If you already use RSS, this post is not for you. You know this already. This is for people who don’t already use RSS.
This post was prompted by a conversation with a 20-something colleague, who had never heard of RSS. I shared the link to aboutfeeds.com, but after reading it my colleague was still baffled. “I don’t understand,” they said. “Why would you use something like this?” This post is an attempt to answer that question.
Back in 2020, Matt Webb created a little website called aboutfeeds.com, explaining the technical basics behind using RSS feeds (aka web feeds).
The site explains what feeds are, and provides very simple instructions for beginners who might be using feeds for the first time. Matt explains what a newsreader app does, where to get one, and how to start using it.
So far, so good. This post is not an attempt to repeat any of Matt’s work. It’s a good idea to read everything on aboutfeeds.com before reading this.
Instead, I want to write down what it feels like to use RSS feeds, and how it feels different to using most social media apps.
It can take a long while to build up a list of RSS subscriptions, but that’s kind of the point: it’s an endless ever-changing act of personal curation. Adding a new feed is very simple - usually just a click on a button in your web browser; maybe a second click to confirm the action.
Subscribing to an RSS or web feed is like saying “Tell me when there’s new stuff to read on this website.”
Your newsreader app:
Over time you build up a library of websites that you’re watching for updates.
Some of these websites will be commercial outfits, churning out many updates every day. When you refresh your feeds in your newsreader, these sites will show up with all those new daily updates as unread items.
But newsreaders are designed to make it simple to choose how much you read from each feed. You can go through every single item, or you can pick out the ones you like from the sound of their headline and just read those.
When you’ve had enough, it’s easy to click a “Mark all as read” button and move on to the next feed.
Some other websites will be personal ones, and will rarely have more than one or two new updates to display every time you refresh.
The content of a web feed is much the same as the content of a web page: text, images, videos, audio files. Both are made of the same raw material (HTML, the code that makes web pages work).
But web feeds are displayed slightly differently. Web feeds don’t come with a lot of the unnecessary extras that make web pages slower: trackers, cookies, cookie banners, user accounts, adverts; all of that stuff disappears in a newsreader. (Very occasionally some of these things might be visible, but it’s rare.)
Some feeds contain all the content from the original web page, while others might only show a snippet or summary. So you get to choose how and where you read each thing. You might read the whole thing in the newsreader, or you might prefer to click a button and open the source web page in your browser (it’s usually as easy as clicking one button, or tapping a keyboard shortcut on your keyboard).
Your list of subscriptions is yours to maintain however you like. If you don’t want to see any more updates from a website, just click the name of that feed and click “Unsubscribe”. It’s gone.
Your subscriptions are easy to view on any and all devices you own. It’s easy to synchronise your activity between your computer and your phone; so you can browse your feeds on one, and carry on with the other, without having to go through the same items twice. The software keeps track of that for you.
I said above that newsreader apps make it easy to move through a large number of items and feeds. This is where using RSS starts to feel like a superpower.
I use a newsreader called NetNewsWire on my Mac, and the keyboard shortcuts built into that app make it really easy and quick to zip through dozens or hundreds of items. To move to the next unread item, I just tap “N”. To open an item in my browser in the background, I tap “B”. To make one feed as read and move to the next unread feed, I tap “K”. To read through one page-worth of text at a time, I just tap the space bar. (Of course I can click buttons on-screen to do all these things too.)
The point here is: it’s easy and it’s fast, and I still have loads more control over what I’m reading.
Rather like flicking through the pages of a real newspaper, I can let my eyes wander from feed to feed, from item to item; my brain gets to pick out the stuff it wants to read in detail.
This is the main way that RSS feels like a different way of reading on the internet.
The only way of moving through hundreds of items on a social media feed is to scroll through everything. Maybe it feels faster, but I don’t think it really is faster, because it numbs your brain to input. Your thumb keeps scrolling, but your eyes stop taking things in. You don’t get any sort of digital equivalent to the scan-the-page-for-what’s-interesting action of reading a real newspaper.
Using feeds is a much less pressurised experience. I think this is because you know that your newsreader is there to take some of the pressure away. It will remember what you haven’t read, even if you don’t read anything for months. (It will let you clear the backlog of unread items with a single click, too.) Your newsreader also removes most of the visual elements of browsing the web. RSS feeds are all about the content, and not at all about the presentation. The newsreader handles presentation, and keeps it simple.
As I said, I use NetNewsWire to keep track of (checks notes) 250 web feeds. Most of them are personal websites, individuals whose thoughts and ideas and opinions I’m interested in.
I don’t read every item, in every post, every day.
I don’t even open the newsreader every day, but I do open it most days. Typically there might be between a few dozen and 100 items available to look at, but usually I’ll look at items from real people before I’ll look at items from commercial organisations. I read short things in the newsreader itself, but for anything longer than just a few paragraphs, I’ll usually hit “B” to open the source web page in my browser.
Mostly I go through all the feeds, skimming and marking stuff I’m not interested in as read, then I’ll close NetNewsWire and go through all the new browser tabs that are waiting for me there. This whole process might use up just 5 or 10 minutes of my time, or it might take 45 minutes to an hour. It’s something I do for fun, in my spare time. It’s something I deliberately try to do instead of endless social media scrolling.
To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.
To me, it feels good. It’s a way of reading the web that better respects my time, is more likely to appeal to my interests, and isn’t trying to constantly sell me things.
That’s what using RSS feeds feels like.
Filed under: computers
(13 February 2022)