Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2013/ Feudalism and the Death of RSS

Feudalism and the Death of RSS

On Thursday June 13 I gave a talk about Canadian Blood Services at Ignite Waterloo 12. Despite my complaints below, I want to emphasize that I feel grateful and privileged that I was allowed to speak, that the organizers did great work in a thankless job. People liked the event; it came together well and ran smoothly. Despite its worldwide brand, the local Ignite group seems pretty grassroots, and I tip my hat to them.

My talk went as well as can be expected (which may not be saying much, given my propensity for leaving words out of my sentences). UPDATE: The Youtube video of the talk has been posted:

Unfortunately I completely failed at one of my hidden agendas, which was starting a discussion about Canadian Blood Services and its screening practices. To the extent that people took notice of my talk at all, it was for the presentation style, not for the content. When people took home any message, it was that they should give blood. That's not a terrible message, but it was not the point I was trying to make.

Even if people had understood the message of the talk, I would have failed. For one thing, Ignite is a series of five-minute entertainments, and that is how the audience approaches the event. People get an overall impression of the night as "full of great talks!" or "not full of great talks!" but nothing sticks. We are temporarily engaged by some topic, and then the next topic comes along. As a presenter, I had not understood that. The tagline for Ignite Waterloo is "Enlighten us, but make it quick." Although the format is indeed quick, I am not sure it is that enlightening for the audience. (It is, however, enlightening for presenters -- putting together a talk with the constraints of the Ignite format is illuminating, just as most activities that require lots of attention, creativity, and labour tend to be. All graduate students should be forced to put together Ignite talks about their research fields, and I am not just saying that because the graduate student talks at Ignite Waterloo 12 were fantastic.)

Even if there was some magical way for my talk to stick in people's heads, I was still doomed to failure, because I do not have a Twitter handle, and Ignite Waterloo has declared its fealty to Twitter.

Online Feudalism

Because I am a sheeple, I believe everything that Bruce Schneier tells me to believe, and lately he has been telling me to believe the metaphor of online services as feudal lords. The idea is that we enter into relationships with online services in "the cloud" in the same way a serf enters into a relationship with a feudal lord: we get to use the service (often "for free", unlike real serfs) and in exchange we give the feudal lord our trust, our attention, and our data. We trust the online service to take care of our security and privacy, and buy into whatever ecosystem the service provides. The service can change its terms and features at will, and our job is to keep using the service or become nonentities on the Internet. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Twitter are feudal lords that we declare fealty to, but there are others.

Unlike real feudalism, we can declare fealty to multiple services. However, each one demands our time and attention. There tends to be good communication within the ecosystem of any particular service, and relatively poor communication across feudal masters.

In order to participate in Ignite I jumped through quite a few hoops. After I (impulsively) decided that I wanted to give my talk, I filled out the application and did a lot of research. Then I skipped a Drupal User Group meeting in order to attend a Speaker's Workshop. That was no big deal, but I did not love that the workshop was being held at a pub. The next hoop was to work on my presentation even before I knew I was accepted. Then the organizers sent me a fateful series of emails: yes, I was accepted, but would I please provide a title for the talk, and my Twitter handle?

I told the organizers that I did not have a Twitter account. I had a webpage, which I provided. I had an email address, which they knew about. I even had an Identica account. None of these was good enough. My talk was advertised without a Twitter handle. Even though there was a spot on my title slide to include a webpage URL, no contact information was listed for me. It was Twitter or nothing, and I got nothing.

Please RT: Disappontment

Because I am obsessed with my self image, I checked the Twitterverse for reactions to my talk. There were a few reactions (most only visible when you clicked "All tweets", not just "Top tweets"), but nobody knew my name, and I did not have a Twitter handle, so discussion stopped right there.

