I wrote a quick article last night listing several open source alternatives to Google Reader, after the announcement that Google plans to drop the application in July of this year. There was an fairly active conversation on Twitter about this for about 24 hours, which I found myself following and responding to… In fact, this exchange with Open Source Way is what brought about my piece: Eight Definite Open Source RSS Feed Readers (Plus a few more).
However, while writing the piece, I didn’t really have the time to explain why I really feel this whole topic is important. Dieter Bohn has one explanation in his article Why RSS still matters and there is obviously still a need that Digg has recognized. While others have recognized that in some parts of the world it may also be important. My reasons go beyond needing to find open source solutions, and making certain that the user has control over how they are using the internet. There are two topics that are rooted in social issues (similar to, but different from the censorship issue), instead of technological issues, which most of the media has failed to recognize. There is also a third, semi-technical concept, that should be discussed.
Before I get into the meat of the issues, however, I wanted to take a moment to pay homage to one of the driving forces behind Real Simple Syndication (aka RSS) technology. That would be none other than Aaron Swartz, the recently deceased internet activist and programmer. He was involved in co-authoring the original RSS 1.0 specification at the age of 14. If someone like Aaron hadn’t been active in this technology, it is quite likely that this topic would not be the same.
A note before I get started: I use the terms like “RSS” or “feed reader” throughout the text of this article. I use this as an umbrella term for all syndication formats that are available: RDF, Atom, RSS1, RSS2, etc.
A Growing Divide
The growth of the social internet (Twitter, FaceBook, Tumblr, etc.) has launched a phrase into ethersphere: “too long; didn’t read” which is frequently abbreviated as tl;dr. This shows a negative aspect of the social internet. Many people feel that information needs to be fed to them in spoon sized messages that are 140 characters, or in the context of a status update. However, deeper understanding of the issues that surround us in our daily lives, and of the larger social order cannot be conveyed in such tiny granules. Given the natural tendencies to have limited social circles, we are unlikely to even be exposed to a plethora of issues in our society without actively seeking out such information.
RSS readers cut against the tl;dr concept, and even allow expansion beyond what was previously available. In previous generations most of the news and information was supplied by local or regional newspapers, and maybe a few national magazines or newspapers. RSS readers allow us to subscribe to any number of publications, from generalized to specific. This allows the reader to find information well beyond that of our social environment, or the limited resources available in the past. And that content is more than what can be conveyed in a tweet or a status message. Many of the articles that users read using RSS Readers provide more insight, and provoke more thought that would not be found if we relied on the social internet alone.
This has, in a way, brought about a form of division socially that is somewhat new in this generation. The “too long; didn’t read” division, if you will. People that use RSS Readers tend to be more like academics or intellectuals, amassing greater amounts of knowledge, while the casual user of the social internet is only exposed to information form their peers.
Internet As Library
There is, or at least has been, a rule regarding libraries that has managed to stand up over many decades: the materials that a person checks out from a library are not public knowledge. Law enforcement and other entities do not have the right to demand the records of the materials that you have checked out. Unfortunately, this kind of privacy has not been extended to the internet. The music, videos, books and other media materials that you download from or read on the internet can be the subject of an investigation by law enforcement. Clearly, Google’s Transparency Website shows that there is growth in the requests that are being made by law enforcement to access this material.
RSS feed readers afford the user the opportunity to build a personal library of periodic material. By using a hosted service, such as Google Reader, Feedly, or many others that are available this information is subject to the same types of inquiries under the DMCA, CFAA, and similar international laws.
Now you might think, “I don’t read anything that could be that interesting to law enforcement.” And, certainly, maybe you don’t. However, what if you wanted to research political parties during an election season, and subscribed to some of the more extremist view point publications? What you are a technologist interested in cryptography? What if you became moved enough to become an activist for some form of social reform, and subscribed to several publications that shared or were opposed to your views?
Could any of this information be of interest to law enforcement, even if your activities were not themselves illegal? What if you investigated solely for subscribing to some publications?
With a hosted service, it is likely that you would not know that your information was being accessed by any other entity (law enforcement, or say as part of a lawsuit). However, with a local, self hosted RSS feed reader, you are more likely to know if that information is of interest to anyone else, and you have the ability to use proxies, encryption and other tools to attempt to keep as much of that information private. (Admittedly, this leads into a technical conversation about feed reader configurations proxies, encryption, and other things that are beyond the scope of this article. However, there is much information on these topics available should should you be interested.)
Beyond Delivering News
Today’s RSS feed readers go well beyond delivering just text news. Audio podcasts (radio-like shows in a similar format similar to music downloaded from iTunes or Amazon), video content (from YouTube and other sources) as well as textual content are available via feed readers. Using this form of aggregation for multimedia materials allows you much greater flexibility. You can chose what and when to listen, read or watch things that may be of interest to you. You can chose how to organize those materials. There is little need to go running to individual websites and sort through all of their content to find the pieces that interest you: short summaries give you an idea if a piece is of interest, if it is you can go directly to the article on the website and read the full text. If the content is a video or podcast, you can frequently listen / watch the material right in your reader.
Of course, this cuts against what companies like Netflix, Amazon, Google, Apple and others would want you to do. They want you to go to their sites, and buy materials directly, and in fact, they don’t even want you to buy the materials. Instead they want you to buy a license to the materials so they can maintain control of them and decide how you are allowed to use them. Using a feed reader to aggregate all of this content cuts against their desire to make you have an “experience” on their site. It allows you to be more deliberate and target in the content you pursue.
When I started writing this article, I made a conscious choice to avoid certain topics I am somewhat less than knowledgeable about regarding the use of RSS feeder technology. Fortunately, several other articles have been published that are worth reading on this subject. Some of them are contrary to the subjects in this article, and some of the supplement the arguments I put forth:
- Why We Mourn Google Reader – And Why It Matters by John Paul Titlow
- RSS Can’t Fill Google Reader Void by Michael Surtees
- Google Reader Fans, Do Not Fret: Use Twitter As Your Feed Reader by Allison Stadd
- Petition to save Google Reader passes 100,000 signatures, but don’t expect Google to reverse its decision by Emil Protalinski
- Google may be readying an Apple Newsstand-like feature called Google Play News, with issues and subscriptions by Emil Protalinski
- Digg – Yes, That Digg – Is Building A Google Reader Replacement, Complete With API by Darrell Etherington
As well as a host of other articles. Including ones that indicate that RSS readers are useful for people in other countries where it is not directly possible to access some websites (in essence, using an RSS feed reader is akin to using a proxy). The things that I wanted to convey were a bit different from the host of articles that have been published already:
- There is a large difference between the social internet sites like Twitter and FaceBook, and using RSS feed reader. In fact, in a respect, the difference is large enough that it appears to be a form of social divide itself.
- There is a large difference between local / self hosted RSS feed readers, and hosted services like Feedly. These are differences that may matter in what users chose to use in place of Google Reader in the future.
- RSS feed readers are not just for textual information. Nearly all readers have the ability to handle multimedia, such as video and audio. This flexibility allows them to be used in ways that are problematic for companies like Amazon and Apple, and even threaten some media outlets (while supplementing some, like CNN, ESPN, etc.).
And there are lots more things that can be said on this topic. But, I think, if you actually took the time to read this article, you are likely (a) already use this type of technology, and (b) are likely to be able to seek out more sources of opinions and information on this topic. Hopefully my opinions will make you want to do such research.