With using Twitter becoming increasingly like smoking — a habit you can’t quit but know you should — there’s a chance that a better RSS reader will finally, finally take hold and scale.
Two years ago, Sara Watson boldly predicted in this space that we might see a return of the RSS reader, or something like it, recognizing that the world of constant email newsletters was simply impossible to maintain. But the appetite wasn’t strong enough yet.
The difference, going into 2023, is that even the Inbox Zero people are going to have a reason to complain. Left without a better way to quickly zoom in and zoom out on the state of the universe (also known as the world according to Twitter), I predict those people will reach a point of frustration in even their ability to manage email.
It is at this point that the most organized people in late capitalism will rise up about a very small matter and demand something better: An RSS for the people, open source, easily used, and not some weird niche version for podcasts or that uses AI.
Two years ago, Substack was becoming a thing, but the newest spawn of DC beltway publications based on newsletter distribution had yet to break through. But now the mix includes Semafor, Puck, Punchbowl, more Axios Locals, and new ones on the horizon like Pluribis News.
There are two types of Inbox Zero people in this world: Those who do not read any news or shop online, and those who use a lot of Twitter. You may recall them talking about how RSS readers were obsolete in a world of Twitter (after all, even Google killed Reader). Twitter could be their perfectly curated and controlled sandbox of content. Now, it’s less socially acceptable to tweet.
Contrary to what The New York Times has speculated, we are not at peak newsletter. We are just at peak newsletter via email delivery. The 10% of people who claim that email newsletters are their primary form of news consumption include among them the most anal, powerful, and high-net worth people in the country.
I predict that these people won’t stand for a universe where their email becomes ever more crowded just because of Elon Musk mucking up Twitter. The only way to survive in a world where multiple DC-insider publications are launching multiple newsletters and Twitter is no longer socially acceptable is to use an RSS reader that satisfies the intelligentsia and political elite.
Will we get it? It may well be that the feed from email to robust RSS reader needs an API that isn’t yet possible, given password-protected, your-and-Gmail’s-eyes-only email. RSS readers may need their own ecology of analytics in order to be commercially desirable and worthy of tech investment.
Given that tech companies have taken to these newsletters to plead their case to the beltway, they certainly don’t want to lose the readers of these email newsletters, either. That provides a market incentive to make a better, bigger, bolder RSS reader. And if Ben Thompson is right that that “text on the internet is arguably the most competitive medium in all of human history,” then there is an opportunity for a very retro version of tech disruption.
Nikki Usher (they/them) is an associate professor in communication studies at the University of San Diego.