Web Masters Episode #82: Matt Shobe


Troubleshooting FeedBurner For WordPress.COM - PatCosta.com

Matt Shobe:

I’m not going to hold the ocean back with a broom, right? So for me to just cling to this nostalgic view I have of the way things used to be is not going to do anyone any good, but I do sort of miss the control that I felt like I had and the fact that to a gen X-er like me, it’s like knowing there were only a dozen channels. By turning the TV dial or flipping through my cable lineup, I wasn’t going to miss anything that was going to be on that night. And the web might have seemed simpler then and therefore, it was better. Whereas now yeah, you can get overwhelmed and we have terms that exist like doom scrolling now that exist for the reason of so much choice and so much volume, right? And you can just narrow down on the stuff that just terrifies you or what have you, and it’s never ending.

You could actually get to the bottom of the end of a feed reader list, like you could knock out all your stuff for the day and it’s like well, that’s it. No more blogs today, guess I’ll go do something else. Maybe there was some actual emotional value in that. I don’t know. I didn’t even think about it from a mental health perspective, but maybe, because now you can say plugged in forever. I mean it’s full [inaudible 00:00:59] stuff. It’s all William Gibson. It’s like the full metaverse you can’t get out, and maybe that’s the thing that I’ve even thought about that I’m secretly nostalgic for is that you could reach the end of the internet, or the internet you cared about at the bottom of your feed reader list.

Aaron Dinin:

The end of the internet you cared about, how’s that for a quaint idea? In this age of endless social media feeds, constant emails, and unlimited content to stream, it’s hard to imagine a day on the internet that could have felt complete. Like you saw everything you would’ve wanted to see, but there was a time in internet history when the content didn’t seem so infinite, even if it still kind of was. And a big part of that was thanks to RSS speeds. Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you used to love them, or maybe you have no idea what they are, doesn’t matter. On this episode of Web Masters, we’re going to learn all about them with the man who helped online publishers monetize their RSS feeds. We’re talking with Matt Shobe, one of the co-founders of FeedBurner. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hello everyone, and welcome to Web Masters. It’s the podcast that teaches about entrepreneurship while exploring the history of the internet as we talk with some of the digital age’s most impactful innovators. I’m Aaron Dinin. I am your host. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University and I study among other things, internet history. That history includes something called RSS feeds. RSS stands for really simple syndication. It’s a technology that allows web publishers to publish their content in a standardized way, which in turn, allows for other technologies to keep track of those publications and know when they release new content.

For example, this podcast and every podcast you listen to uses RSS. We post a new episode of Web Masters, our feed updates, then your podcast app, which is listening for those updates, hears that a new episode of Web Masters got released and it tells you to go listen right now. And that’s why you’re here. If not, and this is your first time listening to the show, then you should go subscribe to Web Masters so you get new alerts every time we release another episode. But enough about us, let’s talk RSS, or well, that’s what we’re going to talk about right after I take a minute to tell you about our sponsor.

Web Masters is being brought to you with support from Latona’s. Latona’s a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cash flow positive internet businesses and digital assets. Those include things like e-commerce stores, Amazon FBAs, SaaS apps, content websites, domain portfolios, and every other type of online work from anywhere business you can think of. If you happen to be running a business like that and you’ve been thinking of selling it, that’s really not something you should try on your own. You are going to have much better luck if you get help from a company like Latona’s. They’re experts in selling internet businesses and they’re going to be able to help you get yours sold for a great price. They can also help you buy an internet business, if that’s more along the lines of what you’re looking for. To find out how, head on over to the Latona’s website, where you’ll find listings for all the businesses they’re currently helping to sell. That website is Latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

This episode’s guest is Matt Shobe, and to be clear, Matt didn’t invent RSS, instead he helped create a business around RSS.

Matt Shobe:

Yeah, I co-founded FeedBurner in 2004, along with Dick Costolo, Eric Lunt, and Steve Olechowski.

Aaron Dinin:

FeedBurner was a platform that reached its peak popularity for bloggers and other types of web publishers back in 2007-ish, which was right before internet users began their mass migration toward social media. In other words, what Matt and his co-founders built isn’t going to make a ton of sense now without some context, so let me start by giving you a bit of that. First, I’m going to let Matt explain what RSS is. It’s something that even if you’ve heard of it, you might not know much about it or exactly how it works.

