- The Rise of RSS
Every now and then, when I run into a website that still offers feed subscription, I always click and subscribe the website to my RSS reader, which I know I will never open. I also still install a RSS reader whenever I get a new device, just in case I run into a site like this which persists in offering the alternative. I feel that it’s an unspoken ritual among those who still remember the short-lived moment when RSS technology was going to be the future of the decentralised social network.
RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a web feed technology that was popularised in the 2000s, when personal blogs became the major venue for communicative productions. Along with the dot-com boom, autonomous communicative practices such as personal websites, online forums and blogs produced large amounts of content at an exponential speed. As more content and sites were produced, the question of how to manage one’s interest sources became a sour point.
Before the popularisation of RSS, the main solution was bookmarks, a simple function provided by browsers which was later extended to the “cloud” by tools like Delicious. But a bookmark is merely a one-directional tool that only helps people to collect sources; it doesn’t have any social feedback between content producers and readers or collectors. In other words, it offers very little to the circulation of information, not to mention its overall contribution to the emerging information economy.
RSS, on the other hand, is much more automated. A blogger can create a subscription feed for their blog and people can subscribe to the feed and receive updates whenever they open their RSS reader. RSS removes the need for users to trawl their bookmarks to check in on their favourite sites for updates, or feel the disappointment of visiting these websites only to find that they have not been updated. For bloggers, these potential disappointments lead to a negative affordance to their blogs. RSS helps them to manage and stabilise their readership by offering a steady channel to subscribers. In other words, its technology narrowed the gap between content producers and consumers, expediting the “sender-receiver” circuit in the blogging era, while stabilising the connections between the two ends. Compared to bookmarks, RSS increases the “conversion rate” and “user stickiness” for bloggers and other content producers — all while those actors remained true to the spirit of the early Internet.
People are reduced to mere users.
However, RSS anticipated the friends-and-followers model of social media we are now familiar with, focusing on the receiving end of information, removing information from its community context, and pushing it to the subscriber’s own interest sphere. It offers a model that hints towards an alienated consumption of content, where people are not encouraged to follow — let alone to engage with — the context and history that makes the content possible. This is a fundamentally different design logic compared to the subject-centred community , which focuses on community vibes and the context of information production. The RSS model was only a natural, efficient response to the exploding amount of information, but it unwittingly led to the idea of informational bubbles, contributing to the transition towards persona-driven platforms and supporting the expansion of communicative capitalism.
The importance of RSS, though, still lies in its openness and decentralisation. Its protocol can be applied to any webpage, accessed via any reader, allowing bloggers or web developers to customise their feeds, and developers to build new subscribing and reading environments for anyone. Unlike most social media platforms today, it’s an open technology that everyone can customise, giving people a clear idea why they are receiving certain information, and allowing them to have direct control of what they are receiving. They can organise their subscriptions in their RSS reader without the need to submit their personal information. No single platform can monopolise the “sender-receiver” circuit with this technology.
2. The Fall of RSS
However, the problem with decentralisation is that it always necessitates a longer learning curve for users. Using RSS successfully includes finding interesting blogs and websites, organising them, choosing between different RSS readers, or searching for the right feed management service on top of choosing the right blogging services, and most importantly getting comfortable with the new technology. All of this was fun and important at the peak of RSS as it allowed people to have a sense of control over their digital lives, while exploring their alternate selves. But it was only for a certain group of people who were interested enough to become familiar with RSS language and the logic of navigation. Most people at that time were busy with the “real world”, speaking with “real people”, with all the languages and logic that they grew up with before digital devices became ubiquitous.
Most people at that time were busy with the “real world”, speaking with “real people”, with all the languages and logic that they grew up with before digital devices became ubiquitous.
As the Internet quietly yet drastically transitioned from a subject-centred production site to a persona-driven one , the entire online circulation of information accelerated, and contemporary communicative capitalism started taking shape. RSS quickly fell out of vogue. Its openness and decentralising features became an obstacle to even smoother and speedier “sender-receiver” circuits. The time necessary to explore different options and to understand the logic of RSS, or to decipher codes to customise feeds, became costly in an accelerating digital world.
The advent of persona-driven platforms, such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, escalated the dilemma of RSS technology in the 2000s. At first glance, persona-driven platforms, focused on personal content and informal networks, may seem to have very little to do with a technology like RSS, which is a news aggregator software for the receiving end of subject-driven content (blog entries and news headlines). However, from the perspective of content consumption, persona-driven platforms furthered the idea of personalised news feeds, and accelerated the process of searching for interesting subjects or thought leaders. After all, when communicative capitalism took over the core of the Internet, efficiency became key.
With contemporary social media platforms, technical processes are enclosed within simple buttons and toggles. One hardly needs to know any technological terms or codes; the only effort needed is to click through to the next step. People also don’t need to worry about running out of interesting content, as many social media platforms such as Twitter, Medium, Tik Tok and Clubhouse ask users to choose categories of interests before they even create profiles. As a result, people skip taking the time to actively think of what exactly they are interested in — to explore their internal selves, to observe, relate, and construct their identity with others. Instead, they follow the categories that the platforms offer, immersing themselves in algorithmically curated content which are based on the their past behaviours, performing their persona as directed by the given social framework.
