2018-07-26 Who Fights for RSS?

Mozilla plans to cut RSS feed reader and Live Bookmarks support from Firefox. I can’t blame them. It’s complex (”outsized maintenance and security impact”). It’s the wrong UI (”not supporting any states like read”). I feel we’re better served by external tools.

Another thing that has been bothering me for years, specially when Emacs Wiki was popular, is the architecture depending on regular polling by every single reader. The polling interval must match the posting interval for this to make sense. On a dynamic site like a wiki generating the feed can take a lot of resources if you’re relatively small (no caching, CGI scripts, low memory, that kind of thing).

Furthermore, on a wiki, you really don’t want the changes of the last 30 days in the feed and if you’re going to do that anyway, with full page content, you’re wasting resources on the 29 days the user doesn’t care about. But how can I fine tune the feed I need to serve depending on the site’s activity and the user’s visit frequency?

Alternatively, we could have used push technology that notifies subscribers of changes. All Linkback methods use something like that: when you link to a resource, and both your site and the link target support the method, then the link target is notified of the link. You’re “pushing” a notification to a subscriber, basically.

Using push has the benefit of not clogging the net with useless pulls, but there are drawbacks:

  1. the server must know its subscribers (no privacy)
  2. subscribers must be “online” somewhere (just no)

That is why we are “stuck” with a technology developers don’t really like as soon as demands scale up.

And that’s why Mozilla can say “RSS/Atom has been in decline and support has been dropped by companies such as Google (Google Reader), or Apple (Apple Mail), or changed focus.” And that’s why I think we need to keep RSS/Atom despite big companies dropping support because RSS and Atom work precisely for the slow web, the small sites, for average Internet people, for us.

As @jos reminds me: real time communication is hard because it requires both publisher and subscribers to be online, running an application, all the time. RSS or Atom feeds can be static files. Simple things can be simple. That is an important property to help people get started with anything.

@brennen reminded me that currently, there’s a built-in button which activates when it sees the headers and links to the feed. It’s not part of the toolbar by default. You can enable it by clicking the hamburger menu and → Customize... → and drag the Subscribe button into your toolbar. He also says that people complained about the fact that this button was removed from the toolbar back in 2011. Mozilla didn’t want to fight for RSS back then and now they’re using the lack of use as their argument for the final removal. Not many people will be using a plugin to handle this for them. (He wrote more about this on his blog.)

Actually, note Show All Feeds for a bookmarklet to help feed discovery.

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