Matt Shobe:

RSS is a standard for organizing information that regularly updates. The original acronym stands for really simple syndication. It was designed to be this format that would allow you to put out this document that was called an XML feed and RSS was a standard for how that should be organized so that computers can quickly parse it and figure out what’s new. And so if you have a blog and you put a new post in, your feed gets updated, and systems that parse that RSS could let other people know, “Hey, there’s something new in this feed.”

So it was really just a text format, but because it could then be consumed by alert sending machines like the ones that we created that spy on it and other people created in other systems, and in RSS feed readers, which are these things that allowed you to add feeds to a list and then get notified when there are new things in that update, it’s just simply a state standard to allow people to get those updates out. And so it wasn’t meant to be really human readable. It was meant to be machine readable and consumed by other machines, but then be delivered as applications that say, “Hey, there’s new stuff at USA Today, or new stuff at this blog you follow or a new podcast episode. So even today, RSS is still underpinning your app, letting you know, “Hey, there’s a new Web Masters out there.”

Aaron Dinin:

So RSS is a very simple concept as Matt mentioned. It’s basically a string of text, a text format, containing information about what content is on a website. And when new content gets added, for example, a new blog post is published or a new news story gets added to whatever site it is, the RSS feed gets updated with that additional content and RSS listeners, which are apps like Feed Readers, or as I mentioned earlier, your podcast app, hears about that new content and alerts you, the user. This is important because RSS standardized the practice of basically pushing out alerts about new information on a website.

Before that, the only way to check for new information on a site was to build bots that scanned websites regularly to see if anything had changed. And as you can probably imagine, checking for updates that way was prone to all sorts of errors and issues. Of course, Matt and the FeedBurner team didn’t need to imagine all the issues with scanning websites pre-RSS feeds. In fact, you might have heard Matt mention something called Spy On It. Spy On It was the company Matt and his FeedBurner co-founders built before FeedBurner. As the name suggests, it spied on websites to see when they changed. So no, FeedBurner didn’t just magically appear out of the blue, Matt evolved toward it over time. So before we hear about FeedBurner, let’s find out how Matt got there, starting with his initial discovery of the internet and worldwide web.

Matt Shobe:

I think I sent an email to a friend at Carnegie Mellon, thanks to a kindly graduate student who pointed me to these dark terminals under the computer science building at Purdue, my undergraduate school. And when he received it and sent it back and said, “Holy, I can’t believe somebody reached me from the outside.” We realized that there might be a network and that things were connected, so that was my first internet experience, and then, maybe some Telenet and some Gopher, and some other crap like that. Really at Microsoft as an intern in 93, you could barely even get out of Microsoft and onto the internet while you were inside the building. It was like some FTP thing, 32 people could use at a time, or something insane like that. It would’ve been at my first full time job with Anderson Consulting.

Aaron Dinin:

Anderson consulting, by the way, is the company now known as Accenture.

Matt Shobe:

Somebody got a copy of Mosaic and we all started messing around with that on top of Gopher. As soon as I popped that window open and started seeing the very few websites that were available at that point, I think somewhere deep down a switch was flipped. And I was like this is the thing I’m going to work on, I just didn’t figure it out for about a couple years more of graduate school and other things, but that was it. So sometime late ’93, early ’94, I got off the command line and got onto NCSA mosaic and well, the rest was various kinds of spinning progress bars, years and years.

Aaron Dinin:

So how’d you go from a big consulting firm like Anderson to startups? That seems like a fairly large shift.

Matt Shobe:

I think most of us get into it by accident and then some sort of determination or bullheadedness, or something like that. My dad was a career sales marketing, and then into the executive ranks at Dow Chemical, so he was very much of his generation and came from an entrepreneurial family. They had a small electrical store, hardware store, in rural Ohio, so it was very much, self-sustaining operation as a family. So I think he very much learned a great work ethic and had some great self starting tendencies and always looked for the most challenging thing to go do, so I think I learned that from my father. But he very much fell into the mold of his generations, like go work at the big company and ride the ladder as far up as you can go.

