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RSS: The forgotten protocol that still matters​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

It's not an exaggeration to say that my biggest influences have come from writers I originally discovered and followed via Link blogs and RSS - Real Simple Syndication.

For the past 20 years, RSS (as we know it) has given us an easy way for websites to syndicate their content, allowing readers to subscribe to the sites and sources they care about and have new content automatically delivered to them. For my money - no VC backed protocol or idea has come close to that level of innovation since.

The origins of RSS go back to 1999 when Netscape’s Ramanathan V. Guha and Dan Libby created RDF Site Summary, the first version of the RSS format. It was designed to allow websites to syndicate their content in a machine-readable format. In 2000, the RSS-DEV Working Group, which included the young programmer and internet visionary Aaron Swartz, helped transition RSS away from the RDF format to a simpler XML structure with the release of RSS 1.0. Technology writer Dave Winer at UserLand Software released his own updated syndication formats like RSS 0.92 and 0.94, sparking what became known as the "RSS fork" as different entities promoted competing versions.

Winer's RSS 2.0 specification released in 2002 emerged as the most widely adopted RSS standard, emphasizing "Really Simple Syndication" as the meaning of the acronym.

By the mid-2000s, most major news websites, blogs, and podcasts offered RSS feeds. Google even got in on the action, launching their popular Google Reader in 2005 and further fueling RSS usage. For writers, builders, thinkers - it was an immensely powerful tool. We didn’t need to manually check dozens of different websites each day - RSS delivered the content we wanted, when we wanted it. At the time, I was a teenager, just becoming aware of digital publishing through Daring Fireball and AbsolutePunk. RSS was a revelation.

For a moment - a brief moment - it seemed RSS might become the dominant way people consumed content on the web.

So - what happened?

First - the explosive growth of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which provided new ways for users to get a constant stream of information and updates (albeit via non-transparent algorithms).

Second - Google sunsetting its Reader product in 2013, which for many mainstream users was their only interaction with RSS. The internet is littered with the corpses of abandoned Google products, but if you ask almost any tech enthusiast, this stung the most.

If your entire Raison D’être is selling advertising space, it makes little commercial sense to support a protocol that essentially bypasses digital ads and encourages users to spend less time on monetized properties - like Facebook and Google. That the decline of RSS occurred with very little mainstream obloquy is unsurprising. When the tech giants took over the internet, too many of us were blinded by shiny object syndrome and simply let them build what they wanted to build, destroy what they wanted to destroy.

RSS didn’t go anywhere. It was just forgotten. It settled into a niche used mainly by tech-savvy folks, news junkies, and anti-algorithm rebels. And that’s a damn shame. But I would argue that RSS remains one of the most valuable and important technologies for anyone who wants to be intentional and proactive about the content they consume online.

When you rely solely on social media algorithms to determine what appears in your feed, you are giving up control and relinquishing your attention to platforms designed to monopolize as much of your time and consciousness as they can get away with. RSS readers put you in the driver's seat. You decide which information sources are worth your time and attention. You pull content to you, rather than having it pushed on you based on what some company has determined is likely to keep you scrolling.

Intention is more important than ever in an era of algorithmic legerdemain, misinformation, conspiracy theories, rage-bait, and doomscrolling. With RSS, you aren't at the mercy of trending topics and popularity contests. You can focus your attention on high-quality, thoughtful content from trusted and respected sources.

Using an RSS reader restores a sense of deep satisfaction, control and personal connection to the web that many folks have forgotten - or never experienced in the first place. RSS makes you the curator, the arbiter of your own attention.

Compare that to mindless, passive scrolling and swiping through social media feeds filled with content selected by unseen algorithms. On every social media platform, you are just a receptacle for whatever the machine decides you should see.

"Sure, that sounds great for a media nerd or tech geek, but I'm a normal person. Is RSS really for me?" I would argue that the answer is an emphatic yes, perhaps now more than ever.

In a cycle of polarization, filter bubbles, and alternative facts, being proactive and intentional about your information diet is an antidote to bullshit.

You can deliberately follow writers and outlets you respect. You can venture beyond the front page of the most popular mainstream sources to find a deeper cut.

There are no ads, no engagement-thirsty UI patterns, no invasive interference. Just pure, uncut, personally-chosen content delivered in a calm, orderly environment. It's the Marie Kondo method of information consumption - only content that sparks joy, delivered in a way that itself sparks joy.

By subscribing directly to someone's RSS feed, you are cutting out the middleman and establishing a one-to-one relationship with that voice. You see everything they post in your reader, not just what the algorithms select for you. You get their voice, their quirks, their ideas. In a sense, using an RSS reader is an act of resistance against the attention economy and a vote for a more open, more human web.

Give RSS a shot. Find an RSS reader with a user experience that you love (personally, Reeder 5 on iOS and Mac is my jam - and no, that’s not an affiliate link) and start cultivating your own feed. See how it changes your relationship to information and shifts your mind into a more intentional mode. I predict you'll find more satisfaction, more intellectual stimulation, and more joy in your online life. I know I have.

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