RSS: From Format to Plumbing to Nothing in 13 Years

Is RSS being forced out by technology companies that want more control over all aspects of the user interaction? That’s the contention of an article recently published in the Sydney Morning Herald (see “Apple Joins the War on RSS,” by Adam Turner, 1 August 2012, via the RSS Specifications blog). Turner points out how RSS is no longer a part of either Apple Mail or Apple Safari in the latest version of its operating system, Mountain Lion. He goes on to show how major Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter have been removing the in-built RSS feeds from their pages, making it harder to subscribe to information streams without subscribing to the service itself. Google Plus, Turner notes, never had RSS to start with.

When RSS started, it was a tool for individuals to use to track web sites and people they are interested in. In the early 2000s, sites tried to get you, the reader, to subscribe to their RSS feeds as a way to retain readership. By the late 2000s and first view years of the teens, RSS was less a selling point, but a fundamental part of any web site. It had evolved into an open, universal data exchange standard for web sites. Applications could easily sniff it out (through the headers, read only by applications but not seen by human users who didn’t view a page’s source, of web pages). Perhaps this change from shiny fixture on the kitchen counter to plumbing behind the wall was not a sign of its fundamental importance, as I posited previously.

As Turner points out, the HTML code to indicate the presence of an RSS feed is increasingly rarely even seen in a web page’s header. For example, look at the source of the RSS4Lib Twitter profile page or the RSS4Lib Facebook Page. No relative link in the document header to let an application know that there’s an RSS feed present.

While I regret the change in philosophy that has led popular social networking sites from making it harder for the content on the site to be used in other venues, I suppose I understand it. I imagine the Twitters and Facebooks of the world are thinking something along the lines of this: “If we can prevent that scourge of openness, RSS, from liberating individual user’s content, we can sell more ads or control more interactions.” In a commercial sense, that’s plausible, even if not wholly reflecting reality.

At the same time, if Apple no longer indicates that RSS feeds exist in pages that you visit in Safari (and if other browsers follow suit), that’s will drive a fundamental change in the way individuals discovery and access Internet content. Sure, discovery will happen, but it will happen through your social networks, mediated by major services. And it will happen in short-form: a few characters in a tweet, or a snippet on Facebook. It won’t happen in long-form, in a context that you (the consumer) manage. If information wants to be free, as the saying goes, it needs a path to follow. RSS seemed like it was that path. What’s next?

Google Chrome Out of Beta sans RSS

Google Chrome for Mac came out of beta today (see “Google Chrome for Mac: Ready, beta, now stable!“) with many new features, but not with built-in RSS support. Even my first-generation iPhone can do better than that (granted, with a redirect through an Apple server to parse the XML of the feed into something intelligible). An RSS feed still displays as a jumble of text:

Click for large image of Google Chrome's RSS Display

Not that I spend a lot of time reading RSS feeds in my browser, but if I click on one (intentionally or otherwise), I really ought not get gibberish. If Google intends Chrome to be a serious competitor in a marketplace of choice for Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari, it really ought not leave users in the lurch. This is very un-Google-like behavior.
This is just the most recent in my series of rants about Google Chrome and RSS here, here, and here.

Is the RSS World Flat?

Paul Pival, the Distant Librarian, brings up an interesting question in his recent post “Just what am I looking at?“. In his post, he notes:

I think students who have only researched through their computer monitor have a very hard time understanding what they’re looking at. Through the monitor, a page is a page is a page, whether it be from a scholarly journal, a book, Newsweek, a website, a chat window… There are almost none of the visual clues that are present in a more traditional physical piece of information that might make it easier to tell if you’re about to use a scholarly publication or a piece of crap in your paper. If I’ve got a PDF from Academic Search Premier and I don’t recognize the name of the publication and there are no ads on the page, surely it’s scholarly, right?”

As does much of what Peter writes, this got me to thinking. If this is a real problem with online research — and I agree it is; many of my graduate student patrons at my library seem not to have learned the difference between authoritative and non-authoritative online sources they find through Google — then I wonder what the consequences of staying on top of things via a search in an aggregator might be? An RSS feed, especially one that is a search result, provides precious little context in which to judge the authority of the source. It’s sort of like deep linking into a web site to find the print-only, stripped-of-graphics, stripped-of-author version of a page. The impatient researcher (i.e., almost anyone with a deadline of, say, tomorrow) will grab the URL and take the work as it is.
The problem of recognizing “authoritative” content is, of course, nothing novel; I imagine when I was back in middle school and assigned a “research” paper whose requirements were that I find at least three different sources from the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature that I was none too picky about which three I picked. I got my three, wrote my page or two, and moved on. I like to think my research techniques improved in college and graduate school. But I also was doing that work just at the dawn of the online age; yes, there were databases, but no, there were relatively few full-text online journals accessible to me, so I largely relied on what was in the stacks and available to me, not what was truly “good.”
So I ask myself, what could I, as a blogger, put in an RSS feed that might provide someone reading it with a sense of my “authority” (if, that is, I actually have any)? Yes, each post links to the web site, and the collection of items I’ve written. And from there, it’s just a click to a web site that tells the casual reader more about me than I probably ought to let them know. Is the provision of such links, probably to be used only by the engaged researcher, enough?
Perhaps there should be some way of rating a web author as authoritative (or popular, authority’s online proxy). This seems a similar problem to content ratings systems like the W3C’s PICS rating system was designed to solve. (PICS is a standard for saying how child-safe a particular site or page is, but has broader applications as away to apply labels to content. These labels are “controlled” by some organization, so a label contains both the label and a link to a page that defines what the label means.) Should RSS items come with a DIGG or Technorati rating in their header that could be displayed in an aggregator or used as a filter, set to a default of some positive score for those who choose not to customize their preferences?

