Our Regressive Web
An entrepreneur friend of mine remarked to me recently that if someone invented the nightly news today—or a show like Brian Williams’ “Rock Center”—we’d all think it was a great idea.
Think about it: Instead of having to follow all these different news sources, you could just tune in, get a digest of all the important stuff that happened, and you could trust that it had been verified, that it was balanced and high-quality, and would all be well-produced.
Imagine for a minute that somewhere in Menlo Park or Palo Alto, a few guys got together and formed a start up. They rented some cheap office space in a faceless business park, they gave their company a cool name that’s probably missing a vowel somewhere, and then they built a business around a single idea, a single question:
What if someone invented a service where, instead of having to check all your important blogs, instead of having to check Twitter and Tumblr a million times a day, you could get all the updates in one place?
Then one night, after a marathon session of coding and debugging, they were sitting around eating pizza and drinking some beers, and one of them said, “You know, our service is great for allowing people to filter exactly who they want to read, but what if you’re more interested in a particular topic and everything that’s being said about it? Like, for instance, if you work in PR and you want to know what’s being said about one of your clients.”
Then he asked the next logical question:
“What if instead of having to track a bunch of different news sources to see if they’d mentioned a topic or person you’re interested in, you could just get email alerts whenever it happened?”
Another great idea!
Right now, today, how quickly would this get picked up by Y-Combinator? How quickly would VC firms throw MILLIONS at it to scale it up? How many TechCrunch articles would we have read about this startup by now?
Yet here we sit, both of those awesome services essentially shuttered in the last year, primed for the scrap heap of Internet history. Then there’s Delicious—a similar idea that allows you to organize your links by categories and see what other people thought were valuable—which has not been shut down, per se, just slowly maimed beyond recognition, its loyal users driven away.
And for what reason? Nothing better has risen up to replace them. The underlying needs of a fairly large user base (that these services meet) still exist.
We’re just regressing.
It’s the one thing I find most disheartening and perhaps most frustrating about this trend. It’s something that needs to be heard, particularly by the people who wrote off these services as Web 1.0 or Web 2.0 relics—the type who said, “Well, nobody used RSS, so good riddance.”
The collapse of these services, to me, represents an alarming reduction of key services designed to improve online information from the user’s perspective.
I have always loved RSS because it gave me just the slightest bit of control and measure of accountability for the sites and blogs I read. I was able to sit back and opt out of most of the chatter, receiving only the important stuff without the risk of falling for false controversies and inaccurate news. I could spot editorial trends, identify site biases, develop affinities for particular writers or aversions to others, and generally get the news on my terms. When a site stopped delivering a quality product, I had the satisfying ability to withdraw my subscription.
Apparently that power was threatening.
Think about it: in an ad impression-and pageview-driven business, a service that allows users to opt out of the noise and get content delivered directly to them is dangerous. When the common practice for bloggers is to publish first, verify second, the paper trail of Google Reader can be an embarrassment. And when sites do everything they can to hook you and increase the critical “time on site” metric or hit you with retargeting cookies, off-site RSS Readers once again stand in the way.
In other words, RSS is impervious to blogging’s worst, but most profitable, traits:
-Flashing banner ads
-Click baiting headlines
-“Most Popular” and “Most Emailed” leaderboards
-“You might also like” suggestions from competitors and sister sites
-Trollish comment sections
No wonder nobody ever pushed for widespread adoption of RSS. Of course it died a slow death—along with Google Alerts and Delicious. Their mission is antithetical to the ethos of our new media age, where noise, chatter and pushing—not pulling—rule the day.
I’m not saying there was some orchestrated and deliberate conspiracy to crush RSS. But like 'Who Killed the Electric Car?”' many interested parties contributed to its hinderance and ultimate destruction. Yet we all bear the consequences.
The lack of “subscription”—in any form—creates what I termed the "One Off Problem” in my book Trust Me I’m Lying. In the desperate daily fight for traffic, every online article and headline has to compete for attention against the many millions of other headlines out there—whether it's on Google News or our Facebook feeds. And it was this exact kind of endless shouting to be heard a century ago (in that case, by newsboys on street corners) that defined yellow journalism and caused its many tragedies.
Google Alerts, Delicious and RSS were designed in blogging’s early days as innovations to help readers reduce this noise—to help improve their reading experience. But now those gains are disappearing. I feel that the tech press has allowed this to happen.
We’re regressing because we’re so focused on the new that we forgot the importance of the old. The tech press is too busy chattering about other “innovations” like retargeting, paywalls, native advertising. Except those changes are at the margins—at best. And because of that distraction or lack of understanding of the bigger picture, we’ve watched some of our best products get destroyed—as other services launched bonafide extortion as a business model.
I’m disillusioned, but can you blame me? I’m also fully aware of and enjoy the irony of writing all this here on, Medium.
Because if you think about it, the platform’s mission—what if we created a site with great, thoughtful writing from smart people?—is exactly what blogging was supposed to be in the first place.
So yeah, I think we’re regressing.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers. His monthly reading recommendations are found here.