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In mid-December, Substack made an announcement that, unless you had been closely tracking the company, came as a bit of a surprise. It is essentially bringing RSS back from the dead by creating its own RSS reader for both its network of user-created newsletters and other RSS feeds across the internet.
The concept behind RSS is simple, not to mention effective: You add all the feeds from your favorite sites to your RSS app of choice, and as those sites published new stories, they would arrive in your feed much in the same way email arrives in an inbox.
And what it lacks in elegance (it was never not a utilitarian experience) it makes up for in efficiency. During the peak era of RSS, there was simply no better way to pore over hundreds of headlines from dozens of sites in a matter of minutes.
This isn’t to say that RSS hasn’t been around. It has half-heartedly existed in various forms over the last eight years, but the vast majority of websites no longer support the standard, and it more or less faded into obscurity the second Google Reader was put out to pasture in 2013.
Substack had been making RSS feeds available for anyone who published a newsletter on their platform, but the move to actually build an RSS reader years after the technology’s demise signals something bigger: we need better ways to engage with the media we consume.
In the time since RSS disappeared, much has changed in the world of social media, online publishing and internet content at large . . . and not always for the better.
Newsrooms are shrinking and disappearing at an unsettling rate. Twitter has turned into a cesspool of disingenuous arguing and misinformed thinking. And the tech giants, despite their ambitions of becoming the gatekeepers of news and publishing on the internet, refuse to fully accept the responsibility that comes with that.
This shift has led a number of prominent writers, editors and thinkers to step outside of traditional publishing models altogether and instead try to reach their audience directly by sending newsletters via one of the internet’s oldest infrastructures, email.
But effective as this can be, newsletters still find themselves competing against an endless barrage of sale announcements, bill reminders and emails from your parents asking why you’re ignoring them. Gmail will scuttle newsletters off into folders that don’t send notifications to your phone. Over time, these newsletters end up living in your spam folder. This is where Substack’s return to RSS factors in.
By giving newsletters their own home in the same way that podcasts and vloggers/streamers have their own distribution platforms (in the form of Spotify, Stitcher, Twitch and Youtube), the hope is that they’ll have a dedicated space people will want to engage with; one where they won’t be buried, obscured and forgotten about.
Sure, this is essentially just blogging by any other name, but newsletters have proven effective because the act of sending your latest content directly to your readers is decidedly less passive than relying on your readers to remember to visit your site.
This isn’t just Substack cashing in on nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. For a company and content platform trying to fight through the sea of infinite tweets and search results, the marriage of Substack newsletters and RSS is near perfect.
It wasn’t that long ago, back before Google, Facebook and Twitter discovered they could be the all-encompassing internet hubs for current affairs, that news junkies used RSS readers to keep up on the latest updates from their favorite sites.
But for a variety of reasons, RSS went away. Publishers soured on it because it wasn’t the most ad-friendly technology. Readers drifted away because Twitter was a faster and sometimes more dynamic way to consume breaking news. Meanwhile, our overall internet habits veered from visiting website homepages to just Googling topics we were interested in.
Yet here we are at the start of 2021 and one of the hottest content companies of 2020 is focused on reviving a thing that’s been dead for eight years. And this isn’t just something we should want, it’s something we need.
After a 2020 full of death, disaster and discrimination, we need a platform for distributing content where the conversation isn’t constantly derailed by unchecked trolls; where it doesn’t feel like our attention is being exploited or gamified; where we can actually read the stories we want to read and not the ones that a sub-optimal algorithm is guessing we want to read.
And that is why, as much as anything on the internet right now, we should be excited about a 20-year-old technology making its return.