Why feed reading is an open web problem, and what browsers could do about it

I’ve long privately thought that Firefox should treat feed reading as a first-class citizen of the open web, and integrate feed subscribing and reading more deeply into the browser (rather than the lame, useless live bookmarks.) The impending demise of Reader has finally forced me to spit out my thoughts on the issue. They’re less polished than I like when I blog these days, but here you go – may they inspire someone to resuscitate this important part of the open web.

What? Why is this an open web problem?

When I mentioned this on twitter, an ex-mozillian asked me why I think this is the browser’s responsibility, and particularly Mozilla’s. In other words – why is RSS an open web problem? why is it different from, say, email? It’s a fair question, with two main parts.

First, despite what some perceive as the “failure” of RSS, there is obviously  a demand by readers to consume web content as an automatically updated stream, rather than as traditional pages.1 Google Reader users are extreme examples of this, but Facebook users are examples too: they’re no longer just following friends, but companies, celebrities, etc. In other words, once people have identified a news source they are interested in, we know many of them like doing something to “follow” that source, and get updated in some sort of stream of updates. And we know they’re doing this en masse! They’re just not doing it in RSS – they’re doing it in Twitter and Facebook. The fact that people like the reading model pioneered by RSS – of following a company/news source, rather than repeatedly visiting their web site – suggests to me that the widely perceived failure of RSS is not really a failure of RSS, but rather a failure of the user experience of discovering and subscribing to RSS.

Of course, lots of things are broadly felt desires, and aren’t integrated into browsers – take email for example. So why are feeds different? Why should browsers treat RSS as a first-class web citizen in a way they don’t treat other things? I think that the difference is that if closed platforms (not just web sites, but platforms) begins to the only (or even best) way to experience “reading streams of web content”, that is a problem for the web. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate email, the open web doesn’t suffer. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate feed discovery and subscription, well, we get exactly what is happening: a mass migration away from consuming (and publishing!) news through the open web, and instead it being channeled into closed, integrated publishing and subscribing stacks like FB and Twitter that give users a good subscribing and reading experience.

To put it another way: Tantek’s definition of the open web (if I may grotesquely simplify it) is a web where publishing content, implementing software that consumes that content, and accessing the content is all open/decentralized. RSS2 is the only existing way to do stream-based reading that meets these requirements. So if you believe (as I do) that reading content delivered in a stream is a central part of the modern web experience, then defending RSS is an important part of defending the open web.

So that’s, roughly, my why. Here’s a bunch of random thoughts on what the how might look like:

Discovery

When you go to CNN on Facebook, “like” – in plain english, with a nice icon – is right up there, front and center. RSS? Not so much. You have to know what the orange icon means (good luck with that!) and find it (either in the website or, back in the day, in the browser toolbar). No wonder no one uses it, when there is no good way to figure out what it means. Again, the failure is not the idea of feeds- the failure is in the way it was presented to users. A browser could do this the brute-force way (is there an RSS feed? do a notice bar to subscribe) but that would probably get irritating fast. It would be better to be smart about it. Have I visited nytimes.com five times today? Or five days in a row? Then give me a notice bar: “hey, we’ve noticed you visit this site an awful lot. Would you like to get updates from it automatically?” (As a bonus, implementing this makes your browser the browser that encourages efficiency. ;)

Subscription

Once you’ve figured out you can subscribe, then what? As it currently stands, someone tells you to click on the orange icon, and you do, and you’re presented with the NASCAR problem, made worse because once you click, you have to create an account. Again, more fail; again, not a problem inherent in RSS, but a problem caused by the browser’s failure to provide an opinionated, useful default.

This is not an easy problem to solve, obviously. My hunch is that the right thing to do is provide a minimum viable product for light web users – possibly by supplementing the current “here are your favorite sites” links with a clean, light reader focused on only the current top headlines. Even without a syncing service behind it, that would still be helpful for those users, and would also encourage publishers to continue treating their feeds as first-class publishing formats (an important goal!).

Obviously solving the NASCAR problem is still hard (as is building a more serious built-in app), but perhaps the rise of browser “app stores” and web intents/web activities might ease it this time around.

Other aspects

There are other aspects to this – reading, social, and provision of reading as a service. I’m not going to get into them here, because, well, I’ve got a day job, and this post is a month late as-is ;) And because the point is primarily (1) improving the RSS experience in the browser needs to be done and (2) some minimum-viable products would go a long way towards making that happen. Less-than-MVPs can be for another day :)

  1. By “RSS” and “feeds” in this post, I really mean the subscribing+reading experience; whether the underlying tech is RSS, Atom, Activity Streams, or whatever is really an implementation detail, as long as anyone can publish to, and read from them, in distributed fashion. []
  2. again, in the very broad sense of the word, including more modern open specifications that do basically the same thing []