The Butterfly Effect that Triggered RSS’s Demise

2 minute read

RSS with its siblings is a great technology: it allows to de-couple content from presentation and to create an incredibly more effective way to read the content you like.

However, RSS was too technical. That’s the simple explanation of today’s Google Reader closure announcement.

The bigger picture is different: it never understood the value of communication, branding and identity in a broader sense.

From a business perspective it makes little sense: content producers with valuable brand have RSS taking the identity and stripping it away, anonymizing it. The result is that they have practically no way to be unique in the market and they are pulled in into a list with loads of other contents all presented identically.

Think about Flipboard instead: they have agreements in place and when they pull the content, in a way similar to what RSS do, they also pull the brand identity of the author. While maybe it’s not executing this perfectly, the direction they are taking is more friendly.

Think about Twitter: yes, your content is incredibly limited and also your identity. But when you have just 140 characters, the avatar just on the side becomes suddenly big. Add to this the simplicity of following, sharing and connecting and you clearly see how Twitter supports the people and companies providing content.

RSS negates all of this. You discover content by word of mouth, and there’s no simple way to share it with friends. The author (person or company) is stripped away of its identity. There’s no memorability attached. It’s almost a surprise it managed to work.

The comparisons seem probably a bit unfair. I’ve put services against just a set of protocols and traditions. It’s true, but to a certain extent. That extent is the idea behind the feed, and the concept of “reader” that came with it. The idea was clearly rooted in anonymised content read by a lone reader.

If you think about the people in the real world it’s true that they likely read news in the same place, home, but they do it from clear packages: newspapers and magazines, each with its own identity.

If you put all these things together you notice that business wanted to value their brand identity but RSS stripped it away. The anonymized content at the same time is less appealing for the reader, and if it’s less appealing for the user it’s also less appealing for the business. Creating a butterfly effect.

In the end while the original idea could be considered good, outside a small niche of users nobody had a real value in using RSS, not the business, not the readers.