Twitter: 1, Google Reader: 0

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Posted by: stak
Tags: mozilla
Posted on: 2013-04-07 15:12:14

Here's my hypothesis: Twitter has subsumed RSS.

Pretty much any news site or blogger you would usually want to follow has both RSS and Twitter, and Twitter is just much simpler to use. It's a lot easier to follow somebody on Twitter than it is to add an RSS feed to a web-based aggregator like Google Reader. If you don't use a web-based aggregator you have portability/syncing issues where you have to set up your feeds on individual devices and keep them all in sync. Most importantly, Twitter serves as single notification stream that includes simple messages (tweets) and links to other longer/larger content.

So really, it's Twitter's fault that Google Reader is going away. But they're not the only one to blame. Firefox 4 (IIRC) removed the RSS button, making it that much harder to use RSS. Sure, you can argue very few people used it anyway, so removing it was a good idea, but that doesn't mean it didn't accelerate the downfall of RSS. I think other browsers have also made the RSS subscription flow less easy to use over the last few years.

Ordinarily I wouldn't really care about this, except that I kind of like the open web. Twitter is not the open web. I don't want Twitter to end up as the only way for me to subscribe to content. I fear that Google killing Reader is a sign that RSS use is already dwindling, and unless we act to save it, it will die completely.

Thankfully, the fine folks at Digg are building a Reader replacement, which I think is great. Not because I'll use it, but because it'll help slow (and hopefully reverse) the death of RSS.

It would be cool to see their reader clone (or any other web-based aggregators) take on Twitter directly, by making it as easy to reply/comment on articles as possible, and by having a lightweight way to "tweet" new content directly from the aggregator. For the former, it might be necessary to extend RSS to include things like URLs that accept HTTP POST replies or comments, and to specify the format of those POSTs (yay open standards). The latter will take a bit more architecting, probably requiring your feed aggregator to also be your feed publisher, so that it can insert these "tweets" into your feed along with your blog and/or other content.

I don't exactly know what would work and what wouldn't, and I'm probably the wrong person to be asking anyway since I don't use Twitter. But I do use RSS, and I hope that the only thing that kills RSS is another, even better, open standard.

Posted by DerManoMann at 2013-04-07 16:00:03
Your hypothesis is true, but only for people using twitter (obviously). Personally I do not use twitter at all (although I do have an account, of course...), so dropping RSS and assuming that people find it easier to use twitter is actually pushing people to use a particular service rather than a particular data format (RSS/Atom). Bad, IMHO.

Managing RSS feeds and syncing also depends on what you use to read it. I use a Firefox add-on (Brief), so subscribing to RSS is just bookmarking a feed url into a specific folder. With Firefox syncing history this even syncs my read items across devices.

It is true that the removal of the RSS button is a pain and I never fully really understood the rationale behind that. Having to look at the HTML source on a page to see if there is feed certainly is not the kind of comfort level I would expect from any browser.
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Posted by Simon at 2013-04-07 16:22:13
How is Twitter a substitute for RSS? It's pretty much useless for the purpose of distributing the kind of info that RSS is good for - I'm not going to go clicking on every link that comes down a Twitter stream, just in case there's something interesting in it. You sometimes see RSS feeds that have no content - just a linked title - and they're useless, not something I bother reading.
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Posted by stak at 2013-04-07 19:51:34
> How is Twitter a substitute for RSS?

They both provide a way to get push notifications for new content.

> You sometimes see RSS feeds that have no content - just a linked title - and they're useless,

It's still a push notification of new content that you may be interested in. You may consider that useless but many people do not.
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Posted by Simon at 2013-04-07 21:12:28
Thing is, from my point of view, Twitter *isn't* a notification of content I might be interested in, because it doesn't give me enough info to decide something might be interesting.

The problem I see is the same with web design - getting people to click through from the front page. With Twitter, I get a fragment of text and a shortened URL to click on - something which gives me little reason to do so. I contrast that with an RSS feed that shows the entire article in my feed reader - or at least, shows enough of it for me to judge whether to read the whole thing.
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Posted by stak at 2013-04-07 21:32:50
My point isn't about individual links being interesting or not. You seem to be assuming random links just appear in your twitter stream and you have to decide whether or not they're interesting to you. That's not the use case I'm describing. The use case I'm describing is this:

1. You come across an interesting blog.
2. You wish to find out every time the blog author posts something new.
3. The blog doesn't have an RSS feed.
4. The author tweets links to every new post made.

Therefore your only real option AFAIK is to follow the author on Twitter. Therefore Twitter is a substitute for the RSS feed that otherwise would have provided the same purpose. The tweets mentioned in item 4 are by definition content you may be interested in, because you chose to follow the author for precisely that reason.

My post assumes that item 4 is common for the majority of interesting blogs, at least in technical/webdev circles (that's what I meant in the first sentence after the hypothesis).
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Posted by Simon at 2013-04-08 00:37:43
<i>2. You wish to find out every time the blog author posts something new.</i>

Ok, so maybe that works for you, but for me, that step 2 isn't quite right. I don't want to find out if the author has posted something - I want to see what that author has posted.

Or rather, I want to decide whether or not to read it. I follow a *lot* of blogs, and I certainly don't read every single post on every single one of them. So the most important thing is that I be able to judge at a glance whether to spend any more time on any given post. That time management aspect is critical.

In that light, a twitter stream is useless to me. It's not a substitute for RSS - not even a bad substitute. It's just a source of noise, of information overload.
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Posted by varun at 2013-04-08 12:59:07
Devil's advocate: what do you do about truncated RSS entries (Ars, Verge, etc)?

