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Hackernoon logoCan RSS become social? by@badrihippo

Can RSS become social?

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@badrihippoBadri Sunderarajan

We use it for following feeds, but there’s potential for so much more!

Editor’s Note: Hacker Noon RSS is
Image composed using icons by P.J Onori and Abhishek Pipalva on Iconfinder

I returned to RSS a few weeks ago, after a long hiatus.

The last time I stopped was during the social media boom, when everyone was on Facebook, and later on Google+. Then came link, and link sharing, and oops my followers aren’t posting anything interesting, so let me follow these Pages that share their latest articles instead.

Then Facebook become pointless and advertise-y and attention-span-too-short-ish, not to mention Big Brother who’s growing bigger by the day.

That’s when I found Medium, where you’re encouraged to write original pieces and everyone actually says things at reasonable length. Medium also has social features, like following people, highlighting passages, and even placing comments in the margins of the text. (Haven’t heard that before? Try it out now!).

That’s great, but here’s the thing: not everyone’s on Medium. I like the community here, of course, but there’s other stuff I want to read, too.

Around that point, I found this article called It’s Time for an RSS Revival, and decided to re-activate my reader.

Now I can find all the interesting tidbits that most people miss because the algorithms didn’t think them worthy of viewing.

Because, here’s the thing with RSS: there is no algorithm.

RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication” (or “Rich Site Summary, depending on whom you ask”). The idea really is simple. You decide which RSS feeds you want to subscribe to, using either a reader app or an online service.

Then, whenever you like, you can feel like, you can check that feed and see all the latest items published on it. And by “all” I mean all: Every single item published gets shown on your reader — there’s no algorithm filtering stuff out.

That could get a bit overwhelming, of course. But with a bit of fine-tuning and (most important!) a good user interface, you can read, listen and watch content from your favourite sites, without worrying what the algorithms are going behind your back.

But what are these “RSS feeds” and where does one find them? The nice part is, almost everyone uses RSS. It’s been around for so long one would have thought it obsolete, but RSS is still very much there. You can find it hiding in its unobtrusive fashion at major outlets like The New York Times, all the way down to the tiniest WordPress blog, Tumblr feed, Medium publication, and, yes, even your Gmail inbox.

RSS is not a Big Thing to talk about in the way people discuss Facebook or Flipboard. It’s not a service or a company, just a standard XML-based format for pushing out updates. And that’s probably what’s helped it survive so long. Those who use RSS find it useful, but it’s so silent and in-the-background that major platforms don’t think of it as a threat. They include it into their services, just because.

There’s one thing I miss in RSS, which is the social aspect. Read-it-later services like Pocket let me not only save articles, but also share (“Recommend”) the ones I really like, or send them to a specific friend.

Some RSS readers have sharing services as well, but you still need an external service. What if there was a way to share your RSS readings using RSS itself?

I’d never considered the question earlier (RSS is so in-the-background that no one usually considers it earlier) but I got the idea while exploring

gPodder is a podcast client for your desktop, so you can subscribe and manage the podcasts you listen to., on the other hand, is a web service that lets people discover and share podcasts with one another.

Podcasts, I recently realised, are RSS feeds too. They have some extra metadata, and there are fancy apps and interfaces to help you “discover” and “subscribe” to podcasts, but ultimately, what you’re doing is simply subscribing to an RSS feed. Your podcast subscription list is an RSS feed list.

If you have the gPodder-compatible software and a account, you can sync your subscription list across devices. (Because has an open API, there are many compatible clients apart from gPodder itself). The website also lets you publish your podcast lists so other people know what you’re subscribing to.

But what got me excited was the Favourites feature. You can mark your favourite episodes, and lets you publish that Favourites list…in the form of an RSS feed!

The Favourites List seemed to me like an RSS edition of Medium’s Recommends. (“Recommends” was Medium’s name for favouriting articles, before they changed it to “claps” and let you do it more than once).

Because, following podcasts vs. following favourites-lists is a bit like following Publications vs. following people. You follow a podcast to hear the latest episodes; you follow a favourites-list to hear what your friends are listening to.

And that gave me an idea: what if other features worked this way too? What if you could subscribe to what someone’s highlighted or commented on, as well as when they’ve written or published? This doesn’t need to be another centralised publication. It can be a decentralised way of sharing feeds, where anyone can send out their likes as an RSS file, same as they’ve always been doing.

We’ll need to make the feed and readers just a bit smarter. The feeds could tell whether an item is original or re-shared. The feed-reader should be able to detect duplicates (as I’m sure some already can), and leave a note saying “This person also recommended this” or “That person commented here”.

(Of course, if people don’t want the social stuff, they can just not subscribe to the social feeds, and continue with the old ones as usual).

There are already platforms who’ve done this internally, on their services. Feedly tells you how many people have subscribed to a feed; Inoreader lets you share articles with your friends. gPodder lets you publish a list of your favourites.

RSS platforms are already going social. Now, how about we go social in an RSS kind of way?

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