I recently came across a pair of blog posts which touch on the IndieWeb’s apparently uneasy relationship with RSS and Atom feeds. I will focus primarily on examining Mr. Andy Sylvester’s post wherein he makes the case – the correct case in my view – that the IndieWeb project and IndieWeb sites should embrace RSS and Atom feeds as a way for readers to follow content. Mr. Sylvester’s article was inspired by a post by Mr. Dave Winer expressing disapproval of the IndieWeb’s apparent lack of support for RSS and Atom feeds.

Before I get into the issues, a short introduction is in order. I wrote a general introduction to RSS and Atom feeds last February, and I have published essays promoting the consumption of content through feeds as an alternative to using Facebook and Twitter as portals to the web. While most internet-users do not use feeds, they are widely available and certainly not dead. You can find all of The New Leaf Journal feeds here and my own feeds here.

The IndieWeb project touts itself as “a people-focused alternative to the ‘corporate web.’” It promotes the idea that individuals can own their own websites and web presences and prioritize posting on their own sites first. The IndieWeb promotes and develops implementations for several web standards in furtherance of its goals and ideals. While the project is broad, I will focus almost exclusively on microformats and webmentions in the instant post. Both of these standards are heavily promoted by the IndieWeb project, and they happen to be the two aspects of the project which most interest me.

While I am not well-qualified to deliver a technical explanation of webmentions and microformats (see links in previous paragraph), I will provide a very brief introduction. Webmentions enable site-to-site interactions. For example, one site with webmention support can link to an article on another site with webmention support, and the link from the linking site can be displayed similarly to a comment on the receiving site. Webmentions can be enriched by microformats. In this way, webmentions can be styled as comments, replies, bookmarks, RSVPs, and more. The New Leaf Journal has partial webmention support (we support webmentions but are limited in how we can display them). What makes the IndieWeb most interesting to me is that the standards it promotes have the potential to turn individual websites into silos with social functionality, a very intriguing idea in line with the concepts that I articulated in my digital home essay.

I do not see any obvious reason why a site with extensive microformats and webmention support should not also offer traditional RSS and/or Atom feeds. RSS and Atom feeds empower readers to choose their sources and receive updates from those sources in the manner of their own choosing. The IndieWeb standards – at least those standards that I am most interested in – empower creators to use their own sites as personal social hubs and to interact with other sites without needing social media platforms to act as intermediaries. There are some niche feed reader projects which parse microformats, but RSS and Atom are far more widely used and supported at this time (and likely for the foreseeable future). Because I saw no reason why these distinct decentralized standards should be at odds, I was surprised to learn that there are apparently some ambivalence about traditional feed standards in parts of the IndieWeb community.

On October 15, 2022, Mr. Dave Winner published the following take on the IndieWeb and RSS on his blog:

[T]he lack of support for RSS is one of the reasons I’m disinclined to embrace the standards [that the IndieWeb] promote[s]. Maybe if I understood why this is the case I’d feel better about seeing myself as part of this group.

I agree fully with Mr. Winner where he wrote that “RSS is a huge success for lower-case ‘indie-web’.” However, I will note briefly that there is no reason, in my view at least, to be “disinclined” to take an interest in IndieWeb standards because a segment of the IndieWeb community does not like RSS and Atom. The New Leaf Journal produces RSS, Atom, JSON, and microformats feeds as well as webmentions. The only issue I ran into with supporting traditional feed standards and microformats was that a WordPress plugin for adding microformats to our non-IndieWeb theme seemed to cause some display issues with bylines in our feeds (I removed that plugin and opted instead to just add a microformats feed). Supporting standards promoted by the IndieWeb does not require being an official or unofficial part of a group. Moreover, by supporting and promoting these standards along with RSS and/or Atom feeds, one can encourage other webmasters and bloggers to add support to their sites and facilitate new site-to-site interactions.

Mr. Winer’s post inspired a thoughtful article by Mr. Andy Sylvester, who has an insider’s perspective on the issues involving its relationship with RSS and Atom feeds. Mr. Sylvester explains that at a 2014 conference, which included some of the most active contributors to the IndieWeb project, he asked why many IndieWeb sites at the time had no RSS support. He described the answer he received:

The response was that they were using microformats to encode data within their websites, and that there were microformat parsers which could read that formatted data and present it in a feed reader application.