I agree with you that Twitter very quickly becomes very useless for me, and not just because of my ideological allergies to something controlled by a single company. As Talha below pointed out, RSS is like having a DVR - you can get to the content when you want to get to it or have time to get to it. Twitter is like TV - you either see it when it happens, or it'll get buried under miles of other Tweets from other twats, so to speak. The time-shifting aspect of it is what makes RSS so valuable.

I've got a tt-rss server up and running now too, but I need a better-looking UI. And some way to fix the j/k movement, since tt-rss has it wrong and it's driving me nuts. I'd love it if the guys at would release a source tarball, but alas.
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Posted by Simon at 2013-04-08 18:05:38
<i>Devil's advocate: what do you do about truncated RSS entries (Ars, Verge, etc)?</i>

I don't follow either, so I'm not sure what they do. But in general, if an RSS feed contains nothing but a headline and a link to the article, I don't bother. There are exceptions, of course, if I know the site is good enough that I'd want to read every article they post, but in most cases I just won't bother subscribing to a headline-only feed.

But if by "truncated entries", you mean sites that include only the first paragraph or two in the feed, I'm fine with that. Like I said, the problem is that I want to be able to judge very quickly whether the article is worth reading - and if I can't even see more than the title without clicking on a link, the answer has to be no.
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Posted by Ferdinand at 2013-04-08 02:21:29
My experience with twitter is that it is used like RSS+SMS. You get jokes, comments, statements and sometimes links. Twitter wants you to have _one_ account so you can't separate those in multiple feeds like you can with rss. Your readers also can't subscribe to a tag they like(like you can with rss).
All this means Twitter is like email without spamfilters where you get 90% spam.

I don't trust Digg so try Newsblur and Feedly.
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Posted by Kevin at 2013-04-07 17:52:23
For what it's worth, I read your article in tt-rss on Android. I used to read twitter exclusively via RSS until twitter disabled that functionality. A self-hosted tt-rss is great for my personal reading, though I've been meaning to try NewsBlur, since the client is supposed to be much better (though they're both open source so could incorporate the better features from each other).

The only thing I miss in an RSS reader vs twitter/ is the ability to respond in-kind, but the bulk of what I do is reading so RSS suffices for that need. Twitter tends to be bad for that need since it requires a separate application/window/etc for any real information since it's mostly just link aggregation with a bit of conversation intermixed.

For work related RSS, I use the built-in functionality in Zimbra, so I can access it via the web interface, or imap, or any other mail reader all the while keeping the status of my feeds in sync. Something I really dislike about twitter is the inability to keep track of where I am in the feed across devices and even clients on the same device.

Personally, I'd mark it Twitter:1, Google Reader:0, RSS: +1

If it's just a hypothesis, perhaps the headline should include a "?"
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Posted by stak at 2013-04-07 21:38:49
> A self-hosted tt-rss is great for my personal reading, though I've been meaning to try NewsBlur,

Cool, I didn't know about tt-rss. (Also didn't know about the Zimbra RSS feature). I wrote my own aggregator that's functionally similar (albeit much uglier), but any solution that involves rolling out your own server isn't one "for the masses". Newsblur, on the other hand, looks like a good idea, in the same way that Google Reader was. I still think that it, the digg project, and any other such websites, need to up their game to prevent RSS from dying out.
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Posted by Axel Hecht at 2013-04-07 18:49:02
For the record, the RSS button wasn't removed, it was moved out of the default set of the toolbar.

It's still there and you can drag and drop it into your toolbar if you're actively using RSS (I did, I see it in my Firefox 20 profile).
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Posted by Ian Thomas (thelem) at 2013-04-07 18:54:23
Twitter isn't a good substitute for the way I used Google Reader because there is simply too much noise that the things I do want to read get lost. This was a problem with Google Reader too, but to a lesser extent.

I'm now using NewsBlur, which was able to import my feeds from Google Reader and lets me filter out posts that I'm not interested in by author or tag. It also has the ability to comment on posts for the benefit of NewsBlur users, although I'd much prefer this to be done on the site/blog that posted the original article.

The only downside I can see at the moment compared to Google Reader is that they are currently experiencing growing pains, but I don't think those will last very long.
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Posted by Kroc Camen at 2013-04-07 22:44:43
IMO, RSS is the browser's responsibility and no centralised web-service could ever beat Twitter via 'openness' because free distribution of content should not hinge on a business model. I think I make a strong point of this on my blog which I had hoped Mozilla would have taken notice of.
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Posted by Talha at 2013-04-08 01:59:08
One thing we always ignore when comparing twitter with RSS is that twitter feed is time based. So your favorite writer pushed a notification to you. Great! But if you follow active users, his tweet would get buried down pretty soon. Similarly, if you visit twitter feed after few days you are more inclined to catch up new updates than the previous ones.

On the other hand RSS is timeless. It's easier to organize hundreds of feeds and catch up with them even after days, unlike twitter.

Secondly twitter updates are always polutted with a lots of irrelevant stuff. For example, my favorite blogger will tweet about new blog post once a week perhaps. Rest of the time, she would be rambling on and off about mundane, mildly interesting, and not relevant stuff. But to catch the update about blog post, I will have to bear this noise. With RSS there is no such problem.

If at all, twitter is a very bad substitute of RSS.
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Posted by Steve Fink at 2013-04-08 13:02:54
I'm not sure you can count twitter as a replacement for Reader until it's usable. Is it usable? I've tried using it several times now, and failed every time. So I can't replace Reader with it.

My problems have already been described: it does not provide a feed of choices of things to read (because you cannot determine whether to read them just by looking at them.) The items it presents are buried in noise and so are not findable.

For me, replacing Reader with Twitter is about the same as replacing Reader with visiting each author's web site every day -- theoretically possible, but impractical.
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