RSS: The Persistent Protocol
One of our themes is Protocol. We’ve been investing in companies built around technology protocols since 1994. One of my first investments, when I moved to Boulder in 1995, was in a company called Email Publishing, which was the very first email service provider. SMTP has been very good to me.
We made some of the early investments in companies built around RSS, including FeedBurner and NewsGator. RSS is a brilliant, and very durable, protocol. The original creators of the protocol had great vision, but the history and evolution of RSS were filled with challenges and controversy. Like religious conflict, the emotion ran higher than it needed to and the ad-hominem attacks drove some great people away from engaging with the community around the protocol.
And then Facebook and Twitter took over. RSS Feed Readers mostly vanished, and the feed became the “Twitter feed.” After a while, Facebook realized this was a good idea, and created the “Facebook news feed.” I think it’s hilarious that the word “feed” is still in common usage – The Dixie Flatline is amused.
Over dinner, after he had become the COO of Twitter (but before he was the CEO), Dick Costolo (who had previously been the founder/CEO of FeedBurner) told me that he viewed Twitter as the evolution of RSS. At a protocol level this wasn’t true, but at a functional level (providing another way to get access to everything going on any website that was publishing content) this became true. Our investment in Gnip (which Twitter eventually acquired) helped extend this, by allowing companies to build products on top of the Twitter firehose (which was the name for the entirety of everything being tweeted on Twitter.)
Time passed. Facebook and Twitter gobbled up all the direct attention of end-users. Publishers pushed their content through Facebook and Twitter, not realizing the control over the user they were giving up to these platforms. For some reason, there was more focus for a while on Google, and how they were aggregating content. The beauty, and brilliance, of the web, started to become the walled garden of Facebook. For those of us who remembered AOL’s walled garden vs. the web (and Microsoft’s failed attempt as MSN as a walled garden), there were echoes of the past all over the place.
Some smart people started talking extensively about decentralization and lock-in right around the time that the Facebook privacy stuff became front and center. As it unfolded, and the dust settled, there was nothing new, other than a continued schism between the effort to control (and monetize) users and the effort to create broadly democratized and decentralized information. Oh – and privacy. And legitimacy (or authenticity) of information, much of which is wholly subjective or imprecise anyway.
In the middle of all of this, Wired’s Article It’s Time For An RSS Revival caught my attention. I’ve been using RSS continuously for over a decade as my primary source of information. My current feed reader is Feedly, which I think is currently the best in class. It’s one of my primary sources for information that informs me, is private, and allows me to control and modulate what information I look at.
While RSS has disappeared into the plumbing of the internet, there’s still something fundamental about it. Its durability is remarkably impressive, especially in the context of the lack of the evolution and perceived displacement of the protocol over the past few years.
The tension between walled gardens (or lock-in, or whatever you want to call it) and a decentralized web will likely never end. But, it feels like we are in for another significant turn of the crank on how all of this works, and that means lots of innovation is coming.