RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) is a format which makes it easy to see updates to websites, blogs, news, and all sorts of other content. RSS allows the aggregation of feeds from a plethora of sources with rich content. It was created to make tracking content updates easy, but grew into one of the best ways to keep up with current events before disappearing from the limelight.
RSS is human readable, light, and allows a user to sample content without having to commit. It also frees you from the black-box algorithm serving a given homepage’s feed. If you’ve ever wanted an unbiased sampling from a news site, try their RSS feed. It stays simple while delivering enough for you to work with. You get your content in an easy to use format, and content providers give you the sample to get you in their portal. Everyone wins.
Or so you would think. But with the state RSS has been in for the past decade, RSS appears by all standards to be dead. While it may have much less usage, I feel it’s a bit like Perl. The technology is dead for mainstream acceptance but still has plenty of uses.
Why Use RSS?
While products like Google Reader, Digg Reader, or any number of other offerings have shuttered their doors or transformed past recognition, the feeds themselves still exist. The major platforms’ deaths did not change that fact at all. RSS lets you circumvent frontpage, per user algorithms which can be extremely useful. It’s also lightweight with a host of readers on different platforms.
I use RSS to view the news or feeds from blogs or other sites. Even though I get swamped with information I don’t care about, the news is not shaped based on what I read or don’t. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with most social media and social based news outlets. I want to at least be aware that something is happening with something even if I don’t read more into it.
When you use an RSS reader, you strip away the black box algorithm which governs at an individual level. You get less refined results, but you get both more grain and more chaff. Both the news I want and the news I don’t care about can contribute to a more balanced understanding of the world. From a privacy perspective, this means that it’s hard to track you at an individual level except for what you click. Most RSS feeds are also completely devoid of ads.
RSS is fast on slow networks, and light on any system. Even if you aren’t strapped for resources, this just means one less thing to worry about when you get into heavier tasks. I don’t want my CPU pegged out in order to load ads and other tracking code (even a good adblocker doesn’t stop all of it). I also don’t care about some pretty theme when all I want is to read the article.
The State of RSS in 2020
RSS feeds are still numerous. They’ve actually multiplied compared to where they were a few years ago. Almost every major content creation system includes an easy way to export to RSS which means they’re all over the place. Hosting options have gotten beefier to where the RSS feed options don’t impact hosting costs in any noticeable way.
After all the dust settled from Google Reader shutting down, the vacuum has largely been filled by smaller web offerings or more traditional apps. There are also countless desktop clients and FOSS offerings for both iOS and Android. You can basically just download a different client if you don’t like a theme.
RSS appears to have matured to where it’s stable, but not in the limelight anymore. You don’t really have to worry about picking a reader and it being gone tomorrow. There just isn’t the push for or against it anymore, for better and for worse.
RSS has largely been forgotten but lives on as a ghost on almost every major website. The RSS feed exists, it’s updated, and everything is accessible without anyone touching it. It’s so stable no one has to think to check the RSS feed; it just works. RSS is also so computationally cheap no one bothers to exclude it since it’s effectively a rounding error in processing.
Why You Should or Shouldn’t Use RSS
I use RSS for news to know where the world is roughly and to get ideas for my blog. Most news aggregators have gotten to where they use various algorithms to shape what you see. If you click an article which mentions trucks, the next few days will have more news about trucks. The second you diverge from habit, everything changes in the feed. You have to know what to look for to find other news too. This doesn’t happen with RSS.
As mentioned before, you skip out on the ads and it’s lightning fast. It’s easy to throw an RSS window up somewhere to keep up on news and any other reading. It’s great for daily comics, news, blogs, and all sorts of things. Why load twenty sites when a single RSS app works?
It’s also great if you want to just see the news more passively. I don’t care about sports, but knowing that the XFL has been canceled and other information can help me plan what to write. I get a more general picture and a summary of what’s happened which I can read if interested.
That being said, there’s a reason RSS isn’t the main technology everyone uses for news aggregation anymore. RSS is simple. That’s part of its charm, but also its downfall. You don’t get customization with RSS (without applying a lot of work). You give up the good parts of an adaptive home page.
Some publications will publish literally hundreds to over a thousand items a day. If your RSS feed is tapped into that, you’re basically spraying your feed with a fire hose. Some feeds also use too much or too little for their summaries making it hard to fit in with other feeds. Too much choice is as problematic as too little.
Trying Out RSS
The first step is to find an RSS client. I use Liferea, but it’s Linux only. RSS Owl is a good option for cross platform support on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. If you want to get more involved and host your own RSS feeds so that anything can access them remotely, look into Tiny Tiny RSS. Something like NetNewsWire is great for iPhone, while something like Sparse RSS works well on Android.
All of the clients I mentioned are FOSS, but you can find closed source offerings which offer even more features or different workflows. I don’t use closed source software where possible on philosophical grounds, so I’m not really familiar enough to suggest any specifically. Even with just open source offerings, there are dozens for any platform.
Finding feeds is trivial. A quick Google search of a news outlet and “RSS” will usually get you a bevy of options. You can add these and categorize them as you want. Most sites offer RSS feeds based on categories which makes it easy to skip things you don’t care about in general. Medium offers RSS feeds as simply as https://medium.com/feed/@[usernamehere]. Other social platforms do similar.
You can choose to use an application or even run your own server to host your feeds. The technology is mature and easy to access. I find the difference in workflow keeps me better informed at the expensive of some time wasted on unimportant matters. RSS may be dead in the limelight, but it’s still alive and well even today. You just have to know where to look.
Originally published at https://somedudesays.com on April 11, 2020.