In the late 1990's web developers were growing tired of combining every element - layout, design, and content - into a monolith of unmanageable code (in 2018, we're right back where we started, but more on that later). Updating even a few lines of content inside complex table layouts sometimes meant redesigning the entire site from scratch.

Eventual widespread adoption of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) separated design from layout, but content was still hard-coded into the layout. To address this issue, employees at Netscape created a web syndication standard known as Rich Site Summary (RSS), which allowed web developers to place content in a discrete document. Updating content no longer required altering the design or layout of a website. More importantly, subscribing to an RSS feed removes the need for visitors to manually check a website for new content.

That might sound silly today, in an era of centralized services (e.g. Facebook, Google) bombarding our inboxes, phones, and "feeds". As privacy and security breaches make headlines, we clamor for a decentralized internet. But less than twenty years ago, the internet was decentralized, when the human cycle of individualism versus collectivism was perfectly aligned with divergent expression. We've now spent the past decade attempting to build the perfect centralized web, only to realize its many faults. The cycle continues.

The modern web looks remarkably similar to 90's monoliths of unmanageable code: overbuilt websites which load megabytes of resources, massive external javascript libraries, unnecessary analytics tools applied to "all the things", and advertising run amok. This leaning tower of jenga blocks lends itself neither to security nor to user privacy.

So the very idea of RSS - obtaining content from a website without having to visit the site itself - is due for a comeback. No ads. No suspicious javascript. Just the signal without the noise. It's not perfect privacy, but it's one step back and two steps forward in the right direction.

Published April 22, 2018

We depend on the support of readers like you to fund research initiatives and product development.