Remaking Podcasts For Text

Podcasts are far and away the great example of how RSS can empower creators. Today’s thought experiment: How can we bring these benefits to written content?

By Ernie Smith

The RSS format is very close to its 25th anniversary, which hits next month, and it is an important tool, if a somewhat neglected one. It makes the internet better, but it often does not get the attention it deserves from publishers. (Unless your name is Dave Winer.)

RSS is widespread and a lot of platforms use it. (Tedium has an RSS feed.) But when it comes down to the mainstream medium a lot of people expected it to become, it’s only really had its moment in the sun in the form of podcasts. As Anil Dash noted this week, there’s something truly radical about podcasts—a format that can make a lot of money for its creators, can be spread broadly, and appears to be difficult to bury inside a walled garden. Spotify tried to close off the podcast ecosystem, and largely failed. It’s a radical media format.

Meanwhile, newsletters have essentially turned into the tool that RSS was supposed to be for content—a distribution format controlled by the creator. It’s not a perfect one—it’s built around decades-old technology, and it breaks frequently. Email is designed to flood you with information, no matter the source, and newsletters have to compete with every piece of junk mail you get—which mean it looks like junk mail, too. But as a direct distribution mechanism, it works pretty well.

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While RSS doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, is worth celebrating. (Andre Pan/Flickr)

This was supposed to be what RSS did for published content. But it didn’t do that, and I think it is in part because of how it’s delivered. Video does very well online. So do podcasts. And while video is often presented on hosted platforms like YouTube due to its high costs, podcasts are decentralized, and can come from basically anywhere. That is powerful—and it reflects the fact that podcasts are the perfect “weight” to thrive on the open internet. Videos, historically, have been too heavy. Written content and image-based content has often been too light. But podcasts offer a great mix of value and distinct weight that make them well-suited as a commercial open-web entity that people can build their lives and careers around.

I think the obvious question, looking at podcasts in this light, is this: How can other types of content match its perfect-weight strategy on the open web? To me, the answer is by beefing up the delivery mechanism. RSS, as a specification, does a lot, but one thing it does not do is offer a presentation or distribution strategy that puts the publisher front and center. One can argue that this is by design, and people will state that they want their own fonts and designs in their RSS readers.

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But I argue that, as we look to the next 25 years of digital syndication, we need to come up with ways to take the lessons we’ve learned from newsletters and the lessons we’ve learned from podcasts to make a higher-quality distribution mechanism, one that gives a little more control to the publishers over their own destiny.

A few ideas for what this could look like:

  • A modern, content-focused subset of HTML and CSS. I think companies should be trusted to brand and promote themselves, and the failure to make this part of the RSS specification may be one factor that might have turned off publishers from investing more deeply into RSS. So, let’s give it to them in the form of some basic design, including access to fonts, graphics, and simple layout intended for a narrow space. The content should be static, to be clear—no JavaScript here—but it should allow for enough flexibility that if people want to experiment, they can. We already have an existing spec that does much of this—the open-source AMP standard, developed primarily by Google—though I understand if we don’t want to use it, due to its controversial history. Whatever this theoretical looks like, it should be flexible and easy for end users to implement.
  • Features to encourage use of rich text. Adding features like data visualizations, graphics, and embedded video that are not part of the regular RSS specification could add appeal to this new format by offering something that newsletters do not have, while giving it advantages over a standard RSS feed.
  • Built-in access management. If you, as a publisher, want to gate all or part of a feed item, you can do so, and offer your own integration as to how to resolve the block. Essentially, build subscriptions or regwalls directly into the feed—and make it so that you don’t have to work with a middleman like a Substack to do so. Don’t want the bots or the LLMs to access your life’s work? Build in a regwall.
  • Built-in integrations for distribution. RSS is built for distribution, but I wonder if this new thing I’m suggesting should talk ActivityPub, or easy to distribute in a newsletter format for people who still want to read in their inbox. Make it so that people can follow you wherever they’re comfortable, rather than being forced to read in a newsletter format, or a social media format.
  • Limited, but useful, analytics. You should know how many people read your newsletters, and you should know how they’re read, but you probably shouldn’t know much else. Podcasting has benefited from a lack of data poisoning the well—and honestly, resetting the conversation around data could really help strengthen the content ecosystem at this juncture.

Whatever the future of feed-based distribution ends up looking like, I do think there needs to be some consideration of the role of the creator or publisher in the next iteration of feed technology. The fact is, by failing to properly consider the economic or cultural value of the information being produced, it’s forced creators to have to lean into the commercial ecosystem to build lasting value from their work. RSS should be the solution to the walled garden—but if it gradually siphons value, it may unwittingly contribute to it. I think that is why it is worth reconsidering at this time. (And why I realize this suggestion may be seen as controversial.)

Six years ago, I suggested that the path forward for newsletters was to move away from marketing tools and lean into technologies that work closer to content management systems. I think that was a pretty good prediction as to where the market eventually went.

I don’t know if this idea, this suggestion that we modernize RSS for the newsletter era will go anywhere or inspire anyone. But I do think that, if we want our content ecosystem to be organic and focused on the needs of the users over commercial platforms without our best interests at heart, it has to be where this conversation starts.

I want more than just podcasts to benefit from the internet’s open architecture—I want creators to feel like they can have a slice of that value, too. Let’s add some heft to other kinds of digital content.

Feeding Links

Cool tool I found over the weekend: Cosmos, a self-hosted container manager with built-in security.

I have watched a lot of Apple Vision Pro content in the past four days, and I must say, it has been a weird experience watching people walking outside wearing these highly specialized masks, or destroying their devices on camera for the views. Today, I watched someone wear one on a plane. The best piece of content in this microgenre, of course, was created by Casey Neistat.

Smart toothbrush DDoS attack? Smart toothbrush DDoS attack.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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