There has to be a better way to subscribe to sites.

While RSS readers are making a bit of a comeback in certain quarters there's no doubt that, as Sameer puts it, "subscribing to feeds definitely has fallen out of parlance."

It's not just that sites need subscribe buttons again, but that using them should not be akin to a dark art.

As Dave initially said, echoed by Frank, the social networks have made following easy - reading, writing, following, it's all within the same UI.

That's what makes micro.blog unique, it has that familiar social feel but you are actually invisibly subscribing to people's RSS/JSON feeds when following them. The timeline is a glorified feed reader with integrated posting and social elements.

That's fine within the confines of a service like micro.blog but what about on the open web when hitting "follow" isn't handled for you?

"Remember when all the apps supported RSS? Browsers, email clients, everything!"

It used to be so much better but, even then, implementation differed. Chrome just shows us the XML, Safari lost its "subscribe" feature, Firefox seems more feed aware but it's all still unintuitive.

Some platforms allow you to set your default feed reader to "open in" - others don't - but this still needs you to understand what feeds are, how they are consumed and choose a reader.

There needs to be a way to handle subscriptions on the open web like following a person on a social network. But how? Any solution would require everyone to get on board with compatible options for what most see as an antiquated technology.

Perhaps it needs something new. But what? Are browser developers going to reintroduce native subscription options? Doubtful.

  1. canion says: #
    @colinwalker That’s a great summation of the issue. Thanks for putting that together. Let’s hope it can build some momentum for improvement.
  2. frank says: #
    @colinwalker It’s a very interesting question. The underlying protocol of RSS is still excellent to use. But for the normal user it should not be visible. I always loved the in-browser tab with subscriptions. IE was actually pretty good at this.
  3. Just as I was getting sick last week, Colin Walker wrote “There has to be a better way to subscribe to sites.” He’s definitely hit the nail right on the head. The process is currently painful and disorganized, it’s also working on technology that’s almost two decades old and difficult for newcomers at best.
    I’ve always posited that one of the reasons that social media silos have been so successful is that they’ve built some fantastic readers. Sure their UI is cleaner and just dead simple, but to a great extent 95% of their product is an evolved feed reader while the other 5% is a simple posting interface that makes it easy to interact. To compare, most CMSes are almost completely about posting interface, and spend very little time, if any, worrying about providing a reading experience.
    The IndieWeb has been making some serious strides on making cross-site interactions easier with the Webmention and Micropub protocols, but the holy grail is still out there: allowing people to have an integrated feed reader built into their website (or alternately a standalone feed reader that’s tightly integrated with their site via Micropub or other means).
    For those watching the space with as much interest as I have, there are a couple of interesting tools in the space and a few on the immediate horizon that are sure to make the process a whole lot easier and create a new renaissance in the open web.
    SubToMe: a Universal Subscribe Button
    First, for a relatively simple one-size-fits-all subscribe button, I recommend people take a look at SubToMe which touts itself as a “Universal Follow button” because it  “makes it easy for people to follow web sites,because browsers don’t do it.” The button is fairly straightforward and has an awful lot of flexibility built in. In the simplest sense it has some solid feed detection so it finds available feeds on a web page and then provides a handful of recommended major readers to the user. With two clicks, one can pretty quickly and almost immediately subscribe to almost any feed in their reader of choice. 
    For publishers, one can quickly install a simple button on their site. They can further provide a list of specific feeds they want to advertise, and they can even recommend a particular feed reader if they choose.
    For consumers, the service provides a simple browser bookmarklet so that if a site doesn’t have a button, they can click a subscribe button in their browser. Then click on a provider. Done. One can also choose a preferred provider to shorten the process.
    Almost all the major feed readers are supported out of the box and the process of adding new ones is relatively simple.
    Microsub
    Since last June there’s been a quietly growing new web spec called Microsub  that will assuredly shake up the subscription and reader spaces. In short it provides a standardized way for clients to consume and interact with feeds collected by a server.
    While it gets pretty deep pretty quickly, the spec is meant to help decouple some of the heavy architecture of building a feed reader. In some way it’s analogous to the separation of content and display that HTML and CSS allows, but applied to the mechanics of feed readers and how readers display their content.
    There are already a few interesting projects by the names of Together and Indigenous that are taking advantage of the architecture
    I can’t wait to see how it all dovetails together to make a more integrated reading and posting interface as well as the potential it has for individual CMSs to potentially leverage the idea to include integrated interfaces into their products. I can’t wait for the day when my own personal website is compatible with Microsub, so that I can use any Microsub client to read my timeline and follow people.
    I’m also sure that decoupling the idea of displaying posts from actually fetching remote feeds will make it easier to build a reader clients in general. I hope this has a Cambrian explosion-type of effect on the state of the art of feed readers.
    I’d recommend those interested in a high level discussion to have a listen to the following thee short episodes of Aaron Parecki’s Percolator microcast.
    Episode 3: FollowingIf possible, click to play, otherwise your browser may be unable to play this audio file.
    Episode 10: Microsub for ReadersIf possible, click to play, otherwise your browser may be unable to play this audio file.
    Episode 17: It’s 2018!If possible, click to play, otherwise your browser may be unable to play this audio file.

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