On io9, my old friend Annalee Newitz has a piece, “Magazines have finally killed blogs – but in a way you never expected”. She describes how RSS grew out of Usenet (in the process, probably reminding us that most people don’t even know what those are, which matters to what follows).
Usenet was a text-based publishing system that allowed people to create newsgroups, kind of like group blogs or Tumblrs, where people could swap stories, news, information, pictures, and more. Like blogs, the topics of these newsgroups ranged from kinky sex and recipes, to microchip architecture and carpentry. And the way most people read newsgroups was to subscribe to the ones they liked so that they could ignore the thousands of newsgroups that were competing for their attention.
There were very strong online communities in the Usenet world … the ones I spent the most time in were rec.sport.baseball.sf-giants, and rec.music.artists.springsteen. Baseball Prospectus started when a few people from rec.sport.baseball decided there was a market for their brand of intelligent, feisty analysis (and when I was asked to join them, they knew me only from my posts in that newsgroup). Over time, people moved on, to email lists, to Facebook, to web sites that included a vital community of commenters. This wasn’t all that long ago, but for most people, my guess is it’s like Usenet never existed.
Annalee argues that the Usenet feel moved to RSS. “It was a way to recreate that newsgroup reader feeling for the web. People would publish to their blogs, and you'd use your RSS reader to bring all their posts into one place and read everything at your leisure, in reverse-chronological order. … That why RSS readers were so remarkable -- they let you take information from everywhere and organize it however you like.” Kind of like how it was on Usenet.
But, she points out, “Information in the world of RSS is not organized into silos that resemble magazines or social networks. And RSS no longer feels like the native land of the new web generation.”
Blogs made great use of RSS. You would pick up subscribers who would read your posts, along with the posts of anyone else the user was interested in. They didn’t have to search you out, or check your blog every day to see if something new had been posted. It just turned up in their feed reader. You’d get this odd blend of material … at any given time, my reader might offer up posts on the Giants, political science (sometimes both … hi, Jonathan), Android, television, and anything my friends had come up with.
Annalee notes that this is not how magazines tend to operate. “[M]agazines like Wired and the New Yorker have been able to transition more smoothly to the digital world than newspapers did a decade ago. They are porting their magazines directly into apps that silo content just the way paper magazines do. And many new online publications like Matter and The Atavist are following this model, creating apps that hold their content rather than syndicating them via RSS.” Maybe in the past, you’d see my blog and Wired in your feed reader, but now, you read Wired on your Nexus or Kindle or iPad, isolated from other material. Eventually, you’ll forget my blog exists.
All of this discussion is prompted by the news that Google is shutting down their RSS reader. As they say, “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined.” Since Google Reader was the most popular reader, this announcement has serious implications for RSS itself. And if Annalee is right, this will benefit magazines like Wired at the expense of blogs like Steven Rubio’s Online Life.
To be honest, I can’t be sure how this affects me. My blog currently has 20 subscribers in Reader … I haven’t checked it in a long time, it’s possible I’ve already lost a few subscribers as people flock to new RSS tools. On the one hand, losing 20 readers doesn’t seem like such a big thing, especially since I assume a lot of those twenty people come to my blog from other places, as well. On the other hand, if my blog lost 20 readers, I might not have any readership left … it’s not like I have a huge audience to begin with.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been more diligent about cross-posting my blog posts to Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. I get some feedback from Facebook friends, and in fact I’m sure I have a few more readers than I used to, simply because until I started cross-posting, most of my Facebook friends had no idea I had a blog. Google+ works even better. For Facebook and Twitter, I just post a link to the blog, but for G+, I cut-and-paste the actual post, making another place where people can interact with what I’ve written. So I’m already adapting to the new, post-RSS world. I doubt anything can kill this blog at this point, eleven years into the project, until something kills me.