field notes, soapbox

Down with gated communities, long live RSS and the open web

I’m feeling newly hopeful for a way of being that was long ago pronounced dead, or at least dying.

As some readers will remember and some may not, before social media became the order of the day, there was RSS. It’s been around for a good 20-30 years. Today, even with social media in full dominance, RSS is still hanging around. And maybe, just maybe, at the twilight of civilization, post-decline of the social medias, there will still be trusty old RSS, which will have survived the nuclear age, like a stubborn irradiated cockroach. And this post is about why I hope it does survive and why I’ll do everything in my power to help it along.

RSS is a much more intimidating-sounding name than is necessary. It’s simply the name of a technology that allows you to subscribe to all the blogs you want to subscribe to–your friends’ blogs and huge famous companies’ blogs–in the same way, and aggregate the posts from those blogs in your own feeds that you organize, so that you can browse them together in an app of your choosing. You could just as well go and visit all those blogs/websites as often as you wanted to check for new posts. You could also subscribe to them by email (whichever ones allow for that). RSS reader apps just make for a nicer, more convenient and consistent reading experience where you can customize the font, color scheme, the way the posts are listed, and lots of other stuff. Plus you’re not forced to check your email as you check for new posts.

Calling this (eco)system “RSS” is kind of like if we called the internet “HTTP”–a holdover from the technology’s history that doesn’t really help express what it is–but until we come up with a killer name for the whole ecosystem, “RSS” is what we seem to be stuck with.

“What do you mean, subscribe to my friends’ blogs?” I hear you say. “None of my friends have their own blogs. Except for Rory, who’s a weirdo anyway.” Yes. That’s exactly the issue. When I was a teenager, I had a blog, and every one of my friends had a blog. What matters about that isn’t the stupid stuff we posted then, it was the questions of ownership, residence, and distribution: Who owns the stuff that you make and the words that you say? Where does it live? How does it get distributed? Everybody still writes stuff and shares stuff today. But we mostly do it in spaces where it benefits a powerful media/tech company more than it benefits ourselves. More on this in a minute.

What’s amazing about the RSS way of life is that it’s simply that: an open protocol, a communally-agreed-upon way of passing content around. No company owns it. No company owns the protocol, and no company owns the content. As a blogger, you can host your blog posts anywhere you want. You can sign up on any blogging platform and post there, for which there are many options–that’s the way most people have heard of and seen. But it’s also possible to just pay a website hosting service for a little spot on the internet and a little storage space, make a blog-website from scratch, and put it up. It’s even possible to not pay any service, but just to buy yourself a dedicated computer to keep at home, keep it always running and always connected to the internet, and put your handmade blog-website up on that computer. In that latter case, your website will be exactly as valid and accessible a website as any on the internet, but the ONLY entities with any say over your content or what you do with it would be the federal/state government, and your internet provider (Comcast/AT&T/etc) (and internet providers only really care that you’re not using them to do stuff that breaks federal/state law, anyway).

But no matter which of these methods you use, as long as you have a place where you package the content into the correct format for RSS, it can be read and subscribed to the exact same way that New York Times articles can be subscribed to. And as a reader, you can aggregate, browse, and read any/all blog posts using any reader app you want. You can even make your own app for this purpose, if you don’t like any of the existing ones! And no one is going to charge you for making use of RSS.

This is what’s known and referred to as the open internet, or the open web. Back in the day, it used to just be called the internet. We didn’t have to distinguish that it was “open,” because there was no such thing as a “closed” internet. But that’s what we effectively have now. What happened to RSS and the open web? Social media happened. In a process sometimes called platformization of the web, internet life came to be increasingly clustered and massed around just a handful of massive communities, each belonging to a huge company. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Medium. Plus whatever is searchable on Google–which, you’ve probably noticed, tends to be content from some ginormous, generic content site whose purpose in life is to get you to click on them from your Google searches, and is increasingly unlikely to be just an actual person who is interested in the topic. Social media took over to such an extent because it looked like utopia. It looked like getting everything we ever wanted, for free. But now we are starting to see the ways in which it has been costing us all along.

These social media platforms are gated communities. Even though you can view some stuff publicly, you usually have to sign up and/or download the company’s app in order to participate as a full member. The company holds all the content. They can wipe it at will; they can decide what to show each person and in what order and what it looks like; they can monetize it. They have your number. As somebody on the internet said: if you’re looking at one of these companies and you can’t tell what the product is, you are the product. We work for them. The days when a high-quality piece written by you or me–and hosted by you or me–had the same opportunity to get read as [whatever clickbait some billion-dollar company feels like promoting], seem to be in the past. And only now do we see the extent to which these companies’ optimizing for monetization and clicks also, as a side effect, happens to bring out the basest tendencies in us as a people.

