Bloglines to close: will this mark the death of RSS? And of Murdoch’s paywall experiment?

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2010

The company behind Bloglines.com posted the following announcement this week:

Today, Ask.com let our users know that we will shut down Bloglines on October 1. Not an easy decision, especially considering our loyal and supportive (not to mention patient) user base, but, ultimately, the right one given business reasons simply too hard to ignore. …

… when we originally acquired Bloglines in 2005, RSS was in its infancy. The concept of “push” versus “search” around information consumption had become very real, and we were bullish about the opportunity Bloglines presented for our users. Flash forward to 2010. The Internet has undergone a major evolution. The real-time information RSS was so astute at delivering (primarily, blog feeds) is now gained through conversations, and consuming this information has become a social experience. As Steve Gillmor pointed out in TechCrunch last year, being locked in an RSS reader makes less and less sense to people as Twitter and Facebook dominate real-time information flow. Today RSS is the enabling technology – the infrastructure, the delivery system. RSS is a means to an end, not a consumer experience in and of itself. As a result, RSS aggregator usage has slowed significantly, and Bloglines isn’t the only service to feel the impact. The writing is on the wall.

I’m sorry to see Bloglines go: it was the first blog-reader I made use of, subscribing to well over 100 feeds.

It had its annoyances. Many of them. For example, you couldn’t organise your RSS subscriptions into folders, unlike with Google Reader — which was aggravating if, like me, you would have preferred to sub-divide blog-feeds into work and personal. I also grew too used to the tell-tale red exclamation mark which told me Bloglines, alone among RSS readers, had encountered yet another feed-read error. At any one time, up to 15% of my feeds did not work through Bloglines.

Yet for all its technical limitations, Bloglines was by far the most user-friendly, easy-to-read blog-reader I’ve yet come across. I guess I’ll now have to try and make friends with Google Reader, but only because I have to, not because I want to.

But does Twitter and Facebook — the most common social media by which to share links — mean the death of RSS subscriptions? I’m less sure.

It’s certainly true that I’m far less reliant on RSS than I used to be. Chances are that a must-read blog-post will be brought to my attention within hours of it being posted via one of my friends without me having to stumble across it for myself.

And yet, some of the essential, must-read blogs on my RSS list are written by some of the more peripatetic bloggers: they blog only occasionally, but when they write I sit up and take notice. Would I automatically notice if they shared their posts by Facebook/Twitter? Maybe, but perhaps not. Though I’m a frequent user of both, I’m not surgically attached to either. And I do sometimes go on holiday, or find myself hyper-busy at work, in which case I would miss them. An RSS feed means I don’t miss out no matter what.

I recognise, though, that such occasional use probably doesn’t add up to a viable business model. Fine for Google with their multi-service platform and economies of scale, with Google Reader a small add-on.

What it does flag-up once again is the risk that Rupert Murdoch is taking by placing The Times and The Sunday Times behind a paywall, excluding their content from the social media conversation. Is the papers’ content sufficiently distinctive — do they have a compelling enough USP — to ensure enough readers will be willing to cough up for access?

My guess still is no. I’ve learned to live without both papers these past few months. Occasionally there’s a news story or an interview or a columnist’s view which I think would be interesting to read; but not enough to make me fork out for it.

Bloglines has come to the conclusion that social media is now simply too important to an online business model that one which pre-dates the Twitter/Facebook world simply isn’t viable. Will Murdoch soon reach a similar conclusion?