So I thought that was what the thing was that I should go do until I got to college, and then I just messed around with a few things. I did resumes for people. I helped with that desktop publishing thing. I got good at operating those tools, and so I was able to make people’s resumes and help them tell their stories about themselves better than they could themselves with a word processor by using a little bit of extra publishing flavor. That was kind an angle for me, and having to go market myself on campus and put flyers up and then being my own representative and then do good work and get feedback on it. That’s just a simple flywheel of what a startup is, whether it’s offline, online, or whatever.

So I think I got a sense for that early in my late teens, early twenties, I guess that was, and then thought I was going to go work at Microsoft. I was even an intern at Microsoft, thought I was going to then just be in a tech career of some kind or I thought … Because I worked with the Adobe tools. I thought these are fantastic, I should go work for a company like that because I love their products. But various things didn’t work out for me to end up either at one of those places or the other. My Microsoft internship ended. They didn’t have any full time gigs in the usability testing group that I was a part of, so I went back to the Midwest and joined Anderson Consulting, and that’s the kind of place where you’re supposed to work for 20 years and become partner or whatever, right? So all signs did not point to me ending up in startups.

Aaron Dinin:

No, it really doesn’t sound like the normal path I hear toward startups. So how’d you eventually get there?

Matt Shobe:

I fell in with the wrong group of kids and we tapped into, I think whatever our instincts were for there’s going to be a gold rush here for the web and nobody is going to tell you how to do it because it’s never been done before, so you’re going to have to figure it out on your own. So I think I just sort of had a couple of limited experiences, the resume thing, summer jobs, you name it, where I felt like there was a combination of creativity and technology that hasn’t been put together quite yet, and if I find the right people, I’ll know them when I run into them, and those are the people I should go work on something with. And whether that’s at a big co like Microsoft or some startup that’s pointed at the internet, this new thing that’s now taking shape, I didn’t know to ask that question when I got started, but then I started to figure out that was the answer around this like early twenties period for me.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. Fell in with the wrong kids at Anderson, I presume. What exactly do you mean by that?

Matt Shobe:

The set of people, it ended up being these three other guys who were two of them my same age in fact, and then one who’s a little older and that was of course, Dick Costolo.

Aaron Dinin:

In case you’re wondering, that would be the same Dick Costolo who’d go on to become CEO of Twitter. So yeah, before that he was actually Matt’s FeedBurner co-founder.

Matt Shobe:

We all were on the same team at Anderson Consulting that was this thing called Project Eagle, which sounds all patriotic and stuff, but had nothing to do with the government per se. It was an initiative that was trying to figure out how to make the firm faster to create solutions by sort of creating product based solutions using the new fancy object oriented programming frameworks. So trying to basically create a SDK development framework that the firm could reuse. So we were working on more advanced things, or we thought we were, then was the ordinary sort of company engagement at that point, and people were poking at whatever the newest, coolest thing was.

There weren’t a lot of restrictions on what you could run on your machine, so we were all using the web once Mosaic became available, and we saw stuff starting to pop there. And I realized that these other three guys that I had gotten to know, Dick, Eric, and Steve, were people to at least pay attention to it. It wasn’t like they were like, “Oh, we’re going to go off and start this company and you should join us, Shobe.” In fact, it was two years, I went to graduate school and then hooked back up with them before we even got close to making a startup, and this was many years before FeedBurner.

Aaron Dinin:

So it sounds like FeedBurner wasn’t the first startup. What was the first startup you all worked on together?

Matt Shobe:

They actually started a small web app consulting development company while I was in graduate school at University of Washington. I went out to UW to go to grad school because I was like, “Well, the future is going to be on the west coast somewhere and I should go be there and it’s not going to happen in Chicago. No way.” And while I was in graduate school out there waiting for the future to happen and just come to me, they started this company and then I got married, my wife and I decided to move back to the Midwest for various [inaudible 00:14:20] reasons. She had better job prospects, her network was better there. I could have stayed in Washington or tried to go down to the Bay Area or something, but we just decided to head back to Chicago, and I checked back in with those three guys and they’re like, “Hey, we’re doing this thing. It’s called Burning Door. We’re building web apps. We’re not sure who we’re going to do it for, but we’re going to get this started.’.

