Thursday, July 26
feed discovery and live bookmarks should not be removed from firefox
tl;dr: Mozilla are removing RSS feed discovery and display features from
Firefox in an upcoming release. This is an unfortunate decision
which will actively harm the open web, and should be reversed. It is also part
of a larger pattern of unfortunate decisions by browser makers which contribute
to a user-hostile network.
I am writing this post first in the hopes that it will be read by people at
Mozilla, and secondly for users of Firefox who may not know about useful tools
that they’re about to lose.
RSS and Atom (usually referred to just as “RSS” because naming stuff is hard)
are related standards for publishing feeds of stuff on the web so that users
can subscribe to updates. If you see a little icon that looks like this:
…it’s usually a link to a feed. Feeds are just files that describe a set of
entries along with publication dates and other metadata, and feedreader
software can usually display the full text of entries, or link to them for
reading in a browser. This works especially well for things like blogs or
social media streams, but it’s also the technology underlying podcasts.
There’s a standard for linking a web page to its corresponding feed, so that
browsers can display a feed icon and you can click it to subscribe.
Firefox has had this feature for most of its existence, along with the ability
to subscribe to feeds as “Live Bookmarks” that update with the contents of a feed.
Back in 2011 the feed subscription button was removed from the default set of
toolbar buttons. As of this writing, you can add it back in by right-clicking
the toolbar or clicking on the menu button (the three little lines towards the
upper-righthand corner), clicking “Customize…”, and dragging the “Subscribe”
button to the toolbar.
That’s the casual background. Now I’ll try to lay out the substance of my
belief that feeds should be a first-class citizen of the modern web, and that
organizations like Mozilla should devote resources to supporting and improving
the feed ecosystem.
Feeds are a direct channel of communication outside the control of silos
like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and reddit. As such, they empower publishers
to communicate and end-users read the web without the mediation of hostile
algorithms and the imperatives of surveillance capitalism.
Though imperfect, the existing feed standards are
stable, established technology with library support in nearly every major
programming language. They offer straightforward publishing at a tiny
fraction of the implementation overhead demanded by other tooling that
modern browsers devote vast resources to supporting. They’re also
accessible to anyone with the resources to configure a static site
generator or a WordPress site.
Work like JSON Feed (and probably various microformats), though
also obviously imperfect, suggests that there are paths forward for feed-like
tech that map pretty well to the existing abstractions.
Unmediated syndication helps small businesses and independent publishers
reach their customers without paying rent to social media platforms. It
helps governments be more transparent, journalists more informed, and web
platforms more open without paying heavy costs to integrate with
manipulative, closed-source systems. It bolsters archiving and sharing of
work across systems. It offers a clean alternative to spammy,
personal-information-hoarding e-mail newsletter subscription lists.
Unmediated syndication helps users make their own choices about the
attention economy instead of wading through the click-maximizing behavioral
engineering that now dominates web platforms.
Accessibility: Feedreaders are now one of the few modes of consuming web
a huge boon to people with any of low-end hardware, constrained bandwidth,
or an entirely reasonable paranoia about running giant blobs of arbitrary
Feed discovery and live bookmarks are differentiating features at a time
when Firefox’s userbase has massively declined relative to Chrome, a
browser built by a monopoly corporation which first enclosed and then
destroyed a substantial part of the web syndication infrastructure in
pursuit of its own interests. (A browser built by a monopoly corporation
which effectively controls a massive percentage of the client devices and
operating systems, just in case anyone missed the 1990s the first time
around.) Crudely put, following Chrome’s lead in pushing syndication
entirely out of the browser to plugins removes a competitive advantage,
while such advantages are in short and dwindling supply.
Moving this functionality to plugins isn’t satisfactory for the simple
reason that visibility is everything and defaults matter. If people know
that feeds are a going concern, a percentage of people will use feeds, and
the internet will be better for it.
These are for the most part positive statements about feed-related features and
what they offer. To briefly be more negative, I also want to address the
reasoning laid out in the draft blog post linked in bug 1477667:
What’s more, these parts of Firefox aren’t offering features users want. Live
bookmark doesn’t really have a concept of “read” state (it uses history visit
state as a proxy, which doesn’t work for redirects), it doesn’t work well
with sync, and arguably shouldn’t be part of our bookmarks implementation in
the first place. It’s also not available on either Android or iOS and so has
no mobile integration. Finally, podcasts are more successful than text-based
feeds, but neither our feed viewer nor live bookmarks have good integration
Usage data from Firefox shows that 99.9% of our users don’t actually use
either the feed viewer or live bookmarks. Furthermore, the usage of feeds
outside of Firefox doesn’t justify it, either - RSS/Atom has been slowly
losing popularity, and various tools and companies have dropped support years
ago (Apple Mail, Google Reader, …), stopped existing if they were focused on
feeds (e.g. FeedDemon) or changed focus (e.g. NetVibes).
There’s a pattern at work here, and it’s one I find frustrating just about
every time I encounter it as a user. (I’m also well aware I’ve been guilty of
it myself in the past, but I’m mostly trying to do better.)
It doesn’t mean much for the purposes of evaluating these features that the
data doesn’t show heavy usage, because they’re features that were deliberately
obscured from the user population something like seven years ago. I would be
surprised if more than a tiny fraction of the current userbase of Firefox is
aware that they (still) exist. I was prompted to write this post itself by
conversation with a technical professional who already uses feeds and 3rd-party
feed discovery tools and didn’t know that they were already built into the
Leaving that aside, argumentation from Google’s actions around Reader and their
knock-on effects is essentially poisoned. RSS/Atom hasn’t simply been
passively losing popularity; to the contrary it’s still remarkably popular
given that it’s been so aggressively deprecated by a broad swath of industry
powers whose commercial and structural interests run contrary to its
I’m making an effort to write this in good faith. I have concerns about
Mozilla’s funding model and the attendant (dis)incentives. I thoroughly
despair, in general, about the fate and nature of the web as a whole. But none
of those things override my sense that Mozilla is a good organization doing
necessary work and staffed by well-intentioned people. I’m grateful for the
work that goes into Firefox, and I’ll almost certainly keep using it for the
I don’t believe there’s an anti-RSS/Atom conspiracy, as such. Nor do I
necessarily think that feed discovery was deliberately hidden in Firefox with
the conscious intent that once hidden its removal could eventually be justified
when enough people had forgotten about it. Nevertheless, in the general case
there’s a kind of broad emergent conspiracy, if you will, of industry consensus
and action at work, and it manifests in small individual actions like this one.
Mozilla is the kind of organization with copy like “We’re the not-for-profit
behind products, technologies and programs that make the internet healthier for
everyone” prominently displayed on its home page. I don’t begrudge anyone the
desire to simplify and improve legacy systems. I’ve written enough code by now
to know that deleting the stuff is just about the happiest interaction a
programmer can have with the stuff. Nevertheless, I’d ask you, a hypothetical
Firefox developer reading this plaint, to consider that this really may not be
a decision that makes the internet healthier.
firefox, panopticon, syndication, technical :: p1k3 /