A love letter to RSS

Netscape first released RSS on March 15th, 1999. 25 years ago today.

RSS is one of the cornerstones of the open web. Just think about how often you've heard "Listen and subscribe from wherever you get your podcasts" and what that statement actually means.

Podcasts using RSS as their distribution protocol means you can use your favourite audio player software without worrying about missing out on content because it's unavailable on that platform. At least, that was the case until Spotify and others began putting podcasts in walled gardens. There's an argument that what Spotify calls podcasts are not technically podcasts anyway, as they don't come from the RSS region of the internet. They're just sparkling radio shows. And their flagship shows are far from sparkling anyway, so I don't really care, but it's the principle of the matter.

The main reason RSS isn't as huge as it should be, or was ten years ago when Google Reader shut down, is that it works at odds with the business goals of big technology companies. RSS actively harms your strategy if you aim to keep people on your platform for as long as possible. With RSS, people can consume content in whatever format they want on third-party platforms in a way that suits them, and we can't let that get in the way of advertising and engagement metrics.

RSS is different from social media. It's for creators, artists, writers, scientists, coders, bloggers, and fans—the people who want to spread the word about something interesting without fighting the algorithm.

It's also a great protocol for keeping track of technology. Release feeds, discussions, news, etc. If your job involves maintaining codebases, then RSS is indispensable. As a consumer, it allows you to curate feeds of things that truly interest you.

Like many core internet technologies, such as HTTP, WWW, and email, RSS harks back to an earlier idea of what the internet could become: an open, decentralised internet defined by protocols, not companies. An internet where content is linked by hypertext, and how that content is consumed is entirely up to you. A great example of an evolution of this idea is the ActivityPub protocol that powers the Fediverse.

So happy 25th birthday RSS. I'm glad you're still out there doing your thing.

I like promoting the tools I use, and I'm a happy customer of Inoreader for RSS and Pocket Casts for podcasts. You can also subscribe to my RSS feed here.