They did Burning Door as a consulting company, but then they managed to find some outside investment that was really trying to point in the direction of a knowledge management system, an intranet type of thing for B2B software play before people knew to call it that. And then they started a company that was called DKA, and then I joined them for that. And that was the very first company we did together, and it was a terrible name, DKA, Digital Knowledge Assets. Let your listeners know I just put a big thumbs down out, but it was the first startup we did and it was like, “Well, let’s go build a web app that helps people in companies communicate better with each other using the internet and pointed at the internet.” And anyway, that was the first company. Bouncing back and forth between the west coast and then back to Chicago, but keeping this group of the four of us together was really the key to the thing.

Aaron Dinin:

Right. So you get back together with this group of guys you had met previously at Anderson when you return to Chicago. I guess, how did that failed company, DKA, lead you to FeedBurner, or did it?

Matt Shobe:

Well, FeedBurner came sort of like a bankruptcy. It took a long time and then happened all at once. The reverse of bankruptcy, I guess. We started with this DKA project, which was us and a team of … It ended up being about, I don’t remember, 15 or 20 people trying to basically build sort of like a newsfeed for the enterprise where kind of an enterprise social network. It really was a little bit like Slack, a little bit like a enterprise Facebook, a little bit like something else. It was a product actually called Scene Server. You would create scenes which were kind of like rooms, and then you would be able to post links, post conversations, have all sorts of things going on, but it was a hosted web service that ran on the internet.

We built that. We tried to sell it. We met limited success trying to sell the enterprise. Ultimately, sold it for pennies on the dollar to, I don’t even remember who. It was very first attempt at trying to get something that would work. It didn’t ultimately work out, but then we sort of got reorganized as a team and here’s where the story comes together. We built this thing … So in Scene Server, you could get alerts when topics you cared about or keywords you cared about or things you cared about were posted or had updates. And you were just getting these alerts within the system. But Eric, our CTO, had the insight that after this whole thing crashed and burn, it’s like, “Hey, the alerts feature was cool. What if we pointed that at the entire internet and I could get notified about things I care about on the internet that change? Stock prices, eBay listings, new PlayStation 2s coming for sale at KB Toys, when those are incredibly hard to find.” Sound familiar in 2022?

From the ashes of Scene Server came the birth of this thing called Spy On It, which was our next startup that the four of us, Dick, Eric, Steve, and I launched together after we kind of wandered a little bit in the wilderness for doing some consulting and random stuff after the DKA thing fell apart.

Aaron Dinin:

Since it sounds kind of like a precursor to FeedBurner, at least in terms of the concepts it was thinking about, could you tell us a little more about Spy On It?

Matt Shobe:

So we started that company up, bootstrapped with I think a million bucks in funding, and that was a successful service. A bunch of people started using it. Like I said, it was called Spy On It. It was basically a B2C consumer alerts play. It was one of the very first out there. I don’t remember if Yahoo or Google had any of their alerts before we did, like there were a couple random things out there, but it was tell me when things on the internet and real life that I care about have changes. And we built a developer kit, it worked pretty well. We had this growing ecosystem and then we ultimately ended up selling that company to a company that was trying to sell software to telecoms, to T-Mobile, to Verizon, to whomever. They really actually focused on selling Europe, a Canadian company.

So we had an exit with that and then we had a three year lockup, and if we learned one good thing, it’s you never agree to a three year lockup for the rest of your life if you can save yourself, because it was far too long, we spent far too much time iterating on the enterprise version of what Spy On It became, which was not what the original product was at all. And then kind of to continue the theme, from the ashes of the first thing came the second thing, which was this idea of alerts pointed at the internet, and then from the eventual dissolution or us leaving that Spy On It to 724 acquisition came the next thing, which was when the data started to get structured enough where you were able to instead of scraping webpages and looking for diffs, which was obviously pretty unreliable. You’d get false positive alerts like this thing changed, but it really didn’t because somebody just like moved a table or something like that. You can imagine scraping webpages was not super great.