After all, when communicative capitalism took over the core of the Internet, efficiency became key.
In this process, the individual’s role in the digital communicative economy becomes more passive than ever, not only in terms of information consumption, but also content production. In order to catch as much attention as possible and seize a good place in the stream, the focus on production switches from deepening relationships with a specific community, to pursuing attention from as many people as possible — regardless of who they are.
Meanwhile, persona-driven platforms structurally conflate the role of content producers and consumers into one account body on the same platform, so that it becomes easier for people to move from the role of content consumer to content producer. As such, social media platforms make it convenient for people to share everyday details, offering simple interactive mechanisms such as Likes and Favourites as rewards for sharing trivial content. Such approaches help expand the market and keep the platform active, so that there is always something to be consumed whenever people log in. For events, Facebook even packages the act of clicking on the “interested” option as a viable communicative product, to preserve the information circulation flow of mere interest in an activity. All of these differentiations make it much easier for people to participate in and be rewarded in a persona-driven communicative economy, even at the cost of a more meaningful online life.
RSS has thus slowly receded from the centre stage of Internet life because it’s no longer a convenient option. All of the conveniences it once brought are not enough for a fast-paced digital life, as the Internet has transformed from a heterotopic space for alternative being to a venue for communicative productivity which will soon be ready to converge with the reproduction of offline social life.
All the conveniences it once brought are not enough for a fast-paced digital life.
3. The absorption of communicative labour
The rise and fall of RSS technology is a case study on what I call “communicative labour” absorption. This refers to labour entailed within communicative capitalism, including but not limited to producing, circulating and consuming communicative products, and all the derivative labour complementary to the ongoing propagation of communicative capitalism. I use the term “absorbing” communicative labour — instead of “replacing” or “reducing” — to describe how RSS helped both bloggers and readers, as the total labour within the “sender-receiver” circuit has not been reduced. Rather, technology envelopes the labour of sending, receiving, and the organisational and relational work in between, so that readers no longer have to manually check for updates, while bloggers no longer need to remind their readers about updates through informal channels.
Yet this doesn’t mean that the enveloped labour disappears from the circuit entirely. It’s only being reorganised, boxed within and executed by a software, so that the total time for a complete information prosumption circuit is reduced; information circulates faster. While RSS technology helped bloggers and readers to organise and speed up their “sender-receiver” circuit, both ends still had to make an extra effort to learn about the technology, search for the right apparatus, and organise their communicative products or sources of interest according to the software’s logic. In other words, although the software speeds up the communicative circuit and helps expand the blogging economy by absorbing parts of the communicative labour into a black box, there is still a need to connect the labour outside of the black box and those within. Too often, this new work is executed by cheap human labour that is completely alienated from the creative and communicative process.
Therefore, “reducing” is a questionable word to describe the process, even if there is a reduction in the overall time for information management and circulation. Every time a new technology emerges that supposedly automates some parts of the production, there is always new labour produced. The only difference is if this new labour is exposed to the user (such as with early RSS software), or enclosed inside the shell of the software, as with the global workers who execute tasks under the disguise of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
But “replacing” is not exactly right either. We would say something is being replaced when the entire machine remains functioning in the same way, but RSS — or frankly any new technology — doesn’t do exactly what human users do. Instead, it deconstructs and reorganises labour into a reproducible logic, changing the entire productive machine accordingly. The changes occur especially in the way that humans communicate with each other. Take RSS and social platforms as an example. While both technologies attempt to minimise people’s effort in receiving information, RSS offers an interactive space where bloggers and subscribers are quite independent from each other, whereas social platforms try to bring content producers and consumers as close as possible to create immediate feedback loops. Such differences make an immediate impact on how people connect with each other and how they organise communities.
Such differences make an immediate impact on how people connect with each other and how they organise communities.
French philosopher Bernard Stiegler used the term “grammatisation” to describe the process of deconstructing a continuous flux of communication, experiences and social engagements into reproducible parts and a consistent structure — namely, a grammar. A technology that operates with a grammar is an artificial organ that absorbs human knowledge, memories, know-how, relationships and so on, into technical memories that do not have to be experienced physically or emotionally. In this vein, RSS technology absorbed the labour of managing one’s interest span, so that people no longer needed to keep close to their sources of interest. Consequently, RSS changed the way that people associated with their interests: from staying close to their alternate selves through ongoing engagements with communities, to becoming observers with filtered glasses, viewing the world from a distance — a position that is hypothetically “static” and “objective”, one that does not require an interrogation of the self within a lively community.
