At the risk of putting my fingers in the sausage machine, let me add a touch of nuance:
- RSS has declined in use, as web heads shift their source of ‘things to read’ away from RSS readers — like Google Reader — to tools like Twitter and Flipboard.
- The role of RSS in web infrastructure is being threatened by non-RSS based architectures, like Flipboard’s. That product ignores RSS and fetches through the URL to get directly at images, text, and other content.
Winer is ideologically opposed to closed, proprietary approaches like that of Twitter (or, by extension, of Flipboard):
Dave Winer, What I mean by “the open web”
Anyway, here’s what I meant by “open web.”
I meant not in a corporate blogging silo.
If I put stuff in Twitter, the only way to get it out is through a heavily regulated and always-changing API. It will change a lot in the coming months and years. It will certainly narrow more than it expands. I feel very confident in predicting this, because I understand where Twitter is going.
If you put stuff in Facebook, it’s even more silo’d than it is in Twitter.
However, if you put stuff in WordPress, even on wordpress.com, you have full fluidity. You are not silo’d. You can get data in and out using widely-supported APIs that are implemented by Drupal, Movable Type, TypePad, etc etc. At least there’s some compatibility. And in a pinch you could probably move your content to a static website and have it be useful.
If you write in static HTML and RSS, you’re very portable, there will be no lock-in at all.
So to the extent you’re locked in, that’s the extent you are not on the open web. The perfectly open web has zero lock-in. The silos are totally locked-in and therefore not on the open web.
Winer’s complaints are about control of our content: that we should be able to easily manage what we write. It’s a political argument.
But his points fly in the face of innovation, where a Twitter or Quora or Facebook create very different — and not solitary — models of open social discourse, which need to be managed in ways that are different from old school blogging. It’s not every man for himself, anymore. Time is a shared resource on today’s web: our time is not our own, anymore. And that’s largely good.
I liken this problem to the trade offs inherent in living in large cities versus towns or the country. There’s more noise, bigger crowds, and longer lines at the DMV: more things that we can’t control, or where our control is restricted, relative to folks living in bucolic Des Moines.
Only in cities we get superlinear scaling, as Geoffrey West and his colleagues have shown:
Jonah Lehrer, A Physicist Turns the City Into an Equation
When a superlinear equation is graphed, it looks like the start of a roller coaster, climbing into the sky. The steep slope emerges from the positive feedback loop of urban life — a growing city makes everyone in that city more productive, which encourages more people to move to the city, and so on. According to West, these superlinear patterns demonstrate why cities are one of the single most important inventions in human history. They are the idea, he says, that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity. “When we started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the history of life,” West says. “We broke away from the equations of biology, all of which are sublinear. Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse.
I maintain that Twitter, Facebook, and other ‘closed’ systems are really something else: they are dense and complex social systems, more like modern cities than Web 1.0 publishing platforms. And, like cities, there is more going on, less being controlled by specifications like RSS, and the food is better, the music is better, and there is more dangerous sex taking place.
Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This collective intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated and clearly defined standards.
Said differently, the best food comes from cities with the highest number of health code violations, and the best art is produced where the largest number of building code infractions are found.
So, if you are looking for clean bathrooms and no traffic jams, stay in Iowa. But it is in cities — dense, loud, unplanned, messy — where the breakthroughs emerge.
Getting back to the specific case, here, let’s look at Flipboard. Flipboard rejects the use of neat-and-tidy RSS, and reaches through the URLs it finds in Twitter to directly paw the text, images, and links placed into articles and posts, and then it chooses what to display based on a proprietary algorithm inside the guts of the app, not based on the publisher’s RSS specification.
Flipboard, Twitter, and other dense, complex social tools create a messier world, one that has superlinear scale. The tradeoff between complete ‘openness’ (or individual control of information and its experience) and superlinear social density is one I am willing to make. And so are all the users of these tools, or should I say, residents of these cities?