Once structured data started to appear and RSS and Atom feeds started to appear. Those were designed to be up updated. There’s a new feed item at the top and it’s XML and you can parse it and you can pretty regularly check when things are new. Well, we realized that was a new construct and we started writing alerts that worked against RSS, and in the end FeedBurner was born from this series of ideas, this one through line of content you cared about, then content you cared about on the entire internet, and then specifically, content that was published in this structured format, and then creating services around helping people make the most of understanding how well their content is doing once it’s published in this structured format. That’s the publisher services and tools that we provided to bloggers and ultimately podcasters in FeedBurner.

Aaron Dinin:

Now that we’re at the FeedBurner part of the story, could you take a moment to explain exactly what it was? Because I’m guessing if you are listening to this episode but you weren’t a web publisher, you might have heard of FeedBurner, but you wouldn’t really have reason to know much about it.

Matt Shobe:

FeedBurner was a set of tools for publishers who publish blogs and podcasts, and blogs and podcasts are also publishing an RSS feed and we allowed you to see who your audience was and where they were coming from by paying attention to all the systems out there that were requesting that feed. So we could give you a sense of the size of your audience, what sort of an application they were using to access your feed. It was really kind of a Google analytics for feeds. That was for the publisher side. We also had an advertiser side, and that’s how we made a business out of it, where advertisers could put ads in feed items so that they could reach the audience, and the audience could be broken up by particular verticals like venture capital blogs, sports blogs, big publications like Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and so on and so forth.

So we built a publisher and advertiser ecosystem. We started with the publisher tools, got a lot of feeds and a lot of publishers using the system because they really love the audience statistics and knowing who’s reading their stuff and how much engagement they’re getting with each post in syndication. And then we built the advertiser ecosystem once we realized that we had all this great content and that we could serve the ads to the audience and do the best we could to show relevant ads along the way.

Aaron Dinin:

Interesting. I guess I didn’t really think about this at the time, but basically if you had a lot of people reading your website content via feed reader as opposed to the visiting your site, you were losing out on ad revenue and so FeedBurner was basically a way to capture that kind of lost revenue. Was that basically the pitch to customers?

Matt Shobe:

Right. Yeah. The pitch for sure was there’s this whole other side to your publication and syndication that is a mystery to you if you don’t use FeedBurner. And more importantly, if you use FeedBurner well and your publication has got traction and is getting popular, we’re going to help justify that as part of your total metrics package, but we’re also going to be able to help you deliver revenue that you wouldn’t be able to capture otherwise by tapping into this feed based ads ecosystem. And we’ll get the right advertisers for the kind of content you publish, a sports blogger or a VC blog or a major commercial publication or a mid-size commercial publication, we can go find the advertisers and connect them.

Aaron Dinin:

And just to clarify real quick, what was your role at FeedBurner?

Matt Shobe:

I was Chief Design Officer. I handled everything to do with UX. There were two designers we hired that were on my team and our job was everything from the midplane forward, so we were not only doing design we were also doing front end engineering. So it was a pretty deep team and maybe that’s unusual today, but back then it felt like just the way things worked. So we had designers who could code but were fundamentally good at solving the design challenges, so that was the team that we ran. The other thing that I was tasked with doing was operations, customer support. So I helped put in place our email ticketing system and our forums. We used the phpBB forum software, that was all the rage back in 2005, I guess it was, to allow our community to provide support as well. So I felt like I was responsible for as much of the surface area of the customer experience that you could have with FeedBurner.

Another part of that that I look back on fondly is … So Dick Costolo and I would frequently write or co-author blog posts around FeedBurner and write some elements of copy on the site, and I love Dick’s sense of humor. As you know, he’s become quite well known for his improv skills and for being a great public speaker. Cameos on Silicon Valley, that sort of thing. But we had a lot of fun with words back in the day, and I think we had really great copy on the site and we had sort of an attitude for the service that was unusual, and I think it was part of its appeal. So being responsible not only for UX and the web UI and building the code side of FeedBurner that publishers use, but really infusing it with a personality, I think was one of the highlights of my career.

