RSS, or why lack of developer imagination will be the end of the open web

Recently a developer moved their website over from a blog-type site to a static site with no blog. I know this because their RSS feed stopped working, and stopped giving me a feed of what was new with their site. I lamented about this on Mastodon:

Depressing to notice another blog moved to a static github page with no RSS feed (and no blog). Ah well. Developers will eventually make it so RSS is no longer a thing.

I got this reply from

@craigmaloney didn't that happen already due to google, or has rss managed to plod on? I'll admit, I haven't use rss for a long time

I'll admit that today wasn't the best day for me to respond to things (I woke up crabby and things progressed from there) but the response that Google had somehow killed off RSS resonated with me. Naturally RSS as a protocol hadn't gone anywhere (and judging from the other responses that I received there were plenty of folks who wanted to reiterate this fact, but that's another post for another time). What got my attention was the assertion that Google had somehow dictated that RSS was no longer a thing when they shuttered Google Reader. It got me thinking how a lot of developers have ceded a lot of control to Google to make these decisions. RSS the protocol was still there but Google shuttering arguably the largest consumer of RSS feeds sent a signal to developers that RSS was no longer something worth considering. It was as though Google's action had turned what was perfectly fine into a pariah and anathema.

I'm not one to take kindly when someone tells me I can't do something that I was perfectly capable of doing beforehand, so this mindset that Google deciding to shutter a product meant that the protocol was dead doesn't sit well with me. It's akin to someone saying that LP records were now a thing and that CDs and digital music were no longer desirable. That's fine for you, notional person, but I'm quite content to buy CDs and listen to digital music, thank-you-very-much.

It got me thinking of how many other products, protocols, and services were unceremoniously decommissioned because their biggest proponent disappeared. Google Talk was another platform that embraced XMPP at scale, only to remove XMPP later on. Does that mean XMPP is crap? Hardly. It just means that Google stopped supporting XMPP. Same is true for folks using Slack and Discord instead of IRC. Does that mean IRC is somehow broken? No, it means that tastes have shifted.

I'm tired of company indifference dictating the developer mindset. Lack of RSS feeds means one less avenue for me to poll for new items. It also prevents other creative and unintended uses of those items. RSS wasn't just about allowing folks to read news items in a RSS reader; it also allowed devices to update content based on new items, side-bar widgets, crossposting to various social media outlets, and many more. It meant that someone could take a standard protocol and repurpose it in new ways. This is the very essence of the open web, and I fear that losing this spirit of remixing and repurposing means we'll be locked into dull, purpose-built technologies again. I'm a creative person but I'm not nearly as creative as some of you, and I'm definitely not as creative as the rest of the world. Who knows what you might do with the RSS feed for this blog, or with the RSS feed of my podcasts, or my Mastodon RSS feeds. Frankly I don't have to care; being an open protocol you can do whatever you want with them. That's powerful.

When we cede our power and creativity to companies that tried and gave up on a technology we lose something magical. We lose those creative use cases, and doom ourselves to an unimaginative future. Worse, if we still want that creativity we create things like scraping and what-not to work-around solved problems. That's not progress, it's a shitty hack.

I'm not saying that RSS is the perfect protocol (there are others that could easily replace RSS). What I'm saying is that when we think in terms of singular use-cases for protocols we deny ourselves the richness and creativity that we deserve.

Let's not let ourselves be bound by the lack of imagination of companies. We can do better.