Like many technical specifications on the web, RSS (which stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication depending on who you talk to) has a confusing history that seems to only get more confusing as time goes on. The format became popular in the late 1990’s as the need to standardize information held on websites became a pressing concern with the rise of blogging and dynamic websites. The influx of information and content, all organized in different ways, was exciting, but without a standard way to consume the content, you were left with just a few options:
- Bookmarks, and lots of them
- Memorize a handful of URLs and visit only those sites
- Build a custom web scraper
The goal of RSS (as I see it) was to provide each site that created dynamic content a specification to follow to make that content available at some address so the rest of the internet community could easily monitor this address for updates. For example, this blog’s RSS feed is available at https://www.jsulz.com/feed/. You can take this URL and drop it in Feedly or your RSS reader of choice and every new post I publish will end up there alongside any other blogs you regularly read.
My introduction to RSS feeds was through Google Reader, a feed aggregator similar to Feedly that provided users with a way to compile compendiums of publications and read them all in one place. While aggregation and syndication are the most often cited reasons for using RSS, the use-cases extend much further beyond that. In my mind, RSS’s purpose runs parallel to one of the foundational reasons for the internet’s existence: Communication.
Even with WordPress dominating the online content management game there are still hundreds of systems, all with their own way of structuring webpages and publishing content. Without a standard way to consume this content, each post, page, update, or product stands to get lost in a sea of information. The RSS specification does away with all the page markup, styles, forms, etc and focuses on structuring the content so that it’s easily accessed. Without a standard for communication, there is no way to communicate.
As LexBlog opens its doors to legal blogs and digital publications around the web, my belief that RSS is a standard component of content management systems is being challenged. We’ve found blogs that don’t have RSS feeds, publications with RSS feeds that contain only the name of the site or a handful of posts, and just about everything in-between. I understand that technologies change and that a site built in 2004 may not have considered RSS a core part of blogging (although I may have some questions about why a site delivering dynamic content is being run on the same platform in 2018), and I get that making a piece of technology do something that it wasn’t designed to do is difficult. That said, people charged with managing content on the web are admitting to serious negligence if their publications don’t have an RSS feed and they aren’t doing something for their organizations (or clients) to change that.
It’s unfortunate that at a time when internet technologies have taken off and valuable content is around every corner, that technologists have eschewed standards designed to make that content available. As I wrote this, I was reminded of a recent post by Boone Gorges:
The more worrisome trend is content that’s not available through RSS simply because there’s no feed mechanism. A shamefully large number of my geekier aquantainces have moved their blogs to Jekyll and other static-site-generation tools, which don’t appear to have feed support out of the box; and – this is the “shameful” part – since these folks, geeky as they may be, think so little of RSS, they don’t bother setting up the secondary plugins or whatever necessary to serve feeds. I expect that kind of behavior from lock-up-my-content companies and technically-clueless organizations that rely heavily on proprietary and bespoke software, but not from people who ought to know better.
Could not have said it better myself.