This blog has just turned 9 years old, and for the majority of those years it has, like virtually every other blog in the world, provided an RSS feed for people who wish to subscribe so they don’t have to manually check the site for updates.
A feed is a machine readable version of a blog (or any other kind of regularly updated site) which allows the content to be reproduced in other contexts; eg you can see my posts in Google Reader here. This would be fairly pointless if you only read my blog, but if you read 10, 100 or 1000 blogs, you can read new content as it appears, from all of them, all in one place.
Unfortunately, even though blogs have offered these feeds for more than a decade, hardly anyone uses them. A minority of my personal acquaintances have the faintest clue what an RSS or Atom feed even is, let alone how to use it.
And so for this reason, whenever I create a new post I go and post a link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+. Do you know the main reason why anyone over the age of 15 uses any of these services? I’m pretty sure it is simply so they can keep abreast of what their friends are thinking/doing. That’s why I use them anyway.
I’m not claiming that Facebook et al don’t offer functionality beyond that covered by blogs with RSS feeds, but it pains me that there are hundreds of millions of web sites out there with built in facility to subscribe directly, and yet so few people use this feature. Instead every entity that wants to be followed must create a stupid page on FB so people can friend or follow them there. And Facebook is a horribly overgrown privately owned walled garden which is designed to suck people in and then discourage them from going out again.
So what if I decide I hate Facebook (which I do) and don’t want to have an account with them? Can people on Facebook follow me anyway, seeing my updates on their wall just as they would those of their friends? Long answer: possibly, with the help of some jiggery pokery and maybe an app to facilitate it, but short answer: NO. Anyone who doesn’t know what RSS feeds are and what Google Reader does is not going to know how to achieve this. Same goes for Twitter and Google+; if either of these services has a means to subscribe to a third party feed, they sure hide it well.
Worse still of course is that even people on Facebook can’t easily follow people on Twitter or Google+, and the same goes for the other way around.
Is this not almost as stupid as email in the 90s when everyone’s mailbox was tied to their ISP, and they couldn’t easily move somewhere else when they realized that this was incredibly restrictive? When I see someone still using a @bigpond.com.au address, I just feel kind of sad for them. I had a few of those addresses, and of course they are long gone now, along with the messages I received.
My hope is that Google+ entering the Social space will put pressure on all players to allow for some level of interoperability (and transferability) for people who don’t want to be locked in to any particular provider or platform, nor to have to maintain accounts on several in order to remain visible to people they want to stay in touch with. In reality there is no sign yet that this will actually happen, and so far Google+ has simply caused Facebook to fart itself awake, steal a few ideas (tit for tat), then roll over and go back to sleep, secure in its obscene level of control over how people interact with each other online.
People I blame for the stagnation and lack of awareness about feeds:
- Google. They own Blogger. Their online feed reader is the biggest and possibly only serious contender for online consumption. And yet when you download Chrome, Google’s own browser, it actually has no built in ability to detect or subscribe to feeds. Even if you click on a feed-link using Chrome, nothing useful happens.
- Dave Winer and the rest of the grumpy old men (aka the “blogfathers”) who spent a lot of time pissing in the wind about whose contribution was the greatest and what the letters RSS actually stand for, and whether they should play nice with the competing Atom standard, without seeming to notice what an unbelievably terrible job they were doing at making people aware of it. Like classic old-school nerds, they ranted about it being the greatest thing since sliced bread while still revelling in the hard-core aspect of it being only for those in the know. If you really want everyone to use something, write a decent spec and then set it free (and don’t make it sound more complicated than it is, you stupid nerds).
- Moveable Type. For being the most hideously bloated and brittle blogging platform imaginable and confusing the shit out of everything with trackbacks and pingbacks when they should have been focusing on really obvious problems like how does one easily subscribe to the replies that might be made to a comment you leave.
- The human brain‘s inability to take on even the simplest of technical concepts without having it jammed in your face. I freely admit it probably would have taken me a long time to “get” RSS/Atom if I hadn’t decided to be a content provider, thus making it imperative that I work out what all this feed business was about.