That is not to say that people with Twitter handles had their talks go viral, but there was definitely a different tone to the conversation for them. One person thanked all the presenters by Twitter handle, but did not include the two presenters who were not on Twitter. Mostly, people praised the talks from people with whom they were already twitterfriends, as opposed to the talks they found the most interesting objectively. I have noticed this tendency in other contexts as well, especially when elections come around: fierce advocates for the candidates will relentlessly tweet about their favoured candidate, and trash the other ones, all without declaring their conflict of interest. Twitter is a social network, and in praising the talks of their friends these people were strengthening social bonds. That is fine, but it reminded me that Twitter (and the other social networks) are not meritocracies, unless you consider merit to be the same thing as being popular and well-connected.

I know this sounds like sour grapes, and I suppose my grapes are tart, but there is a deeper truth here. I am not saying that my talk deserved to get wider attention, or that my hopes of spreading my message were realistic, or that people attending the talk had some obligation to tweet about me. But I am saying that the ideas we all retweet are the popular ones, not necessarily the best ones. I do not see many ways for great ideas proposed by poorly-connected people to gain critical mass. For one thing, the Twitter interface itself discourges this: like Facebook, it shows the "top" (read: popular) tweets, not the entire twitterstream. That might make sense for popular hashtags, but for small-tail hashtags like #IW12 it does not make a lot of sense, and it means that good ideas that are not retweeted are not going to get anywhere. Only tweets that are picked up by obedient serfs (aka "the cool kids") will get published -- those that are well connected, and those that have a lot of followers.

There are other consequences of this. Twitter and other social networks might seem like meritocracies because we think we are spreading information provided to us by our friends. But where do our friends get those ideas? Often those ideas are from central sources, such as news agencies (how many stories get retweeted from the Guardian or New York Times, including items I link to in this article?) or by the biggest celebrities. If you think we are not being manipulated in reading and passing along these ideas, then you should get a clue. Marketers are happy to pay successful tweeters money for product placements. Any time an organization hires a "Social Media Consultant" (or guru or rockstar or ninja or whatever) then they are hiring somebody whose job is to manipulate us -- by phrasing tweets in catchy ways, by paying marketing dollars to get their messages across, by crafting campaigns to go viral. And then we play along by first consuming and then happily retweeting or liking or linking to the marketing message in question (but not you, of course. You always fact-check statements before retweeting them, right? You always follow the money, and ask who benefits from your retweet, right? Of course you do.)

Second-class Citizenship

None of that has much to do with feudalism, I guess. It is just an artifact of any social network where a lot of voices are all calling for our attention -- spammers try to make money off the resource, and the people with the most power (in this case people with lots of connections who can get their stuff retweeted and liked) get their messages out. It does mean that the dream of grassroots advocacy is largely dead. Individuals are not going to make a difference unless they have power, which is exactly the way it has always been. I keep finding this out in my advocacy work, but it appears that I will never learn the lesson. Unless I am willing to put hours each day in servitude to my feudal masters, I cannot expect any success when I have a message I would like to spread.

I did have another experience that does relate to feudalism and fealty, however. That was the use of the Ignite Waterloo Twitter account as the first-class method of communication, and the Ignite homepage as a distant second. The Ignite 12 event was announced on Twitter first, and the webpage was not updated for days (and perhaps only after I prompted them to do so). Ticket sales were first announced on Twitter, and although there was no shortage of tickets this time around, in past years all of the tickets sold out within hours of being announced. Those who pledge fealty to Twitter have the first chance to get tickets; others have to keep checking the Twitter web interface, hope that the email announcement list is updated promptly, or hope that somebody updates the website. Maybe you do not think that updating a webpage is any different from updating a Twitter account, but there is a difference that hints at a parallel universe where we were not ruled by feudal lords. That hint is called "RSS".

RSS and the Public Internet

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication". Some nerdy people know what that means, but most of us don't, which is why feudalism won. The easiest way to understand RSS is to understand the problem it solves: checking websites for new content.

In the bad old days we had webpages that we liked to read. Those webpages would update periodically, but to see those changes we would have to revisit the page. That was okay for the two or three webpages that we enjoyed the most or which updated most frequently, but refreshing pages that rarely changed (which includes blogs like this one) was tedious.

