind to e-mail and suggest that if I wanted to do something about my complaints I could start a project to fork Chrome and make a browser that’s great at RSS. Personally, I don’t think this would get anywhere: (and that’s not to discredit Dave Winer)

  1. I don’t want to compete with browsers on browser tech; if all browsers look the same and do the same are we going to have a totally pointless brand war? We have six browsers all with incompatible extension systems. Maintaining a whole fork of a browser to change and promote only 10% of the functionality seems like too much wasted, centralised engineering effort; Google Chrome is gaining market share faster than the other browsers. Not only would you have to maintain a fork, you would have to compete with Chrome, which only adds more complexity to deal with for end users for the sake of pushing one feature

    (Update: Dave has replied and pointed out that what he meant by forking a browser is to show the browser guys how to do it. Give them something to clone. Work out the issues on the side, with users who really care, and publishers who really care. And then present it as a gift to Mozilla and Google. I fully accept this as a good idea, but I am not the right person for that job.)

  2. I don’t believe trying to change the browsers themselves would be effective either. Submitting patches to Firefox and Chrome will not work if there is nobody there willing, or interested in accepting them. Firefox and Chrome are only as open as Mozilla or Google are open to your ideas. Mozilla have bluntly refused to restore the RSS button by default, despite pressure from users. We have to first change the attitudes of Mozilla and Google if we are to change their code

I am an artist, not an activist. I aim to change the web by writing as few lines of code as possible. I could expend a lot of engineering effort—which is not my style—or instead do what I am already doing, changing people’s attitude of the web and what it’s capable of by writing about it and by demonstrating it. I’ve heard that my source code has already managed to change the opinions of some web developers, who have gone on to write using HTML5, which has gone on to inspire others and collectively raise the level of HTML5 discussion and demand, which pressures browser vendors into improving HTML5 support. HTML5 wasn’t considered “viable” for websites three years ago when I wrote my site, now it is, and it’s everywhere.

(That is not to say, obviously, that I was solely responsible for that, but that attitudes change and that there is always a dismissive mass who cannot see the pace of technology beyond the end of their nose.)

Browser vendors are interested in HTML5 because we are interested in HTML5. We need to all give a damn about RSS in order to get them to give a damn. In that sense, I think I have contributed, even if it’s not lines of code.

This article will therefore purpose to be “vague but exciting”.

II. RSS Is Not a Brand

There are armies of media companies, developers and investors out there, with dollar signs in our eyes, who can’t wait to usher RSS off to the deadpool. For one reason and one reason only: they can’t make as much money if we read their content our way—in Google Reader or the equivalent app of our choice—as they can if they can force us to read it their way—at their site, complete with scads of browser-clogging tracking scripts and ads galore.

Let me say it another way.

Anyone—and I mean anyone—who is concerned with the end user experience should be actively promoting and supporting RSS.

Why Big Media Wants to Kill RSS, and Why We Shouldnít Let It

Whilst I agree completely with the sentiment expressed here, such that it was better words than I could produce myself to open this article, the author trips up on one point in my opinion: Google Reader.

Of the feedback on my article, many (and I mean many) people tried to answer it with just two words: Google Reader, as if I had made some amateur gaff like calling a base unit a modem, or something.

Google is not a company that produces content; it merely aggregates it. Google News is not a news agency. Google Reader exists in order to try see the bigger content-flow picture that the individual person cannot see. A better understanding of user behaviour leads to better advertising—98% of Google’s revenue.

How is Google Reader any better than Facebook or Twitter? Google have zero interest in your being able to read the news anywhere other than on their servers, where they can know everything you read, every website you follow and every action you take. That is why there is no RSS reader built into Google Chrome. Without knowledge Google is powerless and a native RSS reader gives them no knowledge of you.

Okay, but you may say that you don’t care if Google are tracking such things, since all websites do this anyway and it doesn’t realistically impact you. We all allow this information collection to happen in some form or another; if I was dead set against such a thing then I wouldn’t be using the Internet, period.

I’ll have to demonstrate what I mean using other methods.

“We are in the AOL days of social networking”

I would change one main thing about this diagram: instead of “closed” and “open”, the distinction should be “vendor-centric” and “user-centric”. What turned AOL on its head was when the user gained control of where they wanted to go. The modern web browser put the user in the driving seat, and it beat the walled gardens in every way. The exact same is of RSS. Right now, Twitter and Facebook are in control of what you can and cannot see on social networks. RSS is the technology that puts you in the driving seat instead. You should be seated at the centre of your content and you should decide to which websites that content goes. How infinitely more elegant and simple this concept is, compared to having your data start in a silo and only come out through as difficult means as possible.

If I put stuff in Twitter, the only way to get it out is through a heavily regulated and always-changing API. It will change a lot in the coming months and years. It will certainly narrow more than it expands.

Dave Winer—What I mean by “the open web”

When a technology de-brands it covers the whole world. Twitter will never be able to serve the whole world, but the whole world does want to communicate in real time. Twitter therefore must, and will fall to see the next level of communication as common and as widespread as e-mail. RSS is not a brand.

