RSS Is Dying Being Ignored, and You Should Be Very Worried

03 Jan

RSS Is Dying Being Ignored, and You Should Be Very Worried

Update: More reworking of article. I stand by my convictions, but I have been wrong in my delivery.

Also, here’s a French translation of the previous version, kindly done by zar / teckee.

RSS makes it possible for me to check 100s of sites a day. I only actually implicitly go and read two, everything else goes through the RSS reader. If I didn’t have RSS then I wouldn’t bother keeping an eye on that many sites in the first place. Because me and you—dear technical readers—don’t have to suffer that routine anymore, it’s not reason that everybody else should. Bringing all the news updates straight to the user every day is a great killer feature that vendors should be waving from the fronts of their home pages! Browser vendors talk about their software helping users get the most out of the great ’Web; right next to “browsing”, RSS should be the second most important feature of browsers!

Imagine for example that on the Chrome home page, where sites you visit often appear, Chrome also was following the RSS of these sites in the background, and listing new news items for those sites on the home page, all without you having to do anything.

Google Chrome has no RSS reader. It doesn’t even try to render RSS, or even help the user with it in any way. It gives less of a crap than a French man smoking a cigarette in public.

Mozilla will deal the final blow that kills RSS off. In Firefox 4.0, there will be no RSS button on the toolbar by default (it has been moved to the bookmarks menu). Mozilla outright refuse to listen to their users on this matter.

The reason for this is that statistically, only 3%–7% of users use the RSS button on the toolbar. If not enough people use it already, then how many less people are going to use it if it’s not there by default? How many regular users customise their toolbar to add a button they barely use?

Mozilla’s mistake here is to associate low usage with user dis-interest. If people don’t use it, the feature must not be necessary…? To my mind if the feature is not being used it’s because it’s badly designed and needs a rethink. The majority of users are missing out on a wealth of information because it is currently too time consuming to be regular in their habits. If RSS were easier (or even automatic) to discover and use, it would save them hours browsing every day!

The problem is the interface, not the technology. Let’s face it, RSS sucks and browser vendors care about it almost as little as they do about CSS printing (hello 10+ year old bugs!)

RSS Icon

What does this symbol mean? How many regular users could name this symbol? None, I’d wager. If they know that this symbol means “RSS”, then what does “RSS” mean; how many users can explain that? Users are already adverse to clicking things they don’t understand so what do they think this symbol will do to their computer when it is not obvious a) what it is, and what it stands for, or b) what happens when it’s clicked? Will a dialogue box open? Will it ask questions? Will it print something? Will it ask for a name and password?

This symbol gives absolutely zero clue as to why it is present, what functionality it represents and how the user is supposed to use it.

The browser RSS button is the worst piece of UI since 2004.

This is a serious problem because a regular user understands Facebook and Twitter better than they understand RSS, and when browser vendors push RSS so far to the sidelines, companies will respond by replacing RSS with Twitter and Facebook accounts.

If RSS isn’t saved now, if browser vendors don’t realise the potential of RSS to save users a whole bunch of time and make the web better for them, then the alternative is that I will have to have a Facebook account, or a Twitter account, or some such corporate-controlled identity, where I have to “Like” or “Follow” every website’s partner account that I’m interested in, and then have to deal with the privacy violations and problems related with corporate-owned identity owning a list of every website I’m interested in (and wanting to monetise that list), and they, and every website I’m interested in, knowing every other website I’m interested in following, and then I have to log in and check this corporate owned identity every day in order to find out what’s new on other websites, whilst I’m advertised to, because they are only interested in making the biggest and the best walled garden that I can’t leave.

If RSS dies, we lose the ability to read in private

  • We lose the ability for one website we read to not know what other websites we read

  • We lose the ability for a website operator to be in control of what he advertise to his users, rather than having no control over the aggregator’s “value add”. If Facebook, Twitter and Google are the ones making the money on adverts attached to another website’s content, then where does that leave the website owner to pay for producing the content?

  • We lose the ability for websites to push updates to us on their own terms and infrastructure, rather than through closed APIs and flavour-of-the-month platforms. A website should be free to operate on the web without the requirement of additional unwanted accounts that need to be updated and managed and adhered to. If every website on the web has to have a Facebook account in order to exist in practical terms, the web is dead—competition is dead

    Every website should not look like a NASCAR advert for every sharing service in existence. One RSS button should do everything

  • We lose the ability for us to aggregate, mash-up and interpret news without having to go through a closed API that may change on a whim, or disagree with our particular usage

  • We lose a common standard by which content can be aggregated. A developer should not have to be fluent in Twitter, Facebook and a million different private APIs just to aggregate content from different websites you read

You should be writing to Mozilla, Google, Microsoft and all browser vendors to demand a first-class RSS experience baked in to your browser so well your grandmother could use it.

