Skip to main content

We still need to unlock the web

Email newsletters are only succeeding because RSS failed.

I just subscribed to Casey Newton's new tech journalism newsletter, Platformer. I appreciate his journalism, and I'm sure it'll become a regular must-read for me in the same way that Ben Thompson's Stratechery is. The tech industry needs more analytical journalism, and I'm pleased to support it.

There's an interesting platform difference between the two. When you sign up and pay for Stratechery, you can certainly opt in to receiving daily emails - and I'm sure this is how most of his subscribers read his work. But you can also get access to a private RSS feed that you can plug into your reader.

My feed reader is an important part of my morning routine, but it also serves another purpose: to keep regular subscription content out of my inbox. I have enough trouble keeping on top of my email; I'm terrible at it. Adding more messages will not help me. But I also really want to subscribe! So having all my regular subscription content in one place, away from the desolation of my inbox, is useful. (Hundreds of you are reading this post in your inbox. I'm assuming you're all better at email than me! If not, you can always subscribe to my blog via a feed reader.)

In contrast to Stratechery, Platformer uses Substack, which has made starting and subscribing to paid newsletters incredibly easy. As a subscriber, I plug in my email, hit the Apple Pay button, and I'm subscribed. It's kind of a brilliant way to support independent writers. Like RSS feeds, authors don't need to rely on social media for distribution; they have a more direct relationship with the reader. Unlike RSS feeds, it all piles into my horror show inbox.

My feed reader of choice is NewsBlur (together with the beautiful Reeder apps), in part because it allows me to forward email newsletters to an address it provides. Feedbin and a few others do this too. I have a blanket filter that removes every Substack newsletter from my inbox and sends the messages to my feed reader, where they show up alongside the blogs I subscribe to. It works for me: I get to read all of my subscriptions in one place, and leave my inbox for all of those other messages that I'll get to eventually.

It's worth imagining another world, where the string and blu tack solution I made for myself is easy for everyone. What if everyone had an easy-to-use place to read their subscription content, away from the hustle and bustle of their regular emails? What if feed subscriptions had become mainstream, and payments had become an integral part of the specification? What if every author had the ability to use the platform that Ben Thompson had to build for himself, allowing each of them to make a living from their work as easily as publishing to the web?

The technology isn't there right now, but could it be?

Every journalist, artist, app builder, musician, author, podcaster, etc, should be able to make money independently on the web. And the web should help them do that.

Of course, RSS feeds haven't failed. The entire podcasting ecosystem heavily depends on them - an $11 billion market, all depending on open feeds. Even for written content, there are millions of people like me who use them every day. People in tech love to talk about the death of Google Reader, but nobody killed RSS.

For a year, I worked with Julien Genestoux, who had previously built the Superfeedr feed subscription and distribution engine, on Unlock, a protocol for independent, decentralized payments on the web. The startup didn't quite work out, but the open source protocol continues to find use. Most importantly, I think the idea (anyone should be able to take payments from their own website without a middleman) is very strong, even if the Ethereum blockchain it depended on turned out to not quite be ready for primetime. Not to mention the ability for payments to supplant harmful targeted advertising.

I believe that Substack, the Stratechery platform, and Patreon's subscription model are all evidence of a need for a decentralized marketplace of content, monetized through easy, recurring payments that don't require a content silo. By using the same feed ecosystem that powers the whole podcasting ecosystem (and my morning content routine), adding a payments layer on top of the RSS specification itself, and then making it insanely easy to read and subscribe, we could empower a new generation of creators, readers, and reader apps.

Some technical work has been done. PodPass is a proposal for an identity layer on top of RSS for podcasts. Work is being done at the W3C on web payments. Identity and payment mechanisms are both crucial parts of providing subscriptions as a first-class layer on the web. But there's a great deal more to do technically - and a huge amount more in terms of building a coherent user experience, particularly around payments.

Here's my final "what if". What if subscription payments were built into the browser or reader, with the vendor itself taking a small cut (in the same way that Apple takes 0.15% of Apple Pay purchases)?

For example: let's say I browse to a website using Mozilla Firefox. That website has some metadata in its HTML which indicates that (1) a feed is available, and (2) there are payment tiers.

Firefox lets me know that I can subscribe to that website's content with an unobtrusive icon or notification. When I click, it shows me the tiers available. When I hit subscribe, Firefox starts to pull feed content in a built-in reader. When it pulls feeds, it identifies me in the HTTP header with a pseudonymous hash code. For the purposes of this conversation, I'm user 123456 (the same combination I have on my luggage).

When I pay, funds are sent directly to the website owner, with a small cut going to Mozilla itself, and another small cut going to WordPress, which powers the site. Funds are transferred behind the scenes in stablecoins (probably), with Mozilla providing a credit card interface to me so I don't have to know or care about crypto. It tells the website owner that I'm user 123456, and that I've paid. The website verifies the payment, and next time a feed is requested for user 123456, it adds in any paid content. Unlock did this provably, using the blockchain: anyone can build an API which verifies independently that user A has access to paid content from user B.

From the user's perspective it looks like this: they can see that a website they're on has content that can be subscribed to. When they hit "subscribe" in the browser, they're prompted to choose a tier if paid tiers exist. And then they can read content and manage their subscriptions in a built-in reader.

For users like me, my existing feed reader can do the same thing: detect paid options, and pay for them if I want. The feed reader vendor gets the cut of the funds.

Cross-device syncing is taken care of by the browser vendor: my Firefox account already keeps my bookmarks and history up to date everywhere I have Firefox installed. Chrome and Safari users have a similar mechanism. Subscriptions would piggyback on these existing accounts.

The end result is a web where any creator can make money from their content and any reader can subscribe to it, without having it further clutter an email inbox that they already resent. Because browsers, feed readers, and content management platforms take a small cut of payments, they're incentivized to innovate around the model and build new products. Browser vendors like Mozilla can stop making most of their money from search engine deals. Nobody is forced to rely on Facebook or Twitter for distribution. Targeted ads die. And the internet is more decentralized and healthier for everyone.