Think of RSS as the equivalent of USB. It just says how components are connected. What the components do — that’s totally up for grabs. That’s where we want lots of new ideas to spring forth.

Dave Winer—You can get anything you want…

III. RSS Is Not E-Mail

I never said in my previous article that I want browser vendors to create a traditional RSS reader—like Google Reader—in their browsers; you readers assumed that. I don’t think such a thing serves end users, other than burdening them with more routine. I said there was a distinct lack of imagination surrounding RSS implementations, and this is exactly what I was inferring. Every attempt to make RSS readers “smart” only makes them stupider.

You do not read every article in a newspaper, from front-page to back. You skim. You know what is relevant and what is not relevant—the newspaper pages do not have to decide that for you. You do not have to tick off articles as you read each one.

Instead rather, RSS is as much a clue to how the site should be followed as CSS is to how it should be rendered. The browser already knows what websites you visit often and regularly:

Screenshot of Google Chrome home page with four website tiles shown

These all have RSS feeds. Why must the user act upon this, when the browser is smart enough to produce this list of websites I use frequently? Does not that imply that I check these sites daily already. Why does the browser not subscribe to these website’s RSS feeds in the background and tell me if anything is new or not right there, on the home page?

Why must we use hacks like “Readability” to clean up unreadable sites when there is RSS?
Try and spot the content on this website:

Screenshot of the Digital Daily AllThingsD website

Only the article title is visible amongst all of that… crap. Absolute complete and utter crap… scads of browser-clogging tracking scripts and ads galore.

A lack of helpful, auto-magic RSS processing built into browsers affects you, in concrete terms, by making the path of least resistance point to centralised (and spam-tastic) closed platforms. It is simply easier—and less difficult to explain to the uninitiated—to push a “follow” or “like” button than it is to copy and paste a URL into a feed reader.

The risk to the ’Web is not so much that open standards become extinct, such as RSS, but that more and more creativity, energy, and money goes into developing stylish, easy-to-use, incompatible silos.

Translated from Streit um Internet-Nutzung: Komfort schlägt Freiheit

Through indifference, apathy or plain inaction browser vendors legitimise closed platforms, even indadvertedly. Writing web code can not make open systems if the web browser is not providing open components. Don’t believe this? What of H.264 and WebM? If web browsers offered no option of open video, how could any video-based website truly be open? The same goes of any proprietary HTML / JavaScript API and file formats.

The web browser is the technology, and websites, the product. A website cannot innovate if the web browser doesn’t first. The browser innovates, and websites distribute that innovation to the user. Five years stagnation of Internet Explorer lead to five years stagnation of the web.

By pushing RSS to the side-lines browser vendors are stagnating the web.

IV. a New Hope

That is not to say that RSS is dying, merely dying in the eyes of the user. Twitter dominance won’t change browser vendors. Facebook dominance won’t change browser vendors. What will change them is a million individuals turning the silo paradigm inside-out. When the data is all out there on the web, free and open for browsers to scrape, then browser-vendors will begin to join the dots and start caring about the experience improvements they can make from all this unfettered data laying about. With this data currently locked up in silos, the browser is blind.

There are a number of people who are working on the next big thing, with RSS at the heart, and trying to get everybody around them to connect the dots up likewise.

RSS at the centre Schema © cc-by-sa Dave Winer

When we’re in the driving seat of our content, we won’t need to worry about RSS feeds that don’t include the whole article text, our feeds will. Our data will be whole, and not designed to drive people to ad-traps. Our data will be free to move from one place to another without restriction. Our data will live on the open web instead of kept within private silos with peep holes. We will join the dots together, here in public, and not behind closed doors to investors and advertisers.

And that’s all I want to say. If you want to see RSS make a big difference to the all users of the web then take part in self-hosting and putting yourself at the centre of your content. Invent new ways of using RSS and prototype practical uses of RSS for browser vendors. Blog, and change people’s minds about using RSS—get them excited. Get browser vendors excited. Make things. I created a forum made from RSS, where you can come to discuss ideas.

Let us not rely upon a clutch of brands to decide how we use the web.
Let’s rely on each other.

Kind regards,
Kroc Camen

V. Addendum

Mike Beltzner wrote:

Thanks, Kroc. Very well written and insightful.

One thing to mention, though, is your point about how working on designs and prototypes is a waste of time unless there is a browser interested in the implementation. That’s not fully true, IMO. Firefox, for example, is interested in anything that pushes the open web forward and helps users. We just demand that you show your work. We don’t claim to be right all the time or have all the answers, but nor will we bow to the pressure of a passionate and entirely well meaning few who have specific interests.

As Blizzard said, right now we don’t know what the future is for RSS. We know that very few of our users make use of our built in tools, and that specialized desktop and web applications are better suited. I'm pretty sure there are better ways than what we support for handing feeds discovered when browsing off to those apps (maybe we index all RSS feeds we encounter and then let the app access that index from which a user can then pick?) but we don’t know what it is. And since our resources are limited, we must push some things off our plates.

