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Wanted: Indie content curators, RSS a plus

March 12, 2020

Earlier today, Flipboard announced a $3/month subscription (coming soon) to curate public video into a single feed. What I really want is a way to easily consolidate YouTube, feeds, newsletters, and podcasts into a single source. Unfortunately, this Flipboard subscription is a good idea, too lost in its own ego, justifying the “algorithm” over allowing indie curators and creators to build their own audiences.

The sad truth is that this could have been a reality, if RSS was treated as an important feature of the open web. Instead, modern content is all about the platform, not content.

Just allow curators already

This is why I don’t understand why platforms continue to insist on algorithm curation, instead of opening up to avid fans who want to do this. Empowering these curators and making it as easy as possible is a step in the direction to overcome competition and increasing discoverability.

The interesting dilemma Flipboard TV is trying to solve, plus other services including Pluto TV and Shudder (which has a great model), is that there’s just too much content out there. Which is true. Not just from major sources, but from thousands of creators all over the world. Blogs, videos, live streams, newsletters, social media… There’s so much great content out there and absolutely no way to consume it all.

This has been true for a long time with books, which is a benefit to the industry. There’s never a question if there is any good books available, your library is literally teeming with amazing works including books that only appeal to a very niche audience. The struggle is, which one do we spend time with? Which one will we like? Which won’t make me feel like I wasted my time?

The solution to this isn’t to algorithmically surface content on your platform. Those are driven by what’s popular (just overall clicks), the platforms in-house content (Netflix auto-playing trailers for their own stuff, anyone?) or keyword driven results that have never been vetted. Social media platforms have been doing this for years and is why I thoroughly hate my experience on any Facebook property. Right now in my Instagram Explore tab it is 80% motorcycles because ONE TIME I liked a picture from a friend out of courtesy. Apparently to Instagram, I worship motorcycles and 100% of my time on the platform should be spent drooling over them.

What I want is to follow my favorite curators. For example, I’m a huge fan of the Junkfood Cinema podcast. They like the same movies I do and every time they recommend one I’ve never seen, I instantly hit JustWatch to see where it’s available. Whenever I listen to an episode, I have to have a pen and paper close by, because the inevitably mention a dozen other movies in each episode I want to follow-up on.

I would LOVE a platform where there is a Junkfood Cinema curator list that I can see every movie they recommend, plus a link to their podcast about any movie they’ve covered. Then, in the same interface, I can hit play on their podcast or hit play on the movie. They may not have a podcast episode for each movie, but where they do its extra content. This goes the same for music, news and even video games. Yes, I can follow someone or subscribe to their podcast, then go find their recommendations on my own. But I want it all integrated into a single service.

This is an opportunity for more curators to expand their audience, too. In my preferred experience, I subscribe to Netflix, but have my landing page. Listed on the homepage is all the curators I follow and their recommendations. Then, there’s places where I can click out also consume their separate content, like a podcast, blog, YouTube, newsletter, etc. As a creator, this would be amazing. It would be so great if my Miami Vice podcast could be added as a “curator” on a platform, and then our podcast for each Miami Vice episode is listed with the show for that viewer. Not for everyone, just for those that add us. This would allow for a more immersive experience. Now that we’ve switch to movies, you would see our recommendations for them plus where we have podcast episodes, they would be listed just below.

This is why I don’t understand why platforms continue to insist on algorithm curation, instead of opening up to avid fans who want to do this. Empowering these curators and making it as easy as possible is a step in the direction to overcome competition and increasing discoverability. Influencers have existing on social channels for sometime. Why not invite influencers directly onto your platform?

This has already been solved

The most frustrating aspect of this story isn’t if curators could be allowed directly into Neftlix, Spotify, Substack, Flipboard, etc., but that this was the exact purpose of RSS. Before the social media feed took over, and every platform was racing to send you push notifications, RSS was the perfect system for curating your own feeds. I know RSS isn’t dead, but based on how hard it is to find feeds, especially for video, it might as well be.

There have been many swan songs for Google Reader and its demise in 2013, but it really was the death of something awesome. Since Google shut it down, there have been many capable RSS readers and many guides that show how to add Reddit and even YouTube to them. Yet, much the same as pure podcatchers, the idea of RSS has died. Until 2013, every website had a link or button to get an RSS feed and now they are nearly impossible to find on modern sites. If they exist, the feeds are kneecapped or broken.

RSS was amazing because you could find a tool, say QuiteRSS or NewsBlur, plug in your favorite sites and boom, when you open it you get only the stuff you like. I still keep a heavily curated OPML file with feeds from sites, but I’ve had to change it several times in the last 5 years as more and more sites drop their RSS feeds. Many of these RSS feed readers could handle podcasts or any other media, simply because RSS is just a protocol. It’s so easy to implement, there is no reason why Twitch, YouTube or any other platform couldn’t directly integrate. There are plenty of ways for the RSS purists to add these to their feeds, unfortunately it’s not integrated.

This is where Flipboard comes back and we’ve gone full circle. The supposed benefit of Flipboard is you don’t have to fuss around with RSS feeds. Instead, you can just search and add sources to your Flipboard account. Then they can see what you read and make “recommendations” based on your behaviour. Somehow this is supposed to be better than curating your own feed. I know there are ways to add custom sites, the process is not straightforward. The app itself exists to remove your customization and instead fall in line with what’s best for Flipboard.

Flipboard TV may be an interesting idea, it’s just missing the real killer feature… Which is to all full customization, add any feed you want for any media type, while giving curators an easy way to build experiences. Let me subscribe to the Justin R. Young Politics feed, that includes his podcasts newsletter, plus any articles he’s found useful or interesting. Since everything exists in silos, this will never exist.

I say this is a lot like podcasts, because podcatchers are turning into their own platforms. They make exclusive deals. They only work on certain devices. They have their own subscription plans. If Flipboard, Pocket Casts, YouTube, and Pocket all integrated seamlessly, I would live my content dream.

I spent 15 minutes with Flipboard while writing this and I could not add any sources I follow, news, podcast or YouTube. The whole purpose of these platforms is to blindly trust their algorithm of recommendations, which sounds great to investors and consistently delivers a poor experience for the user.

So, if I blindly wanted a platform to continue to reward the popular, shove partnerships into my eyes, and deliver the bland, mediocre content from big name publishing houses, I could just Flip It!

But the real power of the curation and subscriptions through RSS remains impossible. Perhaps in an internet renaissance, creators will realize it’s better to own your content and make subscribing easier, rather than receiving a few coins in ads while kowtowing to any big tech brand.

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Twitter: @domcorriveau