When Google recently announced it was killing the RSS reader known simply as Reader, a small corner of the internet went apeshit. The rest of the internet asked, "What the hell is RSS?" The answer to that question reveals a lot about why blogs are doomed to be upstaged by the magazines they tried to replace. Still, that doesn't mean magazines haven't been changed forever.
Illustration by Joe Alterio
RSS stands for "rich site summary" or "really simple syndication," and it's a web format that allows publishers to create a "feed" of media information such as articles, pictures, sound files, or whatever else you might like. RSS readers like Reader can subscribe to these feeds, and place them all in one, easy-to-access place where you can read or listen to all of them without zooming around on the web and visiting every website you enjoy. The "killer app" part of RSS feeds is that they automatically syndicate content to your reader — so every time you open your reader, it syncs up and receives the latest news.
But most people on the web aren't using RSS readers anymore. Reader was by far the most popular feed reader out there, and its user base had been in a steep decline for two years before Google decided to shut it down. So why did most people stop caring about RSS?
I think it's probably a generational thing, but not necessarily based on age.
RSS as a format and an idea grew directly out of an internet culture that many people online today know nothing about: Usenet. The creators of RSS grew up on Usenet, and so did its earliest adopters at the turn of the century when RSS was at the height of its popularity. Usenet was a text-based publishing system that allowed people to create newsgroups, kind of like group blogs or Tumblrs, where people could swap stories, news, information, pictures, and more. Like blogs, the topics of these newsgroups ranged from kinky sex and recipes, to microchip architecture and carpentry. And the way most people read newsgroups was to subscribe to the ones they liked so that they could ignore the thousands of newsgroups that were competing for their attention.
When Usenet was eclipsed by websites in the late 1990s, people from that world — many of them programmers — wanted to bring the freewheeling, amazing discussions of Usenet to the web. And thus RSS was born. It was a way to recreate that newsgroup reader feeling for the web. People would publish to their blogs, and you'd use your RSS reader to bring all their posts into one place and read everything at your leisure, in reverse-chronological order.
But most people using the web today don't have a history that stretches back to Usenet in the 1990s. When it comes to reading, their history is informed by two things: if they're younger, it's social networks like Facebook and Tumblr; and if they're older, it's paper magazines. And RSS is irrelevant to both experiences.
Certainly you could argue that Tumblr is basically really, really simple syndication. You find the Tumblrs you like, you subscribe to them, and poof they show up in your Tumblr profile view. Or you follow people on Facebook to get the same thing. But both Tumblr and Facebook are silos of information. RSS feeds can be generated by any publisher, from the New York Times and Blastr, to the Nature journal and your favorite obscure porn repository. Tumblr feeds come from, well, Tumblr.
In this way, reading Tumblr is a lot like reading a paper magazine. Every story in the paper version of Wired comes from Wired. It's the ultimate information silo.
That why RSS readers were so remarkable — they let you take information from everywhere and organize it however you like. Your Wired stories were filed in the same place as your Entertainment Weekly stories. Everything was mixed together in an information jumble. Of course it was your information jumble, but it was still often confusing, and required a modicum of technical proficiency to organize and cultivate.
Information in the world of RSS is not organized into silos that resemble magazines or social networks. And RSS no longer feels like the native land of the new web generation. And by "new web generation" I mean young people entering from Facebook, and older people entering from the world of print. For this generation, Usenet is not a touchstone. And so RSS has no context, and even less meaning to them.
As a result, magazines like Wired and the New Yorker have been able to transition more smoothly to the digital world than newspapers did a decade ago. They are porting their magazines directly into apps that silo content just the way paper magazines do. And many new online publications like Matter and The Atavist are following this model, creating apps that hold their content rather than syndicating them via RSS. Older publications like Huffington Post and The Atlantic are going the other direction: they are looking more and more like social networks.
Meanwhile the archetypical blog, which gained readers by sending out its RSS feed, is slowly becoming a digital anachronism. Of course a blog can be much more than a publication that uses RSS, but it's worth noting that the popularity of the word "blog" has declined in recent years just as RSS has. Nowadays it's more common to hear a blog referred to as a "website," or "online magazine" or just "a publication."
So where does that leave us, as we look to the future of media technology?
We are returning to a world where what you read online comes to you in silos. Instead of a feed reader, you can get an app that organizes your app subscriptions on a nice digital bookshelf where they look just like a bunch of paper magazines in a bookstore. But unlike an RSS reader, this app doesn't ever mix the content of these magazines up into a single stream. It keeps them separate. You have to jump out of one app and into another to read the next magazine on your shelf.
We are also moving toward a reading style that requires you to visit a specific site in order to read, instead of pulling all the articles you want into one piece of software. You go out into Tumblr and Facebook. You don't aggregate all your favorite Tumblrs and magazine articles into, one, unified reader. Everything is separate and out there, in the cloud.
This is how we used to read, back in the 1950s. You went out to a bookstore or magazine shop, bought discrete bunches of bound paper, stacked them on your table at home, and read them one at a time. Sure, you could browse a bit in one magazine and then move on to a comic or book. But you always knew you were leaving one and moving to the other. You rarely had the experience of sitting down and flipping uninterrupted through pages that revealed a comic, then a science article, then a piece of erotica.
Maybe this means that the web hasn't really changed the way we read very much at all. There was a brief deviation, at the turn of the century, when RSS almost changed the practice of reading. But then the old ways of reading took over. Which makes sense. It's hard to break the habits of half a millennium overnight.