Aaron Dinin:

And of course, that was one of the things FeedBurner was really known for, right? It’s kind of, for lack of a better word, personality. I assume that was helpful for getting customers. It was one of those really memorable startup brands, if I’m thinking back correctly to it. But in the beginning, how did you get your first customers?

Matt Shobe:

I think Dick Costolo, our CEO, sent an email when we launched to 50 people and said, “Hey, we’ve got this new thing. Try it out.” Now he knew some folks at places like Blogger, VC firms here and there, so that was a good starting point because we managed, I think, to reach a bunch of people who already had a blog. There was no podcast when we launched in February 2004, but he launched with that email. People maybe started using it, started to see these analytics, telling them about this whole underside world of traffic and activity around content that they published, that they didn’t know about and had no visibility to previously because there was no other service like FeedBurner, and so it gave them, like I said, an analytics dashboard for sure, feeding their ego, but then understanding this is the stuff that’s working, this is the stuff that’s not.

And it just grew organically. We didn’t do much, if any, paid advertising. I don’t think we’d spent a single dollar on Google or anywhere else, and there was this reinforcing flywheel. I think this was the real advantage was we had bloggers as our customers, so you’d see “powered by FeedBurner” or you’d see if you clicked on the feed link in a browser, you’d see feeds.feedburner.com/this blog title. So because our customers were naturally people with a megaphone who were talking about products and things that they used frequently, we frequently got mentioned.

There were a couple of big turning points. One of them for sure was when Blogger added us as a setting that you could turn on to enable a FeedBurner feed within their system, and that got a whole bunch of people, hundreds of thousands of bloggers or however many they had at that point, at least where that there was this other thing called RSS that you might want to care about and that there was this service you could use to understand what’s going on with your content when it gets sent out via syndication. So I think it was the good luck of starting with an influential group of people, but then once they reached a few more people, there was a natural flywheel of the fact that it was just bloggers blogging about blogging and they reached a much wider audience than we ever would. So it was really that customer base being our target that was I think the key.

Aaron Dinin:

And I’m guessing the business model was basically just taking a cut of the ad revenue you sent to publishers. Was there any other monetization going on I’m missing or overlooking?

Matt Shobe:

Yeah, that was the model was advertisers paying to appear in premium as well as long tail publishers content. We had some subscription services too, there were some premium stats, but those just never really took off. They were a very small portion of the overall business. The real business unsurprisingly considering the era was publishers and advertisers coming together.

Aaron Dinin:

Which I guess now it makes sense why you ultimately sold it. I assume the story is basically that the business grows and grows and grows until this big old company that specializes in advertising comes along i.e. Google, and they decide to buy you. Is that kind of how it worked out?

Matt Shobe:

In the end, yeah. There was early interest in the company from Yahoo from an acquisition perspective, but that didn’t really go anywhere. I think this is where Dick … Dick Costolo is disciplined around let’s just build a big business, whatever that is, and then hope the right things will fall into place rather than chasing any particular outcome. I mean, yes, acquisition wasn’t randomly in the back of our minds, but we knew that the only way that we were going to achieve anything was to just have a focus on doing as much as possible to build a big sustainable business. And so the Yahoo interest came along early, that didn’t go anywhere, so then we just kept focusing on the publisher features and adding more capabilities.

An example that came along at one point was Google launched a feeds product called AdSense for feeds, which seemed like it would be … Potentially cut off our oxygen, be a real challenge. And what happened there was they had this thing that would allow you to insert an ad tag into your feed and your publishing system, but it wasn’t really particularly accessible for all but fairly technically savvy publishers to use. But we meanwhile had a pretty easy to use system for burning a feed as we called it, and for publicizing that and making sure that that was the one that you served from your web server.

And so what we did was we incorporated the AdSense for feeds capability as one more way of adding services to your FeedBurner feed. So it was like instead of you have to use AdSense for feeds or FeedBurner ads, it’s like yes/and, you can use both, but keep everything running through FeedBurner will help make sure you own and control and manage your content. So people who are already using FeedBurner kept using FeedBurner and people that wanted to try AdSense for feeds were able to experiment with it more easily. And sure, they could run their ads head to head with our own stuff, do one or the other, but in the end, the publishers stayed loyal to us.

