Updated: This past weekend saw the birth (or rebirth) of a “meme” about how RSS readers are dead, killed by Twitter and Facebook. At first I nodded my head in agreement, because I’ve gradually stopped using my RSS reader as much since I became an active Twitter user, and I know many friends who fall into the same camp. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the two serve different functions for me, and while they overlap to some extent, I am still using both and will probably continue to do so. In that sense, RSS isn’t dead, but merely evolving — much like the web itself isn’t dead but just evolving.
How it started
The “RSS is dead” battle cry got its start with news last week that the owner of Bloglines — IAC InterActive Corp. is shutting the service down. Bloglines was one of the first popular standalone RSS readers, before Microsoft and Mozilla built RSS support into their browsers (which I’m not sure anyone uses any more either, come to think of it). But is the death of Bloglines really proof that RSS itself is dead, or that RSS readers are in decline? As more than one person has noted, IAC more or less ignored Bloglines after buying it, and it probably deserved to be put out of its misery.
Adding fuel to the debate is the fact that Google Reader visits are also down by about 27 percent year over year, according to recent data from Hitwise. It’s important to note, however, that these numbers represent just visits to the Reader website rather than access through various mobile apps such as Reeder, or through services such as Feedly, which I expect growing numbers of people use. External apps and services such as these are arguably a necessity for Google Reader, because the website itself isn’t what you would call user-friendly, despite a number of enhancements over the years. (Update: Google has published a post showing continued growth in the number of users of Reader).
It’s also worth noting that RSS readers and RSS itself are two very different things. Even if the readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader are being used less, the content-syndication protocol itself continues to be a key part of the plumbing of real-time publishing (along with newer standards such as PubSubHubbub), and is connected to Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms in a variety of ways. So many people are still getting news via RSS whether they realize it or not. And on top of all that, RSS readers — like many other tools that appeal primarily to geeks — arguably never had a hope of going fully mainstream in the first place.
Dave Winer — the guy who actually invented RSS — has a thoughtful post about how RSS can be rebooted, and why RSS readers may not have taken off with a mainstream as some hoped they would. The big reason, he says, is that readers such as Google Reader aren’t real-time enough, in that they don’t give people the newest news in an easy-to-consume fashion. Twitter is more popular, says Winer, because it is real-time, and so in order to compete, RSS readers need to adopt something more like what he calls the “river of news” approach, which he has built into a number of experiments such as the New York Times river.
Although I respect Dave’s opinion, I actually think there is a place for both approaches. I may use my RSS reader less, but I still use it, and I think I will likely continue to do so (although Stowe Boyd may be right that they need to be rethought. While Twitter may be more real-time — and built for consuming news in a way that relies on the principle that “if the news is important, it will find me” — there is still a place for moving outside of Twitter to look for alternative sources. In fact, many of the tweets with links that I wind up reading and saving come from either RSS itself (from people’s blogs published to Twitter) or via someone’s RSS reader.
Stock and flow
If those people weren’t using their readers and posting the links they came across, we might have a lot less interesting content to pass around on Twitter. In that sense, the network is really a redistribution system, rather than a content-creation system — it needs input from a variety of sources, and RSS readers are one of them. The debate over real-time vs. non-real time reminds me of a blog post that Robin Sloan (who now works at Twitter, somewhat ironically) wrote about the concept of “stock and flow”. Sometimes we want to let the river of information flow over us, and other times we need to stand outside it and make sense of it, before we plunge in again. Both are valuable, and necessary.
Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): How Twitter is Re-engineering to Address Always-on Usage