I’ve been including a meta link to my RSS feed on this site since early 2002. For a time, when I built my own XML/XSLT system using PHP back in 2004, I also included an alternative link to an Atom feed. Chances are, since you read this site, you probably know what RSS and Atom are. You probably even know what XML and maybe even XSLT are. But 98% percent of people who use the internet do not.
RSS, at its core, is a great idea. Take mostly-plaintext summaries (or full-length versions) of your content and put them in a single feed so various application types can download it regularly and cache it locally, allowing offline and collective access for users. Rather than checking 50 different URLs, a user can open, say, Reeder, and read all of their favorite websites in one pleasant go. If you get it, it’s great.
The problem is, most people don’t get it. They don’t click on those native RSS buttons and they certainly don’t use Reeder or another feed-reading app. I’ve tried, several times, to show my wife how the RSS functionality in Firefox works. I’ve added live subscriptions for all of her favorite sites, but she still clicks bookmarks every day. RSS is too complicated. Even worse, as a content publisher, there’s no way to combine streams of RSS data to give my readers all of my content in one place. I can’t mix my Flickr photostream with my Twitter updates with my posts from this website in one neat little package and give it to anyone who wants it (or, at least, not easily).
Facebook came close to solving this in the past. I could set my Twitter and Tumblr accounts to cross-post content to my Facebook wall, and since I post a copy of my photos and videos there too, my profile contained most of my important content in one place. The problem is that while it was ideal for anyone, it was only accessible to my Facebook friends. The inherent problem became: How do I share this content with people on Facebook who want it, but to whom I do not want to explicitly create a friendship? Many people took to approving any friend request and ended up with a thousand strangers as friends. I didn’t want to do that, though. I liked the idea of my Facebook friends list being a mostly-true collection of people I considered friends and acquaintances.
Tumblr also came close to solving this problem with its Dashboard feature. Any Tumblr user can follow my blog and their Dashboard will contain my posts from that point on. The Dashboard is well designed and easy to use, but the only way to get access to it is to create a Tumblr account (and, therefore, a blog), which a reader who doesn’t wish to post is unlikely to do for obvious reasons.
Recently, Facebook launched a new features called Subscriptions and solved the problem of RSS for regular folks. Now users can subscribe to my Facebook updates without us having to be friends. They’ll be able to see everything I post all in one place—photos, videos, Twitter updates and anything cross-posted from this site. For readers of this site who are RSS-savvy, this doesn’t really change anything. But for people who don’t use RSS and use Facebook, it creates a simplified version of subscriptions that feels more personal.
The one draw back here is Facebook friends who also read my website are, by default, seeing content twice. Luckily, anyone who doesn’t like this can unsubscribe from my updates but remain my friend, which is a nice touch. An additional benefit is Facebook allows my friends to comment on my posts whereas this site does not (subscribers, however, cannot). Of course, this all requires people interested in this sort of thing have a Facebook account, but these days more people use Facebook than have medical insurance.