So that was 2004, 2005, 2006. Google had been aware of what we were up to for sure, for quite a while, and we were a good partner with Blogger, and in the end, the folks in the ad side of things, especially the publisher side, saw value in the fact that almost all the feeds that really mattered that were out there were running through FeedBurner. There’s the podcasting side as well that was just kind of an additional possible angle for consideration for advertising in the future, but there was no solution for it yet. And that ultimately led to Google taking an interest and they acquired the company in 2007.

Aaron Dinin:

Hearing your story, it sounds like you kind of sold the company right at the perfect time, at the height of the popularity surrounding feed readers and RSS feeds because of course, 2007 is when Facebook is really starting to scale super fast and Twitter is blowing up and people are getting this very different version of content feeds, their feeds from friends and other people rather than feeds from specific websites. Now as someone who’s spent so much time thinking about RSS and building a business around it, I’d love to get your perspective on where things have gone.

Matt Shobe:

I feel like I’m one of the last six people that still thinks treating the web as an inbox is a great way to start your day, and yet, I refuse to use any of the few remaining services that do that. When Google Reader went away, I think that’s when this era of RSS went away. Our own stats would’ve told you if you had, I don’t know, a few hundred subscribers and were a modestly followed blog of some kind, three quarters of your traffic was coming from Google Reader. It was just the 800 pound gorilla in that space of people that wanted to start their day with the web as an inbox.

So I think that, of course, that started to change when the Facebook newsfeed launched and Twitter really became a feed where the same people that were blogging were the same people that were tweeting like crazy and were the early voices on a very, what was then by comparison to today, a very small and vertically oriented platform. And flash forward five or ten years, you’re getting it in a more chaotic format, but nonetheless, you’re getting this gist of that same zeitgeist that the web as an inbox was first delivered by RSS through things like Google Reader and there was Blog Lines and Feed Demon, and of course, I’m dating myself nostalgically, but I’m trying to remember.

Those were some of the big names in feed consumption for consumers and they were venture back businesses and they all ended up … I think most all of them ended up selling their feed reader and feed consuming capabilities to other companies. I’ve lost track of the ecosystem because it’s been 15 years, but that shift to social media, the momentum moved over there, and feeds meanwhile continue to exist and we’re still plumbing for content to get out and be indexed and for it to be ranked and still be used by machines. So that actually really hasn’t gone away. I have no insight into what the actual stats are. Of course, I don’t, for feed traffic at Google. I wonder how much they’re still punching out in a day and how much is still being consumed by various services out there. Maybe a fraction of what it was back at like 2007, 2008.

But anyway, the grip that RSS had on consumer attention was always tenuous because it was just kind of inherently hard to use feeds. You had to click a button to say subscribe, so I don’t think that you ever got past that friction from a consumer UX perspective that you did when you were then on Facebook or Twitter and all this content just started to flame at you, and you’re like, “Oh, I can sort of keep up with the world.” And then of course, apps started to pop up Flipboard on iOS, especially on the iPad. The real death knell for feeds were when curated news reader apps started to really rise to the top of the app stores. Death knell of feeds as a consumer technology, for sure. Those kinds of news reading and curated news applications came along because it’s the 80/20 rule, maybe it’s the 90/10 rule, like 90% of what I think I need to pay attention to understand what the world is doing and get on with my day, I’m now getting from these other apps, so this RSS stuff can go spit.

Aaron Dinin:

I like the phrase you use there, the web as an inbox. That’s an interesting way of describing maybe a pre-social media web. Could you flesh that concept out a bit to describe what the internet would’ve been like without these constant content streams coming into us via social media?

Matt Shobe:

The original social network was of course, email. I mean, it’s very synchronous. You had to wait for the message to get back and forth, but that was a way of connecting people and email, of course, it all piles up. It’s all waiting for you to be there. It’s up to you to prioritize what you need to respond to first, and let’s not even talk about the perils of email because I don’t want to get into that, but people understand email. The paradigm totally made sense. So when Google Reader came along with a Gmail-ish kind of interface where there’s a rail on the left of things that will start to fill up with new things that you may care about, you could go look at them in your leisure.

