[Curator’s note] Polemic point of view on the problems encountered by RSS, but interesting chronology of the format.
There are two stories here. The first is a story about a vision of the web’s
future that never quite came to fruition. The second is a story about how a
collaborative effort to improve a popular standard devolved into one of the
most contentious forks in the history of open-source software development.
In the late 1990s, in the go-go years between Netscape’s IPO and the Dot-com
crash, everyone could see that the web was going to be an even bigger deal
than it already was, even if they didn’t know exactly how it was going to get
there. One theory was that the web was about to be revolutionized by
syndication. The web, originally built to enable a simple transaction between
two parties—a client fetching a document from a single host server—would be
broken open by new standards that could be used to repackage and redistribute
entire websites through a variety of channels. Kevin Werbach, writing for
Release 1.0, a newsletter influential among investors in the 1990s, predicted
that syndication “would evolve into the core model for the Internet economy,
allowing businesses and individuals to retain control over their online
personae while enjoying the benefits of massive scale and scope.” He
invited his readers to imagine a future in which fencing aficionados, rather
than going directly to an “online sporting goods site” or “fencing equipment
retailer,” could buy a new épée directly through e-commerce widgets embedded
into their favorite website about fencing. Just like in the television
world, where big networks syndicate their shows to smaller local stations,
syndication on the web would allow businesses and publications to reach
consumers through a multitude of intermediary sites. This would mean, as a
corollary, that consumers would gain significant control over where and how
they interacted with any given business or publication on the web.
RSS was one of the standards that promised to deliver this syndicated future.
To Werbach, RSS was “the leading example of a lightweight syndication
protocol.” Another contemporaneous article called RSS the first protocol to
realize the potential of XML. It was going to be a way for both users and
content aggregators to create their own customized channels out of everything
the web had to offer. And yet, two decades later, RSS appears to be a dying
now used chiefly by podcasters and programmers with tech blogs. Moreover,
among that latter group, RSS is perhaps used as much for its political
symbolism as its actual utility. Though of course some people really do have
RSS readers, stubbornly adding an RSS feed to your blog, even in 2018, is a
reactionary statement. That little tangerine bubble has become a wistful symbol
of defiance against a centralized web increasingly controlled by a handful of
corporations, a web that hardly resembles the syndicated web of Werbach’s
The future once looked so bright for RSS. What happened? Was its downfall
inevitable, or was it precipitated by the bitter infighting that thwarted the
development of a single RSS standard?
RSS was invented twice. This meant it never had an obvious owner, a state of
affairs that spawned endless debate and acrimony. But it also suggests that RSS
was an important idea whose time had come.
In 1998, Netscape was struggling to envision a future for itself. Its flagship
product, the Netscape Navigator web browser—once preferred by 80% of web
users—was quickly losing ground to Internet Explorer. So Netscape decided to
compete in a new arena. In May, a team was brought together to start work on
what was known internally as “Project 60.” Two months later, Netscape
announced “My Netscape,” a web portal that would fight it out with other
portals like Yahoo, MSN, and Excite.
The following year, in March, Netscape announced an addition to the My Netscape
portal called the “My Netscape Network.” My Netscape users could now customize
their My Netscape page so that it contained “channels” featuring the most
recent headlines from sites around the web. As long as your favorite website
published a special file in a format dictated by Netscape, you could add that
website to your My Netscape page, typically by clicking an “Add Channel” button
that participating websites were supposed to add to their interfaces. A little
box containing a list of linked headlines would then appear.
The special file that participating websites had to publish was an RSS file. In
the My Netscape Network announcement, Netscape explained that RSS stood for
“RDF Site Summary.” This was somewhat of a misnomer. RDF, or the Resource
Description Framework, is basically a grammar for describing certain properties
of arbitrary resources. (See my article about the Semantic Web if that sounds really exciting to you.)