Unfriended

So here’s a bit of news from Australia, where legislation has been published to make Google and Facebook pay news publishers. The main response to this has been from Facebook who decided to show their displeasure and, presumably convince everyone that they are too important for legislators, by blocking links to news websites in the country.

This didn’t go quite to plan:

But when Facebook implemented its ban, an online bookstore, charities, and even a domestic violence support service saw their Facebook presences erased. Australia’s national Basketball and Rugby bodies also saw their pages sent to the sin bin.

According to Facebook, this is because the law doesn’t spell out clearly enough, for them, what is news and what isn’t.

This leaves Facebook in the interesting position of telling advertisers it offers superior micro-targeting services, while telling the world it is unable to tell the difference between a newspaper and a bookshop.

When I saw this story, I was close to posting the above quote and leaving it at that. But then I read on and, while the reporter notes that:

Having woken up to a news-free Facebook, your Australia-based correspondent can report that that sky has not fallen in and it remains possible to be well-informed and entertained down under.

Which is as it should be. Facebook, ultimately, is just a website and one that I have been quite happy to ignore since I deleted my account in 2012.

But then there’s this:

I’ve seen other complaining that they liked Facebook as a news aggregator and miss that aspect of its service but will instead visit actual media websites even if that’s a bit fiddly.

Apologies in advance to anyone reading this who gets their news from Facebook, but this is madness.

Facebook uses an algorithm to determine what to show you. Obviously, I have no insight into how this algorithm works — which is a problem in itself — but we do know that it tends to simply deliver more of the same, dragging users of the Zuckerweb into ever more polarised echo chambers.

There is a better alternative. It’s called RSS.

This is a technology that saw it’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century and allows you to aggregate all of the content, across the web, that you want to see. You would visit a website, add their RSS feed to your preferred reader and, from then on, all of their content is delivered straight to you. It really is that simple.

RSS has fallen out of favour somewhat with the rise of social media and its algorithmic timelines took hold, even though the technology itself still underpins much of the modern web. I still use it, however, and I honestly don’t know how I would manage without it. I can see what I want, when I want, and organised how I want.

So, rather than having to constantly keep up with the latest online drama, I can take twenty minutes, two or three times a day, to check up on issues and subjects that interest and concern me. And then I can go back to focussing on whatever else I’m supposed to be doing.

Although RSS has fallen out of favour, it hasn’t gone away. Many news sites, most blogs and many other sites continue to deliver RSS feeds. The Guardian, for example, offers a feed not only for the site as a whole, but also a separate feed for every individual writer and subject. And, of course, there are still plenty of aggregators out there.

I have been happily using NewsBlur since Google Reader was killed off, but many other options are available.

Solving the wrong problem

Dave Winer thinks that podcast RSS feeds should be ghettoised.

Here’s the problem. If you put a link to the RSS feed alongside the links to iTunes and Stitcher and whatever else, you’re going to get a bunch of emails from users about how your site is broken. I know, because I’ve gotten those emails.

And here’s his answer:

Create a simple page that says “This is a link to our RSS feed. It’s used by developers and hobbyists to build their own listeners and it helps support innovation on the internet.”

This is a terrible solution, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the suggested statement is flat-out not true. Speaking for myself, I don’t use iTunes or Stitcher. I use gPodder. If I find an interesting podcast I need an RSS feed to follow it — if you don’t give me a feed I’m not going to follow your content. It really is as simple as that.

This leads to the second problem, which is that Winer is assuming that proprietary feeds are the norm and should therefore be given preferential treatment to open standards. I’m not going to dispute the first part of this assumption but to present RSS as some curiosity that is only of interest to hobbyists is to consign it to history. If you want RSS to remain a viable standard, the RSS feed needs to be given at least the same precedence as the proprietary feeds.

As to the problem that Winer is trying to solve. How many people, really, are incapable of clicking on the correct link? A quick search across the corporate podcasts that I listen to reveals that neither the BBC nor The Guardian feel the need to make some special “your’re stupid” statement about RSS. In fact, The Guardian even manages to force a few extra clicks out of you regardless of what feed you choose.

Of course, the best approach is that taken by the Duffercast1. A single subscribe link takes you to all the feeds with no special statements about any of them, because some audiocasts have listeners who are capable of using the internet.

Footnote

  1. Disclaimer: Yes, I am a duffer