RSS Is the Browser’s Responsibility

More than one person has already said that I’m somehow hypocritical because my website doesn’t have RSS, it does have RSS! (here) You are probably not seeing it because of the very problem I’m talking about! Browser vendors are hiding RSS auto-discovery to the point nobody is aware it exists. I don’t have an RSS button in my HTML because it’s in the <head> and it’s up to the browser to do the best thing based on the user interface, operating system and device.

There isn’t enough screen space on mobiles for every website to use their own RSS button. Relying on the web author to present RSS is not going scale. Too many different websites, too many different designs, too many different platforms, browsers and devices. It is far better if browser vendors do what is most appropriate to the browser’s user interface, that the website itself can’t see, can’t change.

There appears to be a distinct lack of imagination going on with RSS. RSS does not have to be RSS shaped and look like RSS and do RSS things.

Why can’t, when you visit a blog article, the browser reads the comments RSS, and when you next come back to that article, it can tell you that there have been new comments since, and highlight them on the page?

Why do we go through the same daily routine of checking certain sites over and over again? Can’t our computers be more intelligent here? Isn’t the purpose of the computer / browser to save us time!? Why doesn’t the browser, when you open it, tell you how many new items there are, on what sites you commonly visit, without you having ever configured this?

You cannot do that with a web app like Google Reader. It cannot look at your whole browsing history like the browser can. It cannot tie together your bookmarks and RSS. It cannot make decisions for you based on what other sites on the web you visit often enough. Only the browser knows everything about you, and tries to prevent one website knowing what other websites you’ve been on. Only the browser is central and trust-worthy enough to be aggregating your information without fears of beaming it to advertisers. Only the browser can join the dots and empower the user, rather than entrap them.

When Mozilla release Firefox 4, then RSS auto-discovery moves out of sight from the most popular modern browsers. IE9 will add HTML5 (allowing IE users to see my site for the first time), but follow suit in removing the RSS button from view. I will be forced to add RSS hyperlinks to my HTML, which clutters up my website and links to a dumb page that doesn’t do anything helpful, or just doesn’t display at all. It confuses users, it wastes space and worse—it’s a really stupid way to be handling such incredible time-saving technology that should be part of every users’s daily interaction with their browser.

What Can Be Done

I’m open to fair representation, and actually quite honoured to have Mozilla’s Asa Dotzler defend Firefox on my forum:

How about spending the same energy you did on this rant coming up with a better design for RSS features and submitting it to the browser vendors who accept feature requests?

Asa Dotzler

This, I always knew would be the open retort, which is why I had staved off from writing this article until this point where I was finally too sick and tired to hold it back. I owe it to myself to put forward some good suggestions and will make it my aim to do so in due time.

Your post suggests over and over rss auto-discovery is being killed when it isn’t. You no more today have to add an RSS button to your page than you did a year ago. The UI for RSS has actually improved with a menu item that makes it clear what RSS is “subscribe”.

RSS never had a button in the toolbar. It had an icon in the addressbar. Now it has a full menu item in the bookmarks menu with a clear description of what it is “subscribe.” something it lacked before and which makes it far more discoverable than the little orange chicklett in the addressbar.

Your rant is misplaced. Mozilla, with the creation of live bookmarks and the first high-profile placement of the rss icon has done more to promote RSS than any other piece of desktop software. The UI, as it was — a tiny orange button in the addressbar wasn’t helping users use the feature so it was removed. Better UI, a menu item with a real description of what RSS does, “subscribe” replaced it. That’s a positive step, not a negative one. Though it may be encountered by fewer users, it will make much more sense to those who do encounter it.

Live bookmarks, the best RSS feature implementation I've seen to date in a web browser, is still there. Auto-discovery and a “subscribe” menu item is there. Mozilla has improved the design of RSS and you’re ranting as if they’ve killed it.

Asa Dotzler

My only response to this at this time is simply that what exists in current browsers isn’t enough. E-mail was once inaccessible to regular folks, now it’s an essential part of their day. I believe that RSS can also be every bit as important as a tool for browser intelligence to make the web easier and more user-centric.