Except: RSS never died. It just stopped taking off about a decade ago, because its momentum went over to the social media platforms. I had completely forgotten that RSS wasn’t actually dead, until recently a friend reminded me that it, in fact, still exists. A small, relatively quiet mass of people still use it; it’s actually quietly become ubiquitously supported by blogging platforms (pretty much every blog has a feed but doesn’t explicitly advertise it; you can see it if you try adding /feed or /rss to the domain name, e.g. for mine); and really nice reader apps for every device are still being created, maintained, updated, and used.

Actually, podcast distribution also works via RSS; it’s just hidden under the hood, so that you never have to see the letters “RSS” or even “feed” to listen to podcasts. You go into your podcast-consuming app, search their directory for a podcast, subscribe to it, and then you get the new episodes as they arrive. But the podcasts don’t belong to the app that you consume them in; those apps have little control over them. The podcasts are hosted wherever the podcaster felt like hosting them. And you listen to them on whatever app you feel like listening on. It works the same way with blog posts, and blog-post-reading apps.

(100% skippable digression: Maybe one day we won’t need or want to segregate our media consumption into apps by whether it’s in audio or text or video format. That’s how they seem to see the future at a16z (Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most famous and future-oriented venture capital companies; see the “Further reading/listening” section at the end of this post), and I myself now deliver my newsletter and most of my blog posts by both text and audio to accommodate the varying needs and preferences in my reader/listener community. Hey (engineer friends and product-manager friends), if you like the idea enough, you can make it happen–consolidated audio and blog post feeds. Or text comments/questions attached to podcast episodes, even attached to timestamps within podcast episodes, that could be shared across any/all podcast apps. There are SO many things to be done to help facilitate our evolving into a thinking, considering, interacting, listening community, rather than just content consumers or counts of listens/downloads/impressions for use in calculating advertising rates.)

My friend who reminded me about RSS also said, “I don’t understand how people consume the internet without using RSS. Do people just, like, remember to check the websites they like? What if they miss something? How can people handle the FOMO?”

My response was that the current dominant mental model for consuming the internet seems to be an entirely different one from the model he’s using: in the dominant model, there’s simply no concept of “websites you like” (or authors you like) whose content you are missing out on by not subscribing to them. Rather, what’s linked to by someone via one of the Platforms (Facebook, Insta, Twitter, etc) is ALL that exists. What’s not linked to on social media might as well not exist. Therefore, the only FOMO would be around missing a popular link on social media; there is no fear of missing out on something that is on the internet yet NOT on social media. Such a piece of content is, by the dominant mental model, unimportant and not worth consuming by the very fact that no one else you know has mentioned it. Value, worth, quality, and importance are first filtered pass/fail by social proof and then sorted by degree of social proof, with help from an algorithm that prioritizes monetization (aka clickbaitiness, likeability).

In all the years since my preteen blogging days, I’ve never completely let go of having my own blog or my own domain, even when I forgot about RSS. There’s something about it that feels as solid and real and centering to me as owning a plot of land feels to some people. But on the reading-and-consuming side, my practices have been pretty haphazard and disappointing for many years. I think I’ve only now hit the point where it’s too irritating to go on the way I have been, so I was finally motivated to sit down, set up an RSS reader, and start putting together a feed of my favorite authors (bloggers, thinkers, cartoonists, etc). And I’ll tell you how to do the same.

I like social media. I use social media (selectively and minimally). I think social media should be a part of life. But I don’t think it should BE life. I lament the current platformized state of the internet, the state of our minds while we’re consuming the internet the way we currently do, and the state of our dialogue on the internet. But I hold out hope that the current state is neither inevitable nor permanent. We can do better. It would be a gift to ourselves and it would be a gift to each other.

Here’s how you can try out the RSS way of life, and see for yourself:

Note: Like I said, the open web is a highly flexible world, so there are tons of possible ways to consume and create on it. I’m aiming my advice at first-timers coming from the social media world and perhaps looking for some quick, non-intimidating recs to get started.

Also note: the term feed can be slightly confusing, because it refers to more than one thing. As a reader, your feed is your pile of new posts to read. But a blogger’s feed is their pile of posts they’ve written that is available for you to subscribe to. So if they have a feed then you can add it to your feed. Got it?

Step 1: Pick the service you’ll use to put together your feed of what you want to read. I’m using Feedly, which might be the most popular one. (I read that on the internet.) It’s free. Sign up with them, and add your first blog that you want to subscribe to. You can always give it the URL of the blog’s RSS feed if you know it, or sometimes even just the URL of the homepage and it will figure it out; for ones that are at least mildly famous, they are already known by Feedly, so you can just search by name and it should show up. (May I suggest !)

