August 21, 2014
That Time of Year: TOR’s Year in Review

Hey! It’s kinda, sorta the one year anniversary for The Old Reader. I know, some of you have been using The Old Reader since 2012. But the current team took over just a year ago. And now we’re going to celebrate, have some cake, and reminisce.

When we first got involved, there was a lot of mystery about who we were. This blog initially only said that a “a new corporate entity in the United States” was going to take over and improve the service.

We didn’t mean to be so mysterious. We were a new company ourselves. Levee Labs is our web application company. It’s the kind of work we’ve been doing since the late 90’s before starting our own shop a few years ago.

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Like most people who used TOR, we were sad when we heard that the founders, Elena and Dmitry, planned to shut it down because the volume of users was overwhelming. However, they were willing to sell the application as long as the new owners had the same values and attitudes along with the technical ability to improve the application’s availability. I like to think we’ve delivered on both.

Our first priority was to handle traffic spikes better. We’ve been building high volume, highly scalable web apps for a long time, so we knew a lot about that particular problem. In the first few months, a lot of what we did was backend stuff to improve the architecture and performance.

Thanks to all of you who hung with us while we moved all of the data 5,000 miles to our new infrastructure.

Next came the new features. We’ve added a number of new social sharing features as well as usability features. Social sharing features like Starred items and Send To allow you you to highlight and share posts from The Old Reader for friends or social media. We also added the bookmarklet feature to send a copy of any web page to your TOR account.

A lot of these are features you’ve all been asking for, while other are just things we think are cool. More recently, we added Spritz to help you read faster. And of course, we have grown the list of apps to make your Old Reader feed available everywhere, as with the most recent, Reeder for iOS and Mac.

Of course, the biggest change was in February when we rolled out Premium accounts for The Old Reader. This was the biggest risk of all, but I am happy to say it has worked out. TOR now has well over a half million users and thousands of Premium users.

Premium isn’t just way to make sure the service is viable for the foreseeable future. It’s what lets us keep the service available without resorting to the ads, feed manipulation, data mining, sponsored content, and all of the crap that pollutes social media and other online services. We’ll also keep rolling out new Premium features to make the service even more valuable. 

Reading this, I am immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished. But know that we’re not even close to done. We’ve got a lot of stuff in the works, big and small. It should be a fun year. 

Now, back to cake.

July 24, 2014
Reeder for The Old Reader

We’re excited to announce that Reeder for iOS and Mac now have support for The Old Reader.  We’ve been anxiously awaiting this new release as we’re big fans of the Reeder app.  If you’re on the iOS or Mac platforms and want a great way to keep up with your feeds in The Old Reader please give this app a look and let us know what you think.  Big thanks to Silvio for adding support and congrats on another great release.

And for users on other platforms, here’s a list of all the other great applications that work with The Old Reader.

June 19, 2014
What Does it Mean to Be Social?

It seems like whenever someone is looking for an easy or obvious way to inject RSS with mass market appeal, the answer is always to be more like social media. 

But that answer is neither obvious or easy. RSS is not social media. RSS will never be a best way to publish your birthday pictures on your wall. It will never pull from your Facebook profile, get you a better Klout score, or get your photos onto Instagram.

But we do believe that the community building and information sharing that happens in social media ought be even more powerful in RSS. The question is how to translate social sharing into the RSS reader world without compromising our core values. 

Last week I talked about why I believe RSS is the best tool for getting the content you want. Of course, there is a catch to that premise. For RSS to work, you already need to know that you want stuff from a particular site. And that obviously doesn’t work if there’s interesting stuff you don’t know exists. 

I also understand that RSS can sometimes deliver too much stuff, and users can drown in information. You can get also create your own echo chamber, never discovering new content or having your horizon broadened. 

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Instead of mocking the more inane aspects of social media, let’s take the best parts and run with it. Our goal is to deliver stuff that’s been read, vetted, and recommended by people whose opinions you respect. Or at least people who have good taste.

We’re going to grapple with that issue of how to do that without compromising our core principles. I know there are some strong feelings out there around this issue. Let’s hear it. 

