RSS: The Lost Hope of a Decentralized Internet

RSS: The Lost Hope of a Decentralized Internet

In 1999, Dany Livy and Ramanathan V. Guha of Netscape created the RSS web format. RSS, or, Real Simple Syndication, allows end users to access updates from websites in a standard format. Instead of having to navigate directly to a site with frequent changes, subscribing to an RSS feed allows end users to receive a site's latest updates.

But most people view it as an obscure technology, if they know it at all. RSS, which allows anyone to subscribe to a site's content directly, without a middle man, was a piece of the grand vision of the web as a decentralized network of individual personas. The vision of this internet is lost to us today.

Walled Gardens

Today, there is a monopoly on the distribution of information. If you have information to share, goods to sell, news to distribute, you must move through the walled gardens of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. What are walled gardens, exactly? From adpushup.com,

A walled garden is an organization which keeps its technology, information, and user data to itself, with no intention of sharing it. In simpler words, a walled garden is a closed ecosystem, operated by people within the ecosystem, without the involvement of an outside organization.

Today, Google and Facebook capture 59% of the digital ad spend on the internet. Add Amazon and it is 70%. How far we've come from the decentralized vision of the RSS readers: where everyone has an online persona and anyone can curate their own feed. Today our feeds are curated for us by Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Whereas with RSS feeds you must pursue discover and curate your own feed, on social media platforms, the algorithms written by others curate it for you.

Additionally, if you've seen Social Dilemma, you'll know just how gamed these gardens are in an effort at keeping you coming back to these platforms and making you stay longer. They prey on our cognitive biases. YouTube has become less a search engine to discover new information, and more a mirror reflecting your own biases. As a result, you end up in your own filter bubble, coined by internet activist Eli Pariser,

... [the social media 'filter bubble'] ... is a personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.”

Internet Activism

As the internet continues to take over everyday life (esp. during this expedited COVID months), I believe how we use the internet will move from a geeky subculture to a mainstream topic of debate. The process is already underway. Recall the proposed changes in Net neutrality that created a large stir in online communities. Our democratic leaders intend to break up the big social media monopolies.

It feels geeky to say this, but I believe the promise of the internet comes from it's core protocols: email, HTML, FTP; and its standards: JavaScript, Accessibility, Audio/Video, etc. The RSS reader is long gone, but it's death portended future challenges facing the internet we face today. I think it's time we start to think about what version of the Internet we want today and start evangelizing for it.

Do we want the free and convenient gmail, facebook and instagram or a more private and protocol driven Fastmail, Brave Browser, and Wikipedia?

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