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Wait! What happened to RSS?!

Friday, 10 June 2022 rss webdev

While I was busy aging like soft cheese, someone killed-off* RSS.

It used to be everywhere, now it’s gone; hidden or dead. How do you kids stay up to date with the websites you like? Do you know what RSS does? How are websites supposed to advertise update-subscriptions?

Really Simple Syndication was invented in the Cretaceous period, roughly 100 million years ago. It enabled websites’ fans to get updates, quickly and easily. It got used for everything else too and remains a fundamental part of podcasting, but in the explosion of Web 2.0, it was a very serious part of websites keeping in touch with their user-bases.

I recently restored the Subscribe Icon back to the main navigation here when it started to dawn on me…

Do you kids know what to do with RSS?

Once upon a time, you clicked a link to a RSS feed, you’d see an option to do something with it: save a live bookmark in Firefox, or add it to Google Reader. Both long dead. There still are a clutch other readers today, but the automated handling of this, and seemingly the desire of browsers to handle this seems to have evaporated, leaving novices in the lurch.

If you click a link to my main feed, your browser might pretty-format the XML code but that’s all the help you get. Update: The raw RSS is now styled via XSLT so it does at least look better than a page of XML. More at the end.

You still need to plumb that URL into something. And that relies on you knowing what it is. So straw poll, please. If you don’t know anything about RSS, let this old doughnut know and I’ll stop pushing it. Ideally you’ll also have an answer to my next question…

How do you subscribe to websites in 2022?

I’m people so I’ll go first: I still use RSS. I use Feedly to get updates from about a hundred websites, and Hacker News, and I’m happy with my wash. This is how it’s been for a decade.

That’s where my consternation originated. Do people just consume what they’re now fed through Platforms: Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok? Would I have to hawk myself on each platform? I’m concerned that’s just feeding the problem. It’s not even apparent how websites are doing this either now. I know I’ve hacked together a few feed generators for websites without RSS, just so I can get updates.

I want to know how you handle updates. Please tell me in the comments or by email.

Why are Google, Microsoft and Apple so inactive here?

It’s super easy to blame “The Rise of Platforms”, but hard to ignore that the big desktop and mobile operating systems have done nothing to help. Browser vendors washed their hands of RSS. What’s especially galling is these companies run personalised news aggregation services, but none lets you add your own feeds. I’d think that each of them has a vested interest in reining back control of web consumption. Maybe the EU can mandate RSS support.

I don’t have a high note to end on here. I stopped paying attention and the world changed on me, and I can’t figure out why. I just feel old.

Update: Tell people what RSS is with XSLT

My biggest single complaint was that linking to a wall of XML would just confuse people. I don’t think we’ll convince any browser vendors to give us back RSS support in the short term, but XSLT came up a few times in your comments here, emails, and comments on Hacker News. Big thanks. XSLT is a templating and styling language for XML and it has good browser support.

With it you can transform an RSS feed into something that looks like a normal web page. And explain what to do next, if they don’t already know. My XSLT is super-simple, please have a look. I’ve dropped in a message explaining what RSS is, that you need an aggregator. It might be nice to offer email subscriptions from here directly one day.

* Is RSS really “dead” if you’re still using it?

A few people took exception with my leading claim that RSS seems dead. They’re still using it. You’re still using it. Bloody hell, I just said I’m still using it. How could it be dead?

Latin is a dead language. People who make a special effort still understand it, and some even use it, and there’s plenty evidence it existed, scattered through modern languages… But as soon as the Roman Empire fell, and the Western Empire rotted away, around 400AD, poor education meant Latin died off rapidly. Without the central push and steering, local languages took over.

Well… RSS is in a similar predicament. Browsers stopped speaking RSS. They don’t detect it. They don’t offer subscription options to users. They used to a few years ago. That has to have had an impact on the number of people using it today. It’s almost 10 years since the last spec revision. The number of services providing feeds RSS and iCal (another important protocol) has plummeted as proprietary notification protocols have taken over in disparate third party services.

If you’re not going with me, consider this: When was RSS last really alive?

I think this matters. It matters to me, and I’d wager that if you’re reading this, you probably still use RSS too. If we want it to carry on existing, being provided for us, we need to start thinking about the reasons it’s in decline —even if it’s not “dead”— and where is best to apply pressure to reverse that.