June 17, 2014
Add and share any web page with The Old Reader!

We’ve received a large number of requests to add a bookmarklet feature to The Old Reader.  Today we are excited to be launching this functionality for our premium users.  We will likely roll this functionality out to all users at some point in the future, but do not currently have a timeline in place.

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The bookmarklet is quickly and easily added to your browser bookmarks and allows you to send a copy of any web page to your TOR account.  Those pages are saved in the new bookmarklets section and are also searchable and sharable.

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We know a lot of our users will be excited to see this new functionality and we look forward to your feedback.  Thanks for using The Old Reader!

June 3, 2014
One Weird Trick to Get Everything You Want

You probably heard about the Facebook executive who complained about the proliferation of “stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them.” It’s almost too easy to be snarky about a Facebook guy who worries the Internet is awash in silly sponsored content. 

Besides, we know that silly sponsored content is not a benign issue. MetaFilter founder Matt Haughhey has written thoughtfully about how Google’s opaque and inscrutable ranking systems have been killing his business. He admits that, “we were doing nothing in terms of SEO, as I find the whole business kind of gross.” But because MetaFilter won’t play the ranking game, ad revenue has collapsed. Having thoughtful, high-quality content isn’t enough to get read.

The Internet is still full of great content. The problem is that the big Internet companies don’t do a good job of facilitating it. Well, that and advertisers and shameless self promoters are finding new and annoying ways to get in your face.

Last week, we wrote in defense of publishers’ right to get paid for advertising. But that’s just one part of the equation. The other half is providing a better way for quality content to be found. Or at least found without having to tart it up with stupid SEO tricks. 

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I know that content syndication can be used and abused by some people for link building. But RSS is not an algorithm that can be gamed by advertisers and content hucksters. I know that it is still the best mechanism to find the content you want. You’re not going to be tricked into clicking on a link and you’re not having your newsfeed polluted with promoted content. 

And I think it is time to start talking about this. Sometimes I get the feeling RSS developers think of themselves caretakers of an established and respected institution. You know, the kind of institution that can keep catering to a dwindling number of dedicated and sophisticated followers but doesn’t bother attracting new users. RSS is not new technology. But it is outside of the mainstream content delivery that’s increasingly compromised by someone’s desire to sell you something. 

And if a Facebook executive is recognizing the mindlessness, other people are too. It’s time to reintroduce RSS to the world. How about telling people that there is a way to actually ask for content you want to see and actually have it delivered to you. It’s not a miracle or weird trick. Although it will probably seem that way to a few people. 

May 19, 2014
In Defense of Publishers

If you’re making a list of the top three reasons to love RSS, one of them has to be that it exists largely outside of the Internet advertising machine. That is, it’s the only major browsing technology that isn’t trying to directly monetize every second of your online experience. 

But we are taking a stand for the right of one group of advertisers in the RSS universe- publishers. You know, the people who create the great content we all read via The Old Reader.

Publishers have been trying to figure out how to make a living off digital publishing since before there was an Internet. For the most part, they have settled on a free, ad supported model rather than a closed, subscription-based business plan. That’s a good thing.

But we’ve gotten more than a few requests from users that we include ad blocking or even screen scraping technology to deliver syndicated RSS content stripped of ads. Even though RSS is a great way to avoid much of the advertising industry, ads do creep in. Some sites fill feeds with advertising, or put very little content in them to force readers to visit the full, ad-loaded website. 

But it is their content, and it is the publishers right to advertise and drive traffic to their websites. It’s not always our favorite approach, but we won’t get in the way. I certainly understand that ads can be annoying. (I tend to drop the worst offenders from my feed.) But if one of my favorite sites is ad supported, they need to know that their ads are being served and seen by their RSS followers. It’s easy to imagine lots of sites would stop syndicating if RSS became just a hole in their business model. 

Besides, the publisher-driven ad model we’re supporting is much healthier than what is emerging on the social platforms. The reader/aggregator/social networks are taking most of the ad revenue and making it hard for the publisher to get their share. For example, in the Facebook model, publishers pay Facebook to promote their content, then Facebook surrounds that promoted content with their own ads. Only if someone clicks through on the post to the actual content does the publisher even have a chance to get their own ad impression.  

