Is RSS becoming irrelevant?

Should browsers do more to support RSS? Not really

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Everybody panic! RSS is dying, or becoming irrelevant, or... something. So says Kroc Camen, anyway. According to Camen, RSS should be a browser's second most important feature, but instead it's going the way of the Dodo.

If you're reading this post via an RSS or Atom feed, you might scoff at the idea that RSS is dying. So did a lot of readers who responded to the post, causing Camen to back off the title with an update saying "I've been ill all week... it simply means that 'RSS is under threat of becoming irrelevant.'" So, let's ask if RSS risks being irrelevant. Camen is worked up because feed handling is being put in the backseat by Mozilla, and is already non-existent in Chrome by default. With Firefox 4.0, the friendly orange feed button won't be present by default.

Camen, a Web designer and contributor to OS News, is freaked out by this. But it seems a reasonable design decision on the part of Mozilla (if, admittedly, annoying to those of us who are perfectly happy with the current state of things). I make fairly heavy use of feeds to find news — in fact I stumbled on Camen's post thanks to Google Reader's sharing feature. But I'm an atypical user. You probably are too.

If you're reading this post via a feed, you aren't a "typical" user. According to stats gathered by Mozilla only about 7% of users use the RSS button. Though fewer Windows use the button, and nearly 14% of Linux users make use of it. The stats come from a heatmap study of nearly 10,000 Firefox Test Pilot users — a self-selecting group that's also likely to be more technical than average. If I recall correctly, Firefox has had the feed button since its first major release.

Millions of people use Firefox, but only a small subset of those folks use feeds despite all the work Firefox has put into Live Bookmarks and helping users subscribe to feeds with their favorite feed reader. And this is after more than 11 years of RSS (and a bit fewer for Atom) and the backing of some heavy hitters in the tech space.

Why? This isn't an education problem, it's an indication that most users aren't power users. If you spend several hours a day at the computer (as I assume Camen does) you tend to lose sight of how other folks use their computers. I comb hundreds of sites for news — but a handful of bookmarks are probably sufficient for folks who use their computer less than an hour a day.

According to Camen, "RSS is the browser's responsibility... what exists in current browsers isn't enough." While Mozilla could do more, I'd argue they've already done plenty. The real issue here is that RSS just isn't that crucial for most users despite years of pushing from Mozilla and others.

For users who care about RSS, things have never been better. Camen's piece caught my eye because I was just coming off writing a piece about feed readers for Linux. Things are great as far as feed reading clients go. Note that I wasn't subscribed to Camen's site — I found it because one of the people I follow on Google Reader found it. The reason that Facebook and Twitter are winning people's attention is because most people's social networks are much better at finding items of interest than subscribing to every site under the sun via a feed reader.

Is RSS dying? Is it irrelevant? No. It's as healthy as ever. It's just never been all that healthy if health means "widely adopted." It's still a feature that only appeals to a small portion of the market. The "threat" of apps, Facebook, and Twitter to RSS is overblown. Yes, a lot of people find news via Facebook and Twitter. All the soapboxing and education from Mozilla isn't going to change that. A front-and-center RSS button isn't going to change anything.

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