Before the internet was consolidated into centralized information silos, RSS imagined a better way to let users control their online personas.
About a decade ago, the average internet user might well have heard of RSS. Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary—what the acronym stands for depends on who you ask—is a standard that websites and podcasts can use to offer a feed of content to their users, one easily understood by lots of different computer programs. Today, though RSS continues to power many applications on the web, it has become, for most people, an obscure technology.
The story of how this happened is really two stories. The first is a story about a broad vision for the web’s future that never quite came to fruition. The second is a story about how a collaborative effort to improve a popular standard devolved into one of the most contentious forks in the history of open-source software development.
In the late 1990s, in the go-go years between Netscape’s IPO and the Dot-com crash, everyone could see that the web was going to be an even bigger deal than it already was, even if they didn’t know exactly how it was going to get there. One theory was that the web was about to be revolutionized by syndication. The web, originally built to enable a simple transaction between two parties—a client fetching a document from a single host server—would be broken open by new standards that could be used to repackage and redistribute entire websites through a variety of channels. Kevin Werbach, writing for Release 1.0, a newsletter influential among investors in the 1990s, predicted that syndication “would evolve into the core model for the Internet economy, allowing businesses and individuals to retain control over their online personae while enjoying the benefits of massive scale and scope.”