RSS allows you to subscribe to webpages, so that you do not need to revisit them every time you want to check for new content. This involves three components:

RSS feeds are indicated by this orange icon:

The RSS icon

RSS had some features that were both great and which doomed it to failure. The first was interoperability. Anything on the web is allowed to generate an RSS feed: you do not need an API key or a Twitter account or a Facebook login. Even this blog publishes some feeds, such as my main feed

Similarly, there are many different ways you can consume RSS feeds: you can use a feed reader or subscribe to Live Bookmarks or even feed them to other accounts (which is how I publish(ed?) blog announcements to my Facebook account. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the curse side, it means writing a standard set of instructions on how to subscribe to an RSS feed is hard.

In an unexpected development, most web browsers -- even Internet Explorer -- added the ability to autodetect feeds. They would have bright orange icons on their toolbars that would light up when you visited a page that publicized its RSS feed. You could then click the button and... something would happen, but usually that something would be confusing and unintuitive. This is because there are lots of ways to consume RSS feeds, and for some reason web browser manufacturers did not choose a sensible default. Imagine if bookmarking a website popped up a giant dialogue box asking which of seven bookmark-reading appliances you wanted to use, instead of just adding the bookmark in one or two clicks. That is what subscribing to an RSS feed is like. I am nerdy enough to know that I can take the RSS URL and put it into my feed reader, but most people just get confused. Nonetheless, it was amazing to see such widespread support for RSS across web browsers.

The second great feature of RSS that doomed it is that it provides a way to consume web content (mostly) anonymously. Although I think there are ways to subscribe to RSS feeds that require logins and passwords, there are also lots of public RSS feeds that you can access without a username or password. Furthermore, your feed reading software automatically downloads the content of the feed, and can check the website periodically to see whether there are any new changes to download. You do not actually need to visit a webpage yourself to read the contents of the feed (although some feeds are truncated, and many contain images that point back to the original site).

These two features were crucial in forming what I call "The Public Internet" -- a place where you could consume content from many different kinds of sites from many different providers, and you could do so with the tools you found most comfortable. For example, I am mostly interested in good blogs, so I use a feed reader called newsbeuter, which is kind of nerdy but works well for my needs. Others may want to get headlines of new articles streamed to them like a Twitter feed. Others may want to get articles emailed to them, or have feeds aggregated together into a listig of content (such as the Livejournal friendslist). All of these things are possible on the public internet, because you do not need the permission of RSS feed publishers to consume their feeds in interesting ways.

Similarly, because feeds are interoperable and anonymous, you could focus on updating content on the one or two platforms that you cared about, and then trust that your friends on other platforms would be able to access that content by consuming your RSS feeds. All the features available on that platform might not be available, but you would usually get the core content.

The Death of RSS

The technology behind RSS was always a bit of a mess. There were a number of competing versions of RSS, and there still are. Two of the popular ones are RSS 2.0 and Atom, which was supposed to replace all of the other versions but never did. Part of the reason for that was because feed readers did not standardize on a version of RSS they were all willing to support.

More importantly, nobody ever bothered to explain RSS to regular people in ways they cared about. Subscribing to RSS feeds was hard. Clicking on the RSS button a webpage made confusing dialogue screens pop up, so regular users learned to avoid that.

RSS feeds are specified in a markup language called XML, which used to be trendy but isn't anymore. Now the cool kids are all into JSON, and they are dropping XML (and therefore RSS) support. For example, Twitter used to publish RSS feeds (and I used to read some people's tweet streams using those feeds) but they dropped that support. Other services (such as Blogger and Wordpress) still generate RSS feeds, but finding those feeds is difficult unless you have a browser that supports autodetection. The only social network I know of that still treats RSS as a first-class citizen is Tumblr, which includes an RSS link as a basic theme element. But now that Tumblr has been eaten up by Yahoo!, there is not much reason to believe things will stay that way. (In the feudal world, things change and you put up with it whether you want to or not.)