Step 2: Pick the app you’ll use to read. This is optional, you can technically just do your reading on the Feedly website. But having a pretty app to read on is my favorite part. The simplest is the Feedly app, which they have for pretty much any device: iOS, Mac, Android, etc. There are nicer/different options for the different devices, so you can Google around. I’m using Unread on iOS, which has a limited free version but is fully unlocked for $20/year. So far I really like it.

Step 3: Customize your reading app to your liking. Font size, color scheme, what the list view looks like, whether it should automatically mark as read, and more! You can also note what kind of bookmarking, saving, or sharing your app supports.

Step 4: Add a few more blogs to your feed(s). With Feedly you can actually have up to 3(?) separate feeds on the free version, like if you want to organize them by different topics. If there are any bloggers you already manually check on, or subscribe to by email, you can start by adding them. Many contemporary [nonfiction] authors and many podcasters also blog, it’s all one little world. Whenever you read something that’s been shared with you and you really like it and the author has a blog, add them too. Personally I’m only adding individual bloggers for now, but pretty much every large media entity (news sites, magazines, lifestyle sites, etc) also has a feed, if not many. If you want to add those, there are a couple things to watch out for. First, you can expect a total firehose of posts which could be stressful. Some of these organizations separate their stuff into different feeds by topic, which would help, but it could still be too much. Secondly, if you subscribe to multiple news outlets, you could get a lot of duplicate articles. There are advanced strategies for smart-filtering that, but basically, I’d recommend starting slow and not overwhelming yourself. It’s supposed to be chill!

Step 5: Browse/read whenever you want to. Feel no pressure to read anything unless it stands out to you. That’s it!

BONUS STEP: Join the DARK SIDE and post your own stuff for others to subscribe to. The terms “blogger” or “author” or “content creator” are way too loaded. All we’re talking about is trying out the experience of posting some of the usual stuff–fragments, quotes, pictures, words, notes, reactions to a post you’ve read–somewhere outside of a gated community. We used to do this everywhere all the time, and have mostly forgotten how to. Poste Italiane runs on WordPress, but I don’t think I’d recommend it for a first-time blogger. I found it kind of intense to get started. At the moment I’m recommending Substack as the place to start a dead-simple, minimal, free, RSS-friendly blog, that can also automatically double as an email newsletter. I have no association with them other than that I made an account today to test it out. It only took like 10 minutes to sign up, have a first post up, and add the blog to my Feedly. (You can just use your main Substack URL, and Feedly will recognize it.)

One could argue for way too long over whether Substack counts as a “platform” or not (in the gated-community monetize-your-soul sense), but I’ve been following the company a bit, and they seem to have similar values to mine that I’ve expressed throughout this post, and to have the same beef as I have with the current state of media. Their business model is consistent with that as well. Ultimately what I judge based on is: as an author on the platform, to what degree do I have the feeling that I would be working for them? WordPress doesn’t give me the vibe that I’m just producing content that helps make WordPress look attractive, and Substack doesn’t give me that vibe either. I can’t say the same for other platforms (cough Medium cough). Things can always change with time, but that is my assessment for today.

If on the other hand I’ve converted you so effectively that you want to eschew anything resembling a platform, and to go all the way and just buy a domain and like FTP raw files to it, we can talk about that too, but I’m not going to explain that here. 🙂

In conclusion, the open web never died, neither in the back of my mind, nor in reality. It has always been there. We forgot about it and neglected it for a while, and we can un-forget it and we can use it, because we are finally starting to grasp the incredible costs of doing otherwise, of letting platforms mediate reality. Reclaiming the open web starts with resisting the next piece of clickbait. Don’t click on it, don’t stop to watch it, don’t like it, don’t share it. It starts with putting the work into reclaiming your attention, and deciding for yourself what you will feed your mind, and when, and how. It starts with posting one word, one sentence, in a place where it cannot be used to manipulate and capture the attention of your fellow humans for the purpose of the platform’s ad revenues. We sold ourselves, but we can buy ourselves back.

Further reading/listening:

WIRED: It’s Time for an RSS Revival — basic overview of the RSS landscape, with a tiny bit of background.

The Rise and Demise of RSS — a more technical history of the wars over the development of the RSS spec. If you don’t know what XML is, it could be a slightly frustrating read, but I think the overarching story is still potentially interesting if you don’t stress over the details.

a16z Podcast: Writers Writing, Readers Reading, Creators Creating — about new models for financing quality writing.

a16z Podcast: A Podcast About Podcasting — about the state of the podcasting industry.

a16z on Substack