It isn’t Google Reader, but it could be the beginning of something.
Google is experimenting with a new feature in its Chrome browser for Android that allows users to “follow” websites to keep track of new content they post. The functionality is built on RSS, an open web standard that has previously served as the foundation for several common web aggregation tools. That includes Google’s own Google Reader, which was once famous (but is now defunct).
The trial is small-scale: only certain Chrome Canary users in the United States will be able to follow pages (the bleeding-edge version of Chrome that lets enthusiasts access beta features). Users can follow websites from the browser toolbar, and notifications will be aggregated in a card-based feed that appears when they open a new tab. It’s unclear if this feed is entirely reliant on sites that support RSS or whether Google will fill in the gaps on its own.
Despite the fact that this is just a test, it’s exciting for a certain kind of web user who misses the glory days of RSS (and, by extension, a mode of internet discovery and distribution that faded years ago). RSS, at its most basic level, helps users to keep track of new material from their favorite websites, blogs, and podcasts in a personalized stream. And, although tools that used these feeds were briefly common, they were quickly eclipsed for a variety of reasons.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why RSS faded from popularity. (To further illustrate, here are two stories from Vice and TechCrunch.) Whatever the reason, many see its death as a watershed moment for the internet, when decentralized, chronological feeds were replaced by social media giants’ engagement-driven algorithms.
Since the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms has had so many clearly negative consequences (misinformation! hoaxes! Nazis! ), many people regard RSS as a kind of network Golden Age that collapsed due to a glut of aristocracy and a lack of cunning. They tell, “If only RSS had thrived!” “All of this heinousness should have been prevented.” so perhaps. What’s obvious is that Google is reacting to a desire for new (read: old) ways to interact with the internet.
Google’s head of web creator relations, Paul Bakaus, tweeted:
We've heard it loud and clear: Discovery & distribution is lacking on the open web, and RSS hasn't been 'mainstream consumer' friendly.
— Paul Bakaus (@pbakaus) May 19, 2021
Nobody knows what will happen next. Can Google stick to its word and make RSS-powered features available to all Chrome users? Or will it become dissatisfied with a commodity that isn’t critical to its bottom line? (It did the same thing for Google Reader.) At the very least, Bakaus implies that there will be more to come. “This is just the beginning of a larger exploration, and we need your help to get this right,” he tweeted. “Tweet us @WebCreators and tell us what we need to create for you. I’m really looking forward to it!”