You can call me a dinosaur, but I miss RSS. After a few years of break, I logged in to Feedly to find the world as it was back in 2014. There were even a few interesting articles I had saved and then forgotten - for example, “Sketching as a professional practice” from Futurcice’s blog (the link is dead and I couldn’t find the post anymore). This demonstrates one beautiful aspect of RSS feeds - you can easily store it and I was able the read the article even though it might have been abandoned by the original publisher already.
Based on the Feedly snapshot, six years ago I was interested in Java, Delphi, software architecture, UX, game design, and game development (LibGDX). A bit more surprising one was about becoming a public speaking pro
I was a Google Reader user back in the day and continued using it until its shutdown in 2013. I switched to Feedly with many others, but it didn’t feel the same. This was the time Google+ and other social networks were trying to do better than RSS was doing (by letting algorithms decide what you see and creating ad money), and those services felt fresh and useful - after all, they also let you discuss about the shared content: It seemed to be more about interactions and I tried to embrace that.
Google+ had somewhat interesting start and it seemed to attract professional users, but then it just faded away. Twitter has been a good source for following new things and even for conversations, but somehow it has become more noicy and things like Trump and COVID-19 just bury everything else.
Declining Popularity of RSS
Google didn't kill RSS, the decline on RSS popularity had started much earlier as you can see from the Google Trends graph:
Vice has a good story on the history of RSS: The Rise and Demise of RSS - VICE.
I understand completely the declining popularity of RSS - it is not for everyone. It requires work to set up your feeds and filter them. The result can, however, be much more interesting than if you only see “trending” or “most read” content. Using algorithms to provide that service makes sense: A lot of people want to see those entertaining stories of the day as easily as possible, and there is nothing wrong with that.
What is concerning is if you don’t have other options anymore. Sometimes you need to be following a lot of content trying to find those small bits of information that are important to your specific use case. Twitter was the news aggregator for me for a long time, and still is. It has been a great way to follow researchers and smart people from my field of work. The amount of noise has just become too much, and I’d like to separate the daily chat from the other content.
That’s why I’m returning to using RSS, or at least I’ll try to. Luckily a lot of websites still provide the RSS feed. Unfortunately for example, Google Scholar or article alerts at Tampere University do not. That’s exactly the kind of content that would benefit from an easily aggregated feed. Others have realized the problem as well, for example:
- Cambridge University Press Pulled its RSS Feeds — Bloggers and Publishers, Please Help Your Readers – CogZest.
One option to solve the problem is by using email.
A lot of services that do not provide a feed, provide alerts via email or newsletters. Some of the RSS feed aggregators already support using newsletters as a feed and some services allow you to turn email to RSS (for example Kill the Newsletter!). Based on a source on Feedly’s Slack channel, Feedly is also adding support for email sources, which is great news. Additionally, various services try to add an RSS feed to the sites that are not publishing it, like RSS Feed Generator, Create RSS feeds from URL. The problem with this seems to be that they are not big and established players. Of course, publishing feeds from other website’s content can be problematic from the copyright perspective, which might limit business opportunities on this area.
Brian Barrett from Wired published a post on 2018 with a title “It’s Time for an RSS Revival” - I hope that it is and that RSS feeds are not going away. It might need to evolve, to maybe support content publishers better as described in Techcrunch: “RSS is Undead.
The problem of RSS feeds is the lack of analytics, missing ad revenue, and missing branding. As someone not making his living on publishing, I'd say that the content should be the solution for these: You are not forced to publish the whole story in the RSS feed, and the content itself should be the thing that draws people in - they will be happy to see your publication in their feed and click it to go to your website.
I subscribed to Feedly Pro+ (because I'm interested in Leo) and look forward to seeing how it goes. Update: I had to cancel Feedly subscription, because it didn't contain all the features I want in Pro+ tier, and business is not feasible for individual users. I like the Feedly UI and what they are doing, but for my use case it's just not the perfect choice. I have a trial on Inoreader now.
I’ve also started to gather some tools to help finding and getting those RSS feeds and I’ll share them in the future. I must admit that the beginning has not been very convincing. A lot of scientific article publishers have removed or abandoned their feeds.
For news aggregators, machine learning and AI brings opportunities, paywalls and dying feeds threats.
Future of feed aggregators
If I'd try predicting something about the future of feed aggregators, I'd say that the focus will drift away from RSS: Newsletters, API integrations and web crawling will be the main source for updates, and the hardest part will be copyright issues. For now for example Twitter is easy, because they provide a great API to use. Scientific publishers on the other hand are mainly providing only email subscriptions for paying customers - you'll not get an RSS feed even if you pay. On top of feeds you can build services like Leo - AI to help get alerts and filter out duplicates and unwanted headlines. Those are only second tier features, because without the feeds they are useless.
Up until recent years feed aggregators have been able to concentrate on the feed aggregating and processing part, but in the future they are forced to build capabilities to build those feeds as well. Otherwise their users, and they as a service, are depending on other services to provide those feeds. It cuts away large portion of users
So, maybe feeds are not the future, but I'll try out if it could be for me.
Updates to This Text
18. May 2020: I switched from Feedly to Inoreader, because Feedly is not yet able to include newsletters and doesn't generate feeds for websites that don't offer it. Inoreader is also cheaper, but misses the AI features.
24. May 2020: Daniel Miessler published a post with a title "It's Time to Get Back Into RSS" and did a much better work describing why RSS is great. He also encourages people to log in to Feedly and try following some RSS feeds. I'd like to add that Inoreader is also a great option if you have problems with the limitations in Feedly's free tier.