Had I been in Mr. Sylvester’s shoes, I would have considered this a wholly unsatisfying response. While there may be microformats parsers which can present microformat data in a feed reader application, the vast majority of people who use feed readers expect RSS and Atom support. Most people who use feed readers are not going to change feed readers to follow a couple of sites that only support microformats. People who develop feed readers are unlikely to prioritize microformats supports when very few sites support it. Such has been the struggle for the adoption of JSON feeds.

Mr. Sylvester correctly recognized that many people who rely on RSS and Atom feed readers may wonder how to conveniently follow a site which does not offer RSS or Atom feeds. The answer he received was, in my view, not the best:

[The] response was that more people needed to adopt microformats.

I concur with Mr. Sylvester’s response:

I said that this was a ‘boil the ocean’ strategy and that people who use feeds to monitor sites expect to use RSS and Atom, not microformats.

In an article that I wrote on encouraging video game players to consider Linux, I argued that Linux proponents need to meet gamers, and Windows/MacOS users generally, where they are. That is, consider the concerns of one’s audience and take those concerns seriously. Similarly, it is unavailing to tell Jack, who is happy with his RSS/Atom feed reader and has a large feed collection, that he should get a new feed reader which supports microformats (there are not many in the grand scheme of things) just to follow a couple of sites.

To the extent that proponents of microformats as a superior alternative to RSS and Atom may think that what Mr. Sylvester described as a “boil the ocean” approach is the way to encourage adoption, I disagree. Many of the people who are knowledgeable enough to understand the technical differences between microformats and RSS/Atom feeds and how that may manifest in feed readers and parsers nevertheless use RSS and Atom feeds to read articles and blogs around the web (I dare suggest a higher percentage of such people use feed readers than what one would find in a survey of all internet users). The official website for the JSON feed standard, which promotes JSON feeds as a modernized and superior take on RSS and Atom, offers an RSS feed. It does so even though there are a few feed readers (not including my own feed readers, sadly) which support JSON feeds. The authors of the JSON feed standard set up their site to make their project more accessible to all people who use feed readers which only support RSS and Atom.

Fortunately, Mr. Sylvester reported that he has found that more IndieWeb sites offer RSS and Atom feeds now than was the case in 2014. He explained that the IndieWeb wiki promotes design over protocols and formats, and lists RSS and Atom as part of a “plurality of projects” that are in line with the movement’s mission and ideals. While my experience with IndieWeb sites is limited, I will note that every site that I have come across which supports webmentions has also supported RSS or Atom feeds, which may suggest that whatever debate that existed in 2014 has been resolved in favor of supporting more standards.

In the concluding section, Mr. Sylvester described RSS/Atom as being part of the “independent web” and the IndieWeb as being distinguishable from the independent web, despite “shar[ing] some features.” While I agree with distinguishing the lower-case independent web from the IndieWeb community, I submit that the standards promoted by the IndieWeb community can be, and should be, part of the lower-case independent web. Webmentions have great potential as a general-use tool for people to use their own online presences to communicate directly with one another, regardless of membership (official or unofficial) in one community or another.

Mr. Sylvester wrote that he hoped to see the independent web and the IndieWeb “coexist and at times even work together.” I agree, but this inspired in me another thought which returns to the tension – to whatever extent there is tension – between RSS/Atom and IndieWeb standards. We should consider the purpose of RSS and Atom feeds and of certain IndieWeb standards – here I will look only at microformats and webmentions. RSS and Atom feeds focus on reading content. To the best of my knowledge, they are far more adapted to reading (or listening to)content than to interacting with it. Webmentions, in conjunction with microformats, provide exciting ways to interact with content, most clearly for people who also produce content. Instead of pushing for microformats to replace RSS and Atom, I would be interested in seeing microformats readers that allow users to interact with content on sites that have full microformats and webmention support from their readers. I understand that there are some existing projects working on this concept, and those projects could provide something unique for people who enjoy reading and commenting on content but have no interest in otherwise creating content.