A history of the sprawling personality clashes over RSS

Sinclair Target's long, deeply researched history of the format wars over RSS are an excellent read and a first-rate example of what Charlie Stross has called "the beginning of history": for the first time, the seemingly unimportant workaday details of peoples' lives are indelibly recorded and available for people researching history (for example, Ada Palmer points out that we know very little about the everyday meals of normal historical people, but the daily repasts of normal 21 centurians are lavishly documented).

I was there for the RSS format wars: I had some of the key players like Rael Dornfest and Aaron Swartz in my home while these flamewars were going on, and I talked about their mailing list contributions as they worked through the issues; I also was there during face-to-face arguments among some of they key players (I volunteered for several years as a conference committee member for the O'Reilly P2P and Emerging Tech conferences, where much of this played out).

That all said, I think Target's piece focuses too much on the micro and not enough on the macro. The individual differences and personalities in the RSS wars were a real drag on the format's adoption and improvement, but that's not what killed RSS.

What killed RSS was the growth of digital monopolies, who created silos, walled gardens, and deliberate incompatibility between their services to prevent federation, syndication, and interoperability, and then fashioned a set of legal weapons that let them invoke the might of the state to shut down anyone who dared disrupt them.

As Target says, the early promise of the internet was summed up by Kevin Werbach's characterization: "allowing businesses and individuals to retain control over their online personae while enjoying the benefits of massive scale and scope." But thanks to generations of antitrust malpractice and financialization, we now live in an era of five massive services filled with screenshots from the other four.

The individuals who made RSS were and are flawed vessels, like all humans, myself included. They did brilliant things and dumb things. But their errors didn't kill RSS: a massive, seismic regulatory and economic shift did. It's like blaming rhino conservationists' internal disputes — rather than climate change — for the decline in rhinos' numbers. Yes, internal struggle may make people less effective in making change, but the external forces need to be taken into consideration here.

The fork happened after Dornfest announced a proposed RSS 1.0 specification and formed the RSS-DEV Working Group—which would include Davis, Swartz, and several others but not Winer—to get it ready for publication. In the proposed specification, RSS once again stood for "RDF Site Summary," because RDF had been added back in to represent metadata properties of certain RSS elements. The specification acknowledged Winer by name, giving him credit for popularizing RSS through his "evangelism." But it also argued that RSS could not be improved in the way that Winer was advocating. Just adding more elements to RSS without providing for extensibility with a module system would "sacrifice scalability." The specification went on to define a module system for RSS based on XML namespaces.

Winer felt that it was "unfair" that the RSS-DEV Working Group had arrogated the "RSS 1.0" name for themselves. In another mailing list about decentralization, he wrote that he had "recently had a standard stolen by a big name," presumably meaning O'Reilly, which had convened the RSS-DEV Working Group. Other members of the Syndication mailing list also felt that the RSS-DEV Working Group should not have used the name "RSS" without unanimous agreement from the community on how to move RSS forward. But the Working Group stuck with the name. Dan Brickley, another member of the RSS-DEV Working Group, defended this decision by arguing that "RSS 1.0 as proposed is solidly grounded in the original RSS vision, which itself had a long heritage going back to MCF (an RDF precursor) and related specs (CDF etc)." He essentially felt that the RSS 1.0 effort had a better claim to the RSS name than Winer did, since RDF had originally been a part of RSS. The RSS-DEV Working Group published a final version of their specification in December. That same month, Winer published his own improvement to RSS 0.91, which he called RSS 0.92, on UserLand's website. RSS 0.92 made several small optional improvements to RSS, among which was the addition of the tag soon used by podcasters everywhere. RSS had officially forked.

The fork might have been avoided if a better effort had been made to include Winer in the RSS-DEV Working Group. He obviously belonged there; he was a prominent contributor to the Syndication mailing list and responsible for much of RSS' popularity, as the members of the Working Group themselves acknowledged. But, as Davis wrote in an email to me, Winer "wanted control and wanted RSS to be his legacy so was reluctant to work with us." Winer supposedly refused to participate. Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly, explained this in a UserLand discussion group in September, 2000:

The Rise and Demise of RSS [Sinclair Target/Motherboard]