What are those? They are news aggregators that use syndication feeds based on a couple of popular formats: RSS and Atom. Back in 2003 I wrote a lengthy series of posts regarding the various strains of RSS for a website that no longer exists (and its url is currently being squatted upon by a Eastern European malware owner so I won’t link to it right now). While Netscape created the first version of RSS, it was further enhanced by Dave Winer over at Radio UserLand and then yet another fork was created in part by the late Aaron Swartz called Atom. All are based on XML and each has the potential to tap into the ontological web.
While reading social media feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and their Chinese equivalents is very popular for both power users and the average Joe (or Zhou) alike, RSS/Atom is still a widely used syndication/aggregation method for millions of readers, including myself. In fact, I prefer not to scan through the thousands of Weibo posts or Facebook smack downs to find links of information. Opinions, sure, but actual data and original content that is longer than 140 character sound bites — traditional websites is where that information is still at, not behind subscription-only or friend-only silos. While I personally am a proponent of the Open Access/Open content (hence the reason all of my writings are CC licensed), in practice it appears that the trend away from information silos that began in the ’90s with the original hobbyist intertubes has done a U-turn back into a new form of walled gardens (social media sites). And while some disdain this trend, it would be fallacious to say whether this phenomenon is either good or bad because it is based solely on user subjective preferences (if you do not like AOL in 1994 for its “walled garden” in terms of accessing sites outside of the AOL ecosystem, no one is forcing you to subscribe to their service just like no one is forcing you to use FB today).
With that said, July 1, 2013 marks the end of a great service that Google provided in the form of Google Reader. While its users were all freeloaders (there was no monetization or monthly subscription costs to it), when Google announced it was ending the service several months back, among the weeping and gnashing of teeth, one of the claims that I saw posted several times on social media sites is: RSS is dead. Why was RSS dead? Because it purportedly has no roadmap or development.
While there are many reasons to end the Google Reader service (such as the capital costs of maintaining it, for free to end users and how it is apparently hard to integrate it into Google+ due to licensing/copyright issues), this particular argument put forth above seems like a non sequitur. RSS/Atom are not programming languages, they are not operating systems, they are not SDKs or APIs.
Among others, one objective of RSS/Atom was to help make it easier for machine-based solutions to grab the content from your site and allow other machine-based technologies (aggregators) to translate the code into something readable and organized to humans (and eventually AI itself). It does that and it does that efficiently. Whether or not it is effective is debatable as the duplication issues are related to an aggregation itself, not the XML code defining parameters in RSS/Atom. This type of service can and will still be done so as long as sites still create and support the feeds, which I suspect will continue for many more moons — unless it is replaced by something technically superior. Like what? Perhaps information providers such as Reuters or Bloomberg (which most associate with news broadcasting but have huge budgets and teams working towards information processing) may develop a syndication method that satiates and unmet need. Or maybe RSS and Atom are good enough for content producers and consumers for decades to come.
What solutions are there for news junkies to continue their habit? Bloglines is still around, but slow (at least for me). Digg released theirs, but it is inaccessible here in China without a VPN (it times out over and over). Feedly doesn’t automatically insert the url of the articles when you email them. The Old Reader has similar issues. And AOL surprisingly has a reader now, one that I’m now using, that looks and feels snappy — but when you want to email the story to someone it opens up Outlook by default (I put in a request to have that changed to other email addresses and received a response from their dev team that a future feature is in the works to change this).
So basically, nothing matches the current form of Google’s own solution. It is their service, so of course they have every right to close it down. However, it will probably not push the millions of users towards Google+ which was managements original (desired) intention. Until social media sites allow for integration of RSS/Atom, then power users will continue to find solutions to their information needs.
As an aside, to give readers an idea of how often I used Google Reader, below is a snapshot from the statistics page today. On average, about 225-250 stories are aggregated through all of the feeds each weekday (weekends oddly enough have relatively little published), perhaps 15% of the stories are duplicates (especially the science/tech sites). I dislike posting stories on FB or Twitter unless they are very important (but obviously I’m in a small minority) and consequently enjoy emailing them to friends, family and colleagues (hence the 300+ emails this past month). Note: “clicked” means a user clicked the url in the headline of the article, usually that specific url is a Feed Burner link (called “feedproxy”). Unfortunately, here in China, those url’s are blocked by the GFW and clicking it kills the link (one last tangent, it is because of Google Reader that many blocked stories are able to get past the GFW here sans a VPN). Fortunately most sites like io9 or Slashdot have a “Read more here” link which is what I click (I am unaware of statistics that say which specific link is more prevalent to be clicked).
Long live, RSS and long live Google Reader!
Update: be sure to read Lockdown for more details and analysis