Back in the halcyon days of the early web the large internet portals, like Netscape, Yahoo and AOL, were starting to think about how their customers would access the ever-growing amount of content being produced on the internet. The answer they came up with was ‘syndication’. From the user perspective this was as simple as adding a BBC News or Wired widget on your homepage. If you are as old as me you might even remember doing it. Behind the scenes these content transactions were powered by a syndication protocol called RSS (which stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’ or ‘Rich Site Summary’, depending on who you ask). Theoretically this was good for everyone: content providers were able to to reach people they would never have reached before, users had control over how and where they receive content, and the portals kept customers on their sites for longer by offering personalised experiences, like this:
For a while RSS was ubiquitous, but it faltered when the larger social networks became the main vehicle of syndicated content - and it didn’t help that it has never been particularly user-friendly. Most people now get their news from social media but recent years have shown that this can be problematic: social media platforms are not neutral content providers. They manipulate how, when and what content is delivered to end users for their own ends and you have to sift through all the ads, outrage and general horror of social media to get to the content you want to see.
It’s not all bad news. In fact there is very good news: RSS never actually went away. Most websites, whether they advertise it or not, still provide an RSS feed and you can use it right now to take control of how content is delivered to you.
Here’s a screenshot of my RSS aggregator this morning:
I subscribe to nearly two hundred feeds. That sounds overwhelming but while some sites publish multiple times per day, some only put out a handful a year. I can scan through the headlines of all of these sites in a few minutes. It would be very difficult to keep track of that content without RSS.
I use RSS to keep track of:
- Twitter accounts & hashtags
- Instagram accounts
- Reddit subreddits
My feed reader can do clever stuff like filtering out certain key words or phrases. I can, for example, filter out anything related to politics or written by Cory Doctorow. I can organise my feeds into folders - so if I want to avoid the news one day I can just skip that folder, or mark the whole thing read and pretend nothing happened that day. One of the biggest benefits for me is that I’m less likely to open my browser and get lost down the rabbit hole.
It’s easy to get started with RSS:
Sign up for an account with one of the many feed aggregators. Some of the more popular ones are:
All of these have mobile applications - some have desktop companions too. I use Readkit on OSX and Lire on iOS. Many people like Reeder. There are options for other operating systems, and the web applications don’t care what OS you use.
Subscribe to some feeds. Most readers will automatically find the feed if you put in the address of the homepage. If you’re short of inspiration you could take a look at my blogroll.
Marvel at your technical wizardry.