A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[FORUM] “Magazines have finally killed blogs — but in a way you never expected”

Annalee Newitz’ io9 article analyzing the reasons for the fall of Google Reader, and the RSS standard generally, makes some very interesting points.

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.

Agree, disagree?

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2013 at 3:59 am

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