However, if a group steps forward with strong market data and proposals (or code and communities to work on it) of course we’ll consider it. The bar is high, but that’s the right choice, IMO.


Kroc Camen wrote:

It is my belief that you are doing more harm than good by removing the button. Actually, it’s my belief that your attitude that low usage == unnecessary is doing more harm than good. Only 2% of people use the site identity button. Should that be removed?

People can’t do good things with RSS if websites are not publishing RSS because browsers are not doing anything with RSS. If you leave the RSS icon where it is, it gives us authors a chance to innovate. If you put it out of sight, then we have an extra fight on our hands — in a web that has finally seen that UX is now cash-important, and the proliferation of mobile devices, screen estate is very important. If screen elements have to be removed to make room for the most important functions, RSS will be the first to go. Would you honestly expect every single mobile website to somehow cram in an RSS icon in their design? No. It simply won’t happen. Mobile will see put that RSS links in the viewport are old-hat.

Please consider delaying your decision to remove the RSS button from the location bar until the next version of Firefox, and wait to see what comes of RSS in the mean time. My article has highlighted that a movement is starting and maybe something will come of it. In the next version of Firefox you may finally feel see the results such that you will then have your prototype to implement.

Kind regards,
Kroc Camen.

Mike Beltzner wrote:

Sadly, I think you missed my point.


Kroc Camen wrote:

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.

Where are the statistics that prove the removal of the RSS icon has improved the browser?

I only see disgruntled users and near 100% dissatisfaction at the choice.

You don’t seem to be getting the point your users are making, right?

Christopher Blizzard wrote:

We have tools to measure engagement with parts of the UI. Have a look at:

for an example of what we’ve been able to see through our studies during the beta process. We’ll keep running studies over time as well and learn from the changes we’ve made. In our feedback channels there’s some mention of the RSS button being removed, but not a huge number of people tbh.

You’re an artist so you know that good art - and good design - isn’t always about numbers. And that the best design and art often makes a lot of people and a lot of people angry. That’s, once again, the cost of choice. So when you ask for statistics to prove, we can point to the work we’ve done to give us useful data, but it’s largely a design choice.

I would kindly suggest that since you’re posting about us removing the button you’re going to self-select into the group of people that is angry about it.


Christopher Blizzard wrote:

Hey, Kroc. I read your post and I like where you’re going with it. But I would say - maybe again? - that I don’t think that the answer lies at Mozilla or Google. If you want to experiment with what RSS should be in a browser then someone has to sit down and figure out what it’s going to be. In fact, it should be 50 people all trying different things to figure out what the answer will be. Whatever it is, or whatever those things are (different audiences will care about different things!) isn’t something that we’re going to figure out.

Let me tell you something that most people don’t know about add-ons. The reason why Firefox has add-ons is exactly the reason why we’re talking right now. When you’re building a product and making releases over time the hardest thing in the world to do is to remove a feature. A single checkbox. An arrow. An RSS button. People get upset, just as you are. That’s why these decisions are hard and always painful. (I suspect that Limi and Faaborg are probably, at the same time, the most loved and most hated people at Mozilla.)

We created add-ons with the original Firefox as a way to be able to say “no” in a constructive manner. If you want something that you think is important to you, you can make an add-on. Or you can use an add-on that someone else has made. The simple fact is that we can’t build a product that’s both universally appealing and universally useful. No one can. That’s why add-ons are such a powerful concept. They reduce the cost of features that everyone pays through defaults - the cognitive load - and lets those who need something extra be able to do it.

That’s the only reason why Firefox was as simple as it was and how it’s been able to maintain that feel over time. Being able to say no.

So why talk about this? Because it’s important to realize that with add-ons people have taught us more about our product and what people want than any other method. I talked in my other mail about using the heat map, and it’s a crude tool, but a useful one. But the real way to show what’s possible is to do something. If you want to build something new, go do it. Go learn. Get 20 people to build add-ons that change how the browser works, how people share information, how people browse. The platform is there for you to do it.

Removing the button from Firefox isn’t going to change the fate of RSS either way, I don’t think. I said this before and I still believe it. But the tools are there for you to go and figure it out. Or at least inspire other people to do it. To do that I think you’re going to have to change your tone from one that’s angry and pushing against Mozilla to one that’s inspiring others to talk about what’s possible. But I think you should be able to do that. Stop worrying about what RSS is today and figure out what it could be in the future.

Also note that Firefox and Chrome’s add-on platforms are wildly different. Chrome has a bunch of stuff, but you can’t do something like altering the entire look and feel of the browser. Want a new kind of browser? Check out what the vimperator guys did to Firefox:

I know people who run this way. If you want to alter the entire browsing experience start with something else. But we can’t do it - we don’t have the answers. It’s going to have to happen with people like you and the following you’re creating.


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