XMPP, not RSS: The downfall of the Read-Write Web
XMPP, not RSS: The downfall of the Read-Write Web

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I’ve been reading Chris Dixon’s “Read Write Own” after my friend Annika’s recommendation and hearing Dixon’s interview on Hard Fork. It examines the history of the internet and discusses its future. He breaks it into 3 phases: “Read,” “Read Write,” and “Read Write Own.”

“Read” is also known as Web 1.0. Websites built for consumption alone with limited interactivity. Consider reading an article in the New York Times or buying an item on Amazon.

“Read Write” is also known as Web 2.0. Websites where you could interact and create your content. Think about writing a post on Facebook, commenting on a Reddit thread, or posting a photo on Instagram.

“Read Write Own” is what Dixon describes as the future of the internet - The blockchain-based destiny of the internet. Not only do you “Read” and “Write,” but you’re seamlessly able to “Own” the content you create.

A continuous argument throughout the book is that the downfall of RSS is when the “Read Write” web failed. RSS is positioned as having started an open standard for the social internet, with examples like Twitter offering RSS feeds of profiles only to remove them.

In this piece, I argue that RSS was a legacy of the “Read” web, not the “Read Write” web. On top of that, its death is linked to the rise in the “Read Write” web. XMPP is the most accurate protocol comparison Dixon could have used for the “Read Write” web, and it didn’t fail in the way Dixon argues.

RSS is from the “Read” web

The first issue I have with Dixon’s argument is his assertion that RSS is a legacy of the “Read Write” web rather than the “Read” web; I argue that RSS is a “Read” web protocol since it allows you to consume a website but not interact with it in any way. It gives you news articles and blog posts, not an interactive social media feed.

The “Read Write” web was defined by its bi-directionality. You read and reacted to someone’s Facebook post. You created a thread on Reddit and disagreed with the comments.

With RSS, if you want to leave a comment on a blog post you read, you’ll open the article in a web browser. It’s as dumb as a computer-readable version of a website. It’s just another failed “Read” open protocol and has little to do with the “Read Write” web.

RSS is a pre-algorithmic feed

Today, we live in a world of algorithmic feeds. Every time you open a social media site, you read fresh content. No waiting for the people you follow to do anything new; the algorithm will find you fresh content to consume.

RSS was from a time before the algorithmic feed was commonplace. You opened Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and just saw the most recent posts from your friends. RSS works the same way; it’s designed to give you the most recent posts from the sites you followed.

Facebook introduced the algorithmic feed in 2011, and then Google Reader was shut down in 2013. Google could read the tea leaves and see what was coming; the chronological feed was about to die.

RSS protocol was designed to fail in our modern algorithmic feed-driven world. It was for a “Read” web of a different era.

Google Reader was a corporate network, anyway.

One of the applications pointed to by Dixon as the death of the open protocol and the rise of the corporate network is Google killing its Google Reader product in 2013.

What is rarely mentioned is that It had social features that were only available to Google Reader users. They weren’t built upon the RSS protocol; they were custom in-house “corporate network” style features.

Before the launch of Google+, the Google Reader application offered an extensive friends system. You could add friends, follow them, and share news items privately and publicly. It was a corporate network built on the back of RSS.

XMPP is the original “Read Write” Protocol

The protocol gets a quick shout-out in “Read Write Own” but doesn’t go into much detail. Originally called Jabber, It’s been around just as long as RSS - since 1999. It was the standard for instant messaging. It dreamed of a world where you didn’t have six different messaging applications on your phone but instead had one application that let you message anyone, anywhere.

Almost every internet user, mobile phone owner, and gamer used XMPP - even if they didn’t realize it. It was in your Gmail inbox, running on your PlayStation game console and powering your Facebook Messenger. It was everywhere.

It’s estimated that Google Reader had around 30 million users at its peak. XMPP, on the other hand, clears 3 billion users.

It supported a flexible extension system that saw widespread adoption. It has extensions for video chat, Off-the-record messaging, group chat, file transfer, etc. RSS had a module system that was barely used. Its only actual adoption was in the Podcast space with Media RSS.

It is truly a vision of a standard for “Read Write.” It was designed to be a flexible specification that could be used for all manner of use cases. The possibilities XMPP planned for include chat rooms, network management, content syndication, collaboration tools, file sharing, gaming, remote systems control and monitoring, geolocation, middleware and cloud computing, VoIP, and identity services.

XMPP Took off

RSS never got out of its nerd bubble. Google may have had Google Reader, and Twitter may have supported RSS feeds for profiles, but RSS was only utilized in various ways.

XMPP, on the other hand, was powering services that billions were using all around the world.

It was supported by Google Talk, the original of Google’s messaging platforms. It was built into the Gmail web interface and used heavily.

It was built into AOL’s AIM messenger for a few years, once the predominant messaging platform.

It was supported in the early days of Facebook’s Messenger platform before it became the giant it is today.

The messaging client I grew up using the most, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, even supported it before its death.

WhatsApp was using its fork of XMPP called FunXMPP until just a few years ago and supporting billions of users.

It was prolific and lived up to the dream. I fondly remember using the Adium messaging client for Mac and talking to friends across Google Talk, AIM, and MSN Messenger.

The “Read Write” Protocol Dream Still Died

Of all the significant deployments of XMPP and the billions of users it once supported, it’s dwindled to just a few. Nintendo Switch, Zoom, Grindr, and Kik are the last established applications using some variation of XMPP.

None of these support the fundamental goal of XMPP - federation to any client or another network. They all require their bespoke clients.

Why? Because it’s way more work to build a proper extension, implement it through XMPP standards, and design appropriate fallbacks for clients that don’t support your extension. It’s much quicker to fully control the client and server and iterate however you want. They all live up to the “corporate networks” that Dixon describes.

Open Protocols Are Right Time, Right Format

HTTP and Email were created to solve two generic problems: Delivering messages and transferring information. They were created when Internet protocol standards were starting to be developed. Both protocols have evolved dramatically over the last three decades, but they are solving the problems we still have today.

RSS solved a problem for a while: the “Read” web’s chronological timeline. It had no modality to evolve into either the “Read Write” web or the evolution from chronological to algorithmic timelines. It was the correct format for its time, but not for the “Read Write” web.

XMPP emerged from an evolution of email’s asynchronous communication to our need for synchronous instant messaging. It solved a core problem in the “Read Write” web and continues to solve them to this day. It was the wrong format, though. It was too hard to extend its functionality and too easy to remove interoperability with other networks. It was the incorrect format for an open “Read Write” web.

Blockchains must be in the correct format at the right time to be an open protocol that solves the failings of RSS and XMPP. So far, they are at the right time but in the wrong format. If developers at the time thought the onboarding and customization for XMPP were challenging, they’re facing a new level of pain with Blockchains.

Thanks to my friend Annika for tons of helpful feedback on this article.

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