One of the big differences I think between RSS and readers and now the infinite river or newsfeed is it’s all waiting for you. It’s all cataloged. You could be gone for two weeks and know you’ve missed exactly 288 posts on Tech Crunch, and it’s like, “Oh, okay. That’s a lot.” And then meanwhile, there just two posts by VC blogger Fred Wilson. Maybe you can count on your feed to have caught that, but if you were gone for a while, you could come back to the web as an inbox and get caught up with just a few key things and skip all the rest, kind of like how you treat your email. Maybe you declare inbox bankruptcy and you’re like, “Ah, the hell with it, I got a thousand emails while I was on vacation. Mark all of those read and if they care, they’ll find me.” Depending on the kind of company you work for, that’s either flirting with disaster or the absolute right way to go about it. It’s the way I used to treat it when I got a lot of emails, but now it is a billion Slacks.

Anyway, the web as an inbox I think had some elegance or maybe is a romantic view of a kinder, simpler era where it was moving at your pace. It would fill up at the publisher’s pace, but you could go back and then like triage the things you cared about at your pace and feel like you didn’t miss anything you really cared about. Much like a pile of mail on your front door, you could read the two New Yorkers you missed and throw away all the junk mail. And I think that there’s sort of a pleasant anachronistic thing about the web as an inbox that actually put you the reader more in control.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s almost like we’ve moved to this completely different, and in a lot of ways, more chaotic paradigm of the internet with all these never ending feeds coming at you from TikTok and Instagram and …

Matt Shobe:

Yeah, like TikTok and Snap and all that other stuff. Exactly. It all feels like it’s all happening in hyper real time, but I didn’t feel like Reader was a social experience at all. It was my one-on-one engagement with the publications one at a time. Comments threads were the micro news feeds of the day. Brad Feld and Fred Wilson had really interesting comment threads because they attracted a really interesting audience, and so did plenty of other bloggers too. I just pick on them because I read them religiously. And that was where your social network sort of was, was in really distinguished comment threads.

In the early days, it totally wasn’t on Facebook and Twitter was barely a thing, 2006, 2007. And that was right about peak FeedBurner, so for me, a blog post about a really interesting topic that was a really cool post and then following the comments, that was where people and interesting social stuff was, in that 2003 to 2007 era. And that was the payday for us to be delivering that as a service to people and being in the middle of that mix.

Aaron Dinin:

And that’s why I wanted to share the story of FeedBurner with all of you. FeedBurner thrived in an interesting time in the history of the internet. It thrived in a transition moment when the world was going from a traditional sense of let’s call them corporate publishers and content producers, a sense we’d had for at least a couple hundred years, to individuals being content producers, which of course, is what we have now with social media. RSS feeds gave consumers some of the earliest online opportunities to pull content from lots of different sources. Because this was happening, content creators needed ways to monetize on individual content rather than their entire platforms, and that’s why FeedBurner was born.

It was a precursor to what we have now in terms of social media platforms that pay content creators and even more so, FeedBurner is a sort of precursor to things like Web3 and other creator empowerment ideologies where all this is heading? Well, I have no idea, but I suspect it’s something we’ll keep talking about and exploring here on Web Masters. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed learning about FeedBurner and RSS. If you did, then I hope you’ll help me thank Matt Shobe for taking the time to share the FeedBurner story with all of us. If you’d like to see what he’s up to these days, you can find him on own personal feed of sorts. That’s his Twitter handle. He’s @Shobe. Web Masters has a Twitter feed too. It’s @WebMasterspod, and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I N. Send us any thoughts or feedback you have about the episode or find me over on my website where you’ll also find lots of other content about startups and entrepreneurship. That website is AaronDinin.com.

Thank you to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for pulling together this episode and thank you to our sponsor, Latona’s. Don’t forget to check out Latonas.com. It’s the perfect place to start when you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business. Finally, as always, thanks to all of you for listening. Of course, be sure you’re subscribed to our Web Masters RSS feed on your favorite podcasting app so you get our newest episode as soon as it’s released. Looking forward to sharing it with you. For now though, well, it’s time for me to sign off.