Social media further affirms such isolated observer positions with their user-centred design. The labour of self-design in the pre-social media era — from the search for one’s interests outside of daily life, to observing and gauging one’s possible approaches to the community, and finally crafting an alternate self relationally — has been well absorbed in today’s digital world. Social media platforms commit to absorbing these uncertainties by automating the entire journey, minimising it to a simple registration process. Admittedly, such design may help users with all the frustrations, disappointments, human and non-human errors in the process of self-design and making connections. One does not need to interrogate who one really is, or can be — users can simply start with a name they are familiar with, a selection of interests that they already know. The platforms will monitor their behaviours closely, analyse who they are and curate their future selves accordingly. All this allows for an easy and fast consumption of information, keeping the economy flowing.
The problem with such an absorption — besides the fact that people lose the experience of true individuation — is the loss of opportunities for people to negotiate their own ways of connecting and communicating, therefore losing the tangibility of their online relationships. Learning to deal with uncertainties, frustrations and insecurities is critical to personal growth, and necessary for meaningful relationships. Yet when we do not have to walk through this process by ourselves, our relationships do not grow into our system of thoughts, and are not deeply embedded in our lives. These relationships stay instead on a cognitive level: we don’t actually participate in crafting them, and they do not belong to us.
When the way we connect and communicate is enclosed and mediated by a software, the entire experience of having a relationship becomes a means of production owned by a group of people, a company or an organisation. In a case in which the software is open-sourced, the means of production can be manoeuvred by people able to access its language. But more often, this language is concealed in a black box, privatised as commercial secrets. Moreover, as the logic of platformatisation permeates contemporary IT industries, fewer and fewer software is being developed for simple tasks. Instead, most software, algorithms and systems aim for an all-encompassing narrative. From a simple bookmark function to save an website address, to RSS helping one to follow a line of thought by subscribing to continuous updates from a source, to a social media platform that uses algorithms to curate one’s world narrative, the more communicative labour is absorbed, the less space there is for people to engage in the process. And thus less opportunities for people to develop relationships with others, and with themselves. People are reduced to mere users.
When the way we connect and communicate is enclosed and mediated by a software, the entire experience of having a relationship becomes a means of production owned by a group of people, a company or an organisation.
Because of these reasons, many have criticised the non-neutrality of digital technology. They are not wrong, but it is critical to unpack the function that a piece of technology offers, versus the messages that the design of a technology attempts to imply. It is mostly the latter that has contributed to the biased and non-neutral position of a technology. For instance, a sensor’s function is to pick up our bio-information, but a device that obtains such information for directing our ways of living is deliberately designed with the implication that we don’t know how to “correctly” live our lives.
Similarly, it’s not that digital technology is inherently alienating, biased or lacking in nuances, rather it’s that we haven’t been seriously searching for a design philosophy that is non-alienating, fair, nuanced, or sufficiently beneficial for all. Contemporary digital technology has granted us such a monolithic perception about our own lives, and in return, we have a similarly monolithic perception of technology. It is important that we are able to divorce the design that is encoded in a piece of technology from the functions it provides, because that’s the only way we will be able to imagine our “artificial organs” having a different relationship with us.
A work of the author’s, The Massage is the Medium , is a metaphorical experience designed based on a theory/research proposing that designers focus on personal relationships. Documentation of the work can be viewed here .
Editor’s note on the artworks by Ryan Kuo:
The Way I See It is a self-playing game application by Ryan Kuo in which pieces of furniture from an IKEA catalogue engage with one another. Autonomously directed by software, the objects roll, clash and stack in an infinite cycle without a user or player. As we enter Chapter 2: “Flow” with Yin Aiwen’s analysis of a technology that brought content producers closer to their recipients through a simple organising feature, Kuo’s application leads us to question the role of the user in software and platforms.
“Cloud-based storage” refers to tools which allow users to save files to a remote database and retrieve them on demand.
Founded by Joshua Schachter and Peter Gadjokov in 2003, and acquired by Yahoo! in 2005, Delicious was a social bookmarking web service. The site had more than 5.3 million users at the end of 2008. In 2017 it was acquired by Pinboard.
These platforms were all launched in the late 2000s to early 2010s, making them relatively new programmes in the history of platform design.
All these platforms (apart from Twitter) were launched within the decade, and are among the newest social media platforms available.
In Chapter 4, we will expand on how social media platforms have guided people’s performative inclinations through the construction process of these platforms.
Curator Sarp Özer will offer an essay on the dopamine-driven feedback loops borne by notification alerts on social media platforms in a later chapter of this Issue in his essay Doom-Surfer’s Froth: A Survival Guide.
Gray, Mary L., Suri, Siddharth. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from building a new global underclass. Boston: Mariner Books, 2019.
Media artist Tara Kelton and Malavika Jayaram, director of a digital rights think-tank, discuss the ethical entanglements of AI and surrogate labour, from data labelling to the gig economy here: https://so-far-legacy.online/positive-externalities-and-third-world-problems/
Amazon Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing website that allows businesses to hire remotely located workers to perform tasks on-demand.
Stigler, Bernard. For a New Critique of Political Economy. United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2010.
Groys, Boris, “Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility”, e-flux, 2009. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/07/61386/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/