For Whom the RSS Feeds

“E-Mail is for Old People.” That’s the title of an article appearing by Dan Carnavale in the October 6 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. (The article is currently available without registration — as of October 2.)
Carnavale notes that many undergraduate students have moved on to newer, communications media — instant messaging, text messaging via cell phone, and web 2.0 sites like Facebook and MySpace. He notes that,

A 2005 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project called “Teens and Technology” found that teenagers preferred new technology, like instant messaging or text messaging, for talking to friends and use e-mail to communicate with “old people.”

Newer, trendier — or perhaps just plain better — technologies have the attention of undergraduates and their juniors. Some schools have created a quasi-official presence in MySpace or Facebook and maintain it with much of the information that might have been exclusively posted by email a year or two ago.
RSS is not mentioned in this item; it’s a bit different a beast, admittedly. But the article got me thinking: just who is reading all my carefully constructed RSS feeds anyway? If RSS is a significant chunk of your library’s public relations and announcement effort, is it effective — particularly if the generation of people that seem natural users of it happen to see RSS as too unidirectional and “email-like.”
When I look at the server statistics on this blog, or on my library’s blog, I see lots and lots of hits from aggregators and search engines. And lots for Magpie, which I use with Feed2JS to reprint announcement headlines on my library’s home page. While some aggregators are kind enough to tell me that they’re acting on behalf of so many subscribers (sadly, that’s “so many” is far too often ‘1’ when it’s RSS4Lib, and I know that the aggregator is toiling away for me alone, a remnant of my exploring aggregators using my own feed), the hits-per-subscriber ratio assumes I publish more frequently — a LOT more frequently – -than I do.
Perhaps because it so darned easy to create an RSS feed out of almost any source — blogs and wikis, of course, but also content management systems, databases, you name it — and because it is so flexible, RSS is destined to fade into the background, just another piece of the infrastructure of the information age. Yet the promise of being able to skim and dip one’s intellectual toes into the information stream makes it more valuable than it seems. Ask not for whom RSS feeds, for it feeds for you…

ZapTXT — RSS to You

ZapTXT (a beta product — but aren’t they all?) is a new service that lets you set up a keyword search of specific RSS feeds and send you an alert — by email, instant messenger, or text message to a mobile device — when those keywords appear in that feed. ZapTXT provides a list of popular news feeds (for example, Technology contains about 20 pre-selected feeds, including Engadget, Pogue’s Posts, Resource Shelf, and more; Political Blogs contains Wonkette, Daily Kos, and a bunch of others). You can pick multiple sites using the preselected lists. Alternately, you can specify your own favorite feed source. To add multiple personally selected sources, first create the feed, then edit it to add additional RSS sources.
Email alerts go to any email address. IM alerts only go to Jabber, Gtalk and MSN clients — leaving out AOL’s instant messenger. Test messaging is available for all major cell service providers.
With a carefully constructed set of keywords, this is another great clipping service substitute.
Addendum: Sameer Patel of ZapTXT sent me the following helpful tip — a simple way to search the ENTIRE blogosphere for a keyword. In his words:

Go to
Enter any search term
Throw the RSS feed for the Sphere results page into ZapTXT as a ZapTask.
You are now monitoring a search term across the entire blogsphere. And if you select “as they appear” when you’re setting up your ZapTask, that’s exactly what happens. With this method, you’re monitoring the entire post of all blogs that Sphere catches. So if ZapTXT showed up deep in the body of the post, the RSS feed from Sphere catches that as part of the result and you get a ZapTXT alert.
[Via LISNews.]

Clipping Service on the Cheap

This may be of benefit to, primarily, special librarians, but it’s worth a thought for any librarian wishing to make a positive impression on whatever group or person is responsible for funding… David Rothman, in his blog focusing on medical librarianship, notes how easy it is to provide a quality current awareness service to one’s organization. A simple search at a news aggregator (that is, an aggregator that actually handles just “official” news sources, not the broader blogosphere) can populate a web page with recent headlines and links to the full-text articles.
Rothman recommends FeedGit, which aggregates these “official” news sources. Enter a search term. You’ll see a list of news providers grouped by type (news, web, blogs, images, etc.). For each content type, there are links to an RSS feed specifically on your search term at each of the providers.
Putting this feed on a web page is the next step that Rothman notes — don’t even bother the decision makers with the raw RSS (unless, of course, they’ve already joined that bandwagon). User your favorite RSS-to-HTML script (mine is Feed2JS), tailor the style to match your own site, and tell the world (or the individual) that it’s there. Voilà! A quick-and-dirty clipping service.