The “invention” of RSS and the snowball effect

The arguments over the history of RSS are interminable and overheated, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for tuning them out. RSS is the technology (really, that’s a glorified label for what is a relatively simple file-format specification) that lets you subscribe to feeds from blogs and other Web publishers. Early adopters on the Net have embraced RSS whole hog; today it’s how I take in most of the information I read online. Yet much of the general public is still awaiting a basic introduction to this incredibly useful tool. Back in 2003 I wrote that, with RSS, it felt like we were about where we were in 1994 with the Web itself; today we’re maybe in 1996 or 1997.

RSS is important, and so technology industry leaders and pundits have already devoted a remarkable amount of energy toward arguing about its origins — including, most recently, debating a controversial patent filing by Microsoft. (The idea of patenting anything to do with RSS strikes me as ridiculous and counter-productive, but my grasp of patents is limited, and it’s always been hard for me to understand the idea of any kind of software patent.)

Even if you’ve tuned out the RSS debate, though, I’d recommend checking out Dave Winer’s post from today, “RSS Wasn’t Invented.” Dave argues that what matters in the RSS story isn’t the (non-existent) moment that the idea for the technology was conceived, but rather the complex and slowly-unfolding process by which RSS tools came into wide use. Discovery of the value and purpose of RSS, you might say, took place long after the specifics of its technical functionality were first imagined.

The “invention” of RSS, muddied as it was by prior art, wasn’t responsible for its uptake. Rather there were several significant moments along the way: support by individual publications, individual bloggers, then blogging tools, then a small number of aggregators and readers, then a few very large publishers, then a flood of publishing and reading tools, followed by a flood of content.

I can vouch for Winer’s argument because I recall the early adoption of RSS at Salon, in, I believe, late 1999 or early 2000. We needed a simple tool to circulate our daily list of headlines and links to partner sites, and one of our engineers chose an XML file format he was familiar with through its use by Netscape. We didn’t know it by the name “RSS,” and we weren’t adopting it for any purpose relating to blogging. We just grabbed a handy format that looked easy for our partners to receive and put it to use. Later on, the rise of blogs — based on publishing tools that Winer, and the folks at Blogger, and later the folks at Movable Type and others, had produced — created a demand from the general public for subscribable RSS feeds. When I went to our engineering team and said, “We need to provide an RSS feed for Salon,” we realized that we had one already, we just weren’t calling it that.

RSS was simple for developers to produce and gradually got easier for non-technical users to consume. The complex and murky (and contentious) story of how its technical specifics gradually coalesced is far less important than the social process by which a “virtuous circle” or snowball effect spread its adoption. I know I’m striding into choppy waters here, but I can vouch for it, because I witnessed so much of the story: Winer deserves credit for a central role in getting that snowball started.

In any case, what’s more important is his argument today — that the tech industry needs to study and learn from the story of how successes like RSS unfold:

If it had been left at the “invention” stage, it would be where many other XML-related technologies are today, invented, but not much-used. Something new was done with the cloud of content, tools, aggregators, and that allowed a lot more people to use it, or hear about it, or decide it was finally time to support it.

[tags]rss, blogging, dave winer[/tags]

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  1. Scott, your account of Salon’s use of RSS is right on the money as I recall. I believe we rolled it out in 1999. It wasn’t until much later that I even became acquainted with the various RSS debates — we were just doing what was convenient to us at the time.

  2. RSS achieved success not because it’s good, but because there was nothing else around that was any better. If something else comes out that works better, RSS will be gone tomorrow. Bloggers needed ways to inform users of new articles. RSS was not the only attempt, and RSS itself is still not well integrated into tools. Many RSS tools are still separate apps.

    As an invention, I would not want to be associated with it. It’s a clunky concept based on polling. Nothing new here. Just like the rest of the Web, it’s yet another badly strung together idea that doesn’t work well with anything else. RSS is rather forced as a concept. Just like CSS, XML, client-side scripting languages (ever try using something other than JS?) and all the rest, the web is the new DOS. Only thing is that at least with DOS, you didn’t have to worry that the architecture changed at any given time. With the web, you’re constantly writing hacks to make it seem like everything is in order. That’s no way to do things.

    I’m an optimist. And maybe a dreamer. But we need a web where the client’s browser functionality is not limited. As much as we look at the web as something that provides content, so is the opposite true. Humans provide servers with content. So I believe that the browser should have a well-defined API so that web content can be displayed properly using whatever tools they want. Unfortunately, there’s this other bad idea going around that portability is achieved with VM’s (completely false BTW). And so we’re stuck with things like RSS, XML and a backwards look at how software should be.

    With the New Year, it could signify starting fresh and doing things right. Who knows? Maybe someone will come out with something that’s actually fun to work with.

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