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Some folks have been talking about how much better RSS was than the current nightmare of out-of-control social networks.

First of all, they're about 95% correct. The world of RSS was way better than our current world. The 5% where they're wrong, is how inaccessible it was to start a blog and to follow blogs, compared to making a Facebook page or Twitter account, and following other people's. Those social networks got way more popular partly because they were way easier for the vast majority of people to deal with.

But there's another level on which they're wrong, and that is: RSS was already the web outgrowing itself. Blogs were already an innovation on top of the old web, on top of a bunch of static pages hosted in plain old directories. They were web apps, and web apps are not web pages (though the earliest versions of web apps, like MovableType, produced web pages). The transition from "the web" to "the blogosphere" was a shift which excited and troubled people as much as the shift from "the blogosphere" to "the social media world.". We squish the past together when we remember it.

RSS? RSS sounds great but if you have an incredibly popular blog, and twenty thousand readers with their RSS readers' refresh rate set to "5 minutes" because they want to know about it the moment you write something new, then you're going bankrupt with bandwidth costs. RSS only works well if your blog doesn't have too many readers (for example, because it’s the early days of the internet and not that many people are on it), or if the vast majority of your readers subscribe through an intermediary service, like Google Reader. At which point they're either paying for it, or subject to analytics and ads from that platform. which might as well be Facebook.

I love RSS, still use it every day, but I do it through Feedly and I don't know what Feedly is doing behind the scenes or who they're selling me out to. Hopefully nobody but who knows?*

And the whole problem of communication. How do you have a conversation between blogs? There are two methods: comments ("don't read the comments!") and trackbacks/pingbacks, a clever mechanism which was destroyed by spam early on. (And trackbacks/pingbacks were themselves an improvement on an eariler technique which involved reading the "referer" [sic] properties of incoming links, which let you find out where people were linking to your page from… Except that when people started displaying them proudly they were promptly overrun by spambots.)

If you're going to set up a "let's get back to the basics of the web" movement, and you want to be hardcore about it, you have to throw away blogs and RSS. (There was a web before blogs and RSS, you know. I was there.) Or you have to acknowledge that the blog/RSS world was itself a series of leapfrogging attempts to solve the problem of communicating in a decentralized fashion on the web, in the face of an avalanche of bad actors. And it never found the right answer. If it had, people wouldn't have flocked to the social networks instead.

Don't over-idolize the past. It's important to go back and realize what we once had that we've lost or forgotten about, because so often we throw things away without realizing their value. But there was a reason they didn't seem valuable to at the time and the new shiny thing seemed so great. It's because the old stuff had real problems and the new shiny thing offered solutions, even if those solutions would come at a cost we later regretted.

* I could set up my own instance of a web-based feed reader instead, because I’m in the top percentile of internet savvy people. The other percentiles never could, so they couldn’t use RSS and have their reading synchronized across devices, which also makes RSS a drag for them compared to a social network.