We talk a lot about keeping the web open, neutral, and as free as possible from the insidious influence of advertising. It’s part of our belief in the power of technology to connect our users, deliver them the content they want and with the best possible experience.

But advertising is part of the world we live in. There has to be an acceptable level, or there will be a lot less content worth reading. Our goal is to build a virtuous circle. We want users to want to read content on The Old Reader, where you will be subjected to the lowest level of advertising possible. Hopefully, the publishers will appreciate that courtesy, and keep syndicating that content for you as well.  

May 15, 2014
Spritz Integration

A couple months ago we came across a new technology called Spritz. It’s a tool that helps you read faster. Given how far behind I typically am in my Old Reader queue, we thought it would be a good thing to try out in the application. We were so happy with the results that we’ve decided to roll out the beta Spritz integration to our users today.

To enable Spritz, you’ll need to go into your settings and click the Spritz checkbox. You’ll then see the Spritz icon in your feeds which you can click on (or use the ‘i’ hotkey). The first time through you’ll need to create a Spritz account, but after that it should be clear sailing and fast reading.

Here’s an article about the new functionality on TNW.

Let us know what you think!

May 5, 2014
What Not Dying Looks Like

It’s always odd to hear people say RSS is dead. The fact is, RSS is easily the most successful stealth, insurgent technology on the web. It is pervasive and is the engine for much of the Internet.

Apple uses it to syndicate computer updates. Your podcast subscriptions rely on RSS. Every Wordpress blog is RSS enabled and every major news site is broadcasting via RSS. They’re all syndicated. They all have an RSS feed. It’s the background hum of the Internet.

There are millions of feeds out there, continually connecting users to their favorite content. Just about everything online except Facebook and Twitter is available via RSS.

Even more importantly, RSS has proven to be resilient and durable regardless of what corporate interests want to do with it. Netscape invented the underlying code in the late 90’s, and then took away all documentation and support in 2001 after AOL bought them out. But even that didn’t slow the dissemination. 

And then last year, the biggest player on the Internet took its ball and went home when Google killed its Reader. Despite the fact that Google retired the most popular RSS application on the Net, it did not affect RSS in any appreciable way. All of those feeds are still available and users are still getting their content delivered exactly as they want it. What greater proof is there of the resiliency of RSS?

In fact, what might have seemed like a disaster at first is perhaps the best thing that could happen to the technology. Remember, RSS is a technology and a service; it is not a product. AOL thought they could squash this great idea, but a community of developers took the idea and ran. Then Google thought they could abandon the technology and assumed everyone would gravitate to their social networks instead.

In fact, any number of companies can go out of business, but nobody can stop anybody from publishing and reading RSS feeds. 

However, just because a technology is widely available does not guarantee success. What makes RSS truly powerful is that users still have the control. The beauty of the system is it that no one can force you to be tracked and no one can force you to watch ads. There are no security issues I am aware of and no one ever has to know what feeds you subscribe to. This may be the last area of the Internet that you can still say things like this.

Google Reader was a monopolist product built on an anti-monopolist technology. Now that they’re gone, RSS is once again anyone’s game. You’re going to see a lot more innovation and new stuff for RSS. I never know if its supposed to be a blessing or a curse to live in interesting times. But I have to believe this RSS is entering maybe the most interesting time in its long history.

April 28, 2014
Let’s Keep the Internet Dumb

The Internet is a brilliant invention. It’s complex, elegant, and took some of the brightest minds on Earth to create. But at heart it is a dumb network. The genius of the Internet is that the actual transport of your data is completely neutral by design. The intelligence is in the applications that run on what is a set of dumb pipes.

Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon are not dumb. And they aren’t interested in owning dumb networks. They think that because they own some of infrastructure they should be allowed to make it more intelligent. They also think Google, Netflix, and Microsoft will pay for a supercharged, tier one service that moves their packets along faster. Upstart Internet companies that can’t pay extra will have to settle for slower service.

