Standing up for RSS is a bit like getting excited about cat’s eyes in the road: they’re not something to be very passionate about, but you’d miss them if they weren’t there. I often see tweets and blog posts about RSS dying and it’s become one of those perennial debates in the tech world. Twitter and Facebook keep going back and forth. They will know from the chatter that if they did kill off RSS altogether, there will be a a lot of anger but it will be brushed off by many as just something the geeks are bothered about. Before long we might have forgotten we ever had it.
We should help to make sure that doesn’t happen.
So here’s my point of view – and bear in mind here I’m not a technical expert, but if I can use it, so can anyone else.
RSS – Really Simple Syndication – should be a basic learning progression for everyone using the internet. It’s a vital part of the open exchange of information and a powerful way for people to make sense of content that could otherwise overwhelm them. It refers to several different types of feeds. The technical details I don’t need to know, as long as I can see the stripy icon somewhere or some other sort of reference, I know the website has RSS. ‘Yum!’ I call out, as I right-click on the link and chuck it into my Google Reader account for future reading. If I can’t see an obvious sign of an RSS feed, I’ll put the link into Reader anyway and let it decide for me. Normally it’s there.
RSS is not hard to understand if you know that most web content is made up of databases. When you use an RSS reader or a widget to display an feed from RSS content, you are pulling out headlines from all those databases. So instead of having to visit every website, people using RSS readers can view all the headlines into one place. In addition, content can easily be displayed on the websites of anybody else who can add RSS feeds. This includes everyone who starts a blog in WordPress, Blogspot and most other platforms. Once you have learned to copy and paste and to look closely at URLs in your destination bar, you have all the skills you need to play with RSS feeds. Learning to hack URLs and adapt small sections of HTML is much easier than learning how to query APIs and safer than experimenting with widgets that require authentication.
After Talk About Local trainers have gone through the basics of adding a post and changing the theme, we normally move very quickly into adding RSS feeds in order to ensure that sites have rich, changing content, perhaps from the local paper. It’s a kind of scaffolding until they have found their own legs and can feed their own RSS into the growing UK hyperlocal ecosystem. Twitter feeds are often a part of that and Facebook page feeds can also be added, although rumours of the demise of both keep swirling around.
At risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I don’t know why Twitter and Facebook would restrict the free flow of headlines via RSS. Sure, in Twitter’s case the headline is basically the whole tweet and it may be about attracting people to their website where they can see advertising, but this risks alienating many users. RSS remains the best way for content to be shared and fed through to multiple platforms. Twitter cited security concerns, but Twitter is a tool for sharing content with the option of setting updates to private if you want to. In the same way, there is no particular reason why RSS shouldn’t also be available from Facebook pages and groups unless they are explicitly set to private. It’s an important part of web literacy to understand that if you wouldn’t share something in earshot of people you don’t know in real life, you shouldn’t share it online. That still leaves a lot that we want to share.
For people passionate about collating information in their communities, RSS is one of the most important tools at our disposal as increasing numbers of people hold conversations and share information online. Without RSS, making sense of it all is far more difficult and time-consuming.
Not having RSS feeds of websites is a backward step to the days when everything was locked away in HTML pages. It’s like being trapped forever in the last remaining local authority that pushes out its electronic content on files called 88843532.pdf. We might be able to rely on Google or our friendly scraper communities, but we shouldn’t have to. If headlines are the migratory birds of the internet, then Twitter should be the last organisation of all to clip their wings.
For all these reasons, we should be making a bigger noise about RSS. We should be making sure that people aren’t missing out on its usefulness and growing the movement of RSS and open web advocates that already exists. Anyone involved in digital inclusion should be taking a few minutes to talk about RSS with sparkly eyes, answer the questions and show that it is, indeed, really simple.
As well as writing some tips and guides on this site, I’ve collected some resources and write-ups people have done as they’ve found ways round Twitter’s gradual switch-off from RSS – naturally you can subscribe to the RSS of these links if you want to.
Many of you most likely to read this first (possibly on your feed readers) are much greater experts on this than I and indeed angry tweets like this one prompted this post. If you know of any places where we should be getting involved in campaigns to defend RSS – or if you have any other points of view or things I’ve missed – then please leave comments.
Let’s sing about RSS!