And browsers are dropping RSS autodetection support. In my mind, Firefox was the greatest betrayal. They used to include an orange RSS icon in their toolbar. Then they dropped that icon because their statistical research indicated [it was not being clicked a lot] ( (which does not suprise me, because you only need to subscribe to a web page once). You could still re-enable the icon manually, but this defeats the purpose, because only nerds care enough about their interfaces to re-enable icons. Worst of all, even if you do re-enable the icon it is useless. Some usability idiot decided that all icons should be monochromatic, so the new icon is black on grey. Here is the icon when there is no RSS feed autodetected:

Stupid grey icon with inactive

and here is the icon when an RSS feed exists:

Stupid grey icon with active

In the context of the black on grey Firefox toolbar, I can barely tell the difference. The orange may have clashed with the default colour scheme, but it was a really important visual indicator, and now it is gone.

The deathblow to RSS may have been the end of Google Reader, a feudal application that turned a lot of people onto RSS feeds. Google decided that Reader was not worth supporting, and so they dropped support. Alternatives exist, but they are fragmented and for the most part only nerds know about them.

For the most part, feudal lords hate RSS feeds for the same reason I like them: they are hard to track. Every social network wants to track its users. At the very least every social network wants people visiting its web interface so that people will view (and maybe click on) advertisements, and many RSS feeds sidestep ad views.

RSS may still be around, but it is no longer relevant and it is dying. As RSS feeds become harder to autodiscover fewer sites will bother publishing them, which means browser support will erode further, which means that RSS will become yet more irrelevant.

Life in a Feudal World

I have largely resigned myself to irrelevance on the Internet. I am not willing to participate in social networks that much (partially because I have no self control, and partially because it takes too much energy and time), so I am rapidly becoming a nonentity. The part that hurts is that I am becoming a nonentity in real life as well, as my Ignite anonymity demonstrates. Sometimes it feels as if Twitter handles and Facebook accounts have become the new email addresses. Some people held out on using email, and now those people are unable to participate in the modern world.

One difference between Twitter and email addresses is that email is only semi-feudal. In principle anybody can set up an email server, although for my purposes there are only a few email providers. But there is only one Twitter, and because I did not declare fealty to it, I pay the price. Libertarians like to tell us that we can just opt out of patronizing businesses or services that we disagree with. That is the beauty of the market. But I do not feel that I can opt out without severe consequences -- already I am locked out of many social events because I am unwilling to use Facebook much. There are many different feudal estates, but few I am willing to use -- and those few are largely ignored by regular people, which means they are doomed to obscurity and limited utility. Even when our feudal masters do not earn the trust we give them (such as the recent PRISM fiasco demonstrates) we are kind of stuck.

Sometimes people make a big deal about "liberating data". They think that the reason to oppose feudalism is because we generate content stored in "the cloud", and we are safe if we can get that data back. Although I care about this issue, I think it is secondary secondary. My data is not worth all that much if I cannot take it out of a service and then use it in some other way -- plugging it into a competing service or self-hosting it. Often I cannot do that in any way that makes any more sense than just publishing my writing on a blog nobody reads.

It is wrong for me to gripe for this many words about my Ignite experience. I should be grateful that I was able to communicate via email, and that they had an email announcement list as well as a Twitter feed. But this experience makes me feel even more isolated and out-of-touch than I did before. Given that I earn my income via technology, being out of touch means being out of work.

Some people continue to fight for interoperability and a public internet. (Sometimes this is called "federation.") Some interoperability is possible in this feudal world as long as you are willing to link together all of your accounts. I am sure that this brave new feudal world is awesome and getting more awesome every day. But I am not convinced I want to participate in it.

Whenever we use one of these feudal services -- by creating content or consuming it -- we are voting that we like these kinds of arrangements, and that we want them to exist. I have voted many times for feudalism -- from watching Youtube videos to publicizing things on Facebook to allowing Yahoo! to host my email account instead of finding an independent provider -- and now I am paying the price.