Net neutrality is the reason we have this wonderfully dumb network. While it might not be dead, it is mortally wounded. The FCC says it is not killing Net neutrality rules, but will change them later this year. They only promise that telecom companies will have to act in a “commercially responsible manner.”

Right. Like they always have.

The kind of network intelligence they are proposing kills innovation. When the Internet is neutral, the services that run on it have to be smarter. They have to be more clever and user-friendly than their competitors. When money becomes the differentiator, innovation is devalued and incumbents have all the power.

No one is going to try a new music service that keeps dropping songs because Pandora is hogging the bandwidth. No one is even going to think about launching a new online movie service if Netflix and Amazon have access to the fastest pipes.

Service providers claim they’re making the Internet more robust and powerful. When AT&T had monopoly control over the entire phone system, they made a system that was hyper-robust, intelligent, and powerful. But while they hardly ever dropped a call, there was very little innovation for the user for more than a century. We had rotary, landline phones in 1890 and rotary, landline phones in 1990. Plus maybe call waiting and voicemail.

The only solution is more competition. How many options do you have for Internet access? If you want a different Internet provider where you live, who would you call? The cable company? Maybe DSL?

If that remains the case, we will soon have gatekeepers with the unchecked power at every door.

Let’s stop pretending the Internet is still a beautiful, pure and elegant technology that leaked out of a government research lab and magically gave everyone free access to a better life. They own the Internet now.

But there are lots of ways to change the dynamic. For one, we have to force monopoly networks to open their networks to competition. Your cable company can’t be the only service provider to use its fiber cables. Those networks are a public utility. They have to be forced to lease it out to competition. If the networks are going to control what we see, we can’t let them have monopoly control.

It will take a lot of time and hard work to change the rules for the better. But we can start today. We can still fight to keep the net dumb. Start by signing a petition. There is still time to come out swinging for neutrality. http://www.savetheinternet.com/sti-home

April 22, 2014
Ad giants enforcing web standards? Hmmph.

The Wall Street Journal says Google is considering giving a boost in its search-engine results to websites that use encryption.

Is Google being a bully? Are they a force for good? I’m not sure it matters. What concerns me is the idea that a company is now so powerful and influential that it can force the rest of us on the internet to make decisions that may or may not be in our best interests.

I know a lot of people lost their faith in the company when they dropped Google Reader. But I think we all more or less understand why it happened.  I recently got one of those calls confirming recent credit card transactions and they described Google as an advertising company.  Nothing about technology or the internet.

Google’s power comes from the fact that, to a very large extent, they control what people see on the Internet. They create the system and they game the system to their own ends. They offer a service for free to the end user- provided they can make money off that service. 

It is probably inevitable that almost all technologies we depend on for our online experience will be heavily influenced by a few powerful organizations. The question is, where does that influence and control end?

Here’s a useful thought experiment. Imagine that Google takes away search results. Search may seem like the company’s essential function. But why does Google have to keep serving up search results from the Internet? Very few people look beyond the first couple results anyway.

Why wouldn’t a company in a position of almost total control serve up nothing but sponsored content if they could? Or just content only from sites that jump through their hoops. (Content from unencrypted sites would almost never be seen if Google changes its algorithm to de-value their content.)  

In fact, Google would probably make more money than they already do if they took this approach. The idea that a search engine doesn’t show search results isn’t too far fetched once you think about it.  No different than Facebook neglecting to show you posts from a person or company that you follow.

I don’t expect everyone to trust me or assume that we have their best interests at heart. We want people to gravitate to the Old Reader because it gives them what they ask for. It’s not altruism- it’s just how the open web works. We will certainly make decisions about how to run the service that not everyone will agree with.

Critics have said that RSS has not always been as consumer-friendly as social media. But what is more user-friendly than giving you exactly what you want to see, and not what a single company wants you to see? That’s how the Internet is supposed to work. 

By its very nature, The Old Reader is not a closed system and will never have the kind of concentrated market power to control what you see. The very nature of RSS is that it delivers the content that you request.

We don’t need some Advertising firm telling us how to consume or construct our web.  Do we?