It’s time to give RSS another chance (you probably already have)

I should start by telling you that I am weirdly invested in convincing you to love RSS. I hope you’ll give me a chance.

A large orange RSS icon with a faceted pattern overlaid. (Icon is a circle in lower left with two concentric arcs radiating outward)

This hasn’t been a great year for social media. Twitter is imploding. Facebook is boring. TikTok is addictive. My inbox is overflowing with newsletters I mostly don’t read.

What if you could just subscribe to the websites you care about and see their most recent updates?

Spoiler alert: You can with RSS!

Remember RSS? It stands for “Really Simple Syndication” though nobody ever says that. It reached it’s peak cultural moment in the early aughts before Google Reader was killed off, much to many people’s chagrin. In fact, I’m posting this just a few weeks short of the 10-year anniversary of the announcement of its shuttering.

RSS excelled in the era where Facebook had only just recently changed the News Feed so it wasn’t just chronological. The internet moved slower back then. RSS has always been a way to consume information on your own terms. I think it’s taken many folks most of the last decade to realize why that’s an idea worth revisiting.

An RSS reader is a simple tool that lets you subscribe to websites. Since WordPress includes RSS by default and makes up 40%+ of the internet, chances are that most of your favorite sources of information provide RSS feeds.

Screenshot of my Feedly screen. The left bar shows folders of feeds. The current one selected is "Seattle". There are 11 unread posts from two sources: PubliCola and West Seattle Blog
My current RSS reader, Feedly, let’s me follow the news and other updates I care about. I follow friends’ blogs, politics, local news, web and WordPress blogs, and many of my clients!

The stream of RSS feeds I follow gives me a place to go where I know I will care about most of the posts. It’s also very easy to skip the stuff I’m not interested in. It’s not a social place. It’s not my inbox filled with work requests. It’s a space devoted to the things I care about most.

With RSS, you can follow local news, associations you belong to, nonprofits you support, sports, and professional development sources that publish valuable resources. Once you’ve set up a good collection of RSS feeds, you gain a new place where you can catch up on things you know you care about without the distractions of so many ads, memes, comments from your weird uncle, and the less substantive stuff that fills up feeds these days.

With the opaque nature of social media feeds, RSS is a better way to get the updates from the sources you trust and rely on most. RSS isn’t a social media replacement, but it’s a part of a balanced internet diet.

You already use RSS, you just don’t know it

If you use a podcast player, you use RSS! Do you see it now? A set of trusted sources you subscribe to. The way podcasts are distributed is literally RSS. It’s literally the same tech just with audio files. I’m saying “literally” very literally.

So if you like listening to podcasts, you can give yourself the same experience with website updates:

  1. Sign up for an RSS reader.
  2. Subscribe to your favorite feeds.
  3. Enjoy.

“There aren’t any feeds I’ll be interested in”

When I try to sell people on RSS, this is the most common objection I hear. I suspect it’s rarely true.

If you’re not sure where to start, look to your existing subscriptions in email and social media and think about which ones you might prefer reading in more dedicated place. Many newsletters are just collections of blog posts that you could subscribe to via RSS. Many social media posts are just links to website articles that you could subscribe to through RSS. Even your favorite podcasts may have good article feeds you’d enjoy.

If you take a bit of time to explore, you may be surprised what’s out there!

Setting up an RSS reader for free

Probably the two easiest RSS readers to start using are Feedly and Inoreader. I use Feedly. (Lifehacker declared it a tossup when they polled their readers in 2019.) Both sites offer free tiers that are enough to get you started and will help you find the feeds of the sites you want to follow.

If you use Apple devices, Feedbin ($5/mo) seems like an excellent option for subscribing to feeds that you then read with a feed reader like NetNewsWire or Reeder. Unfortunately, I’m on Android and found the reader apps that support Feedbin quite underwhelming.

Once you’re signed up, you can search by website URLs or just site names to find the sources you trust. Subscribe and you’re ready to start reading!

Finding the right number of feeds for you

The right mix will vary for every person, but I think the biggest trick is finding the right number of feeds so that there’s always a few new updates every time you check your feeds. If you read once a week, then you can be happy with just a few sources or a lot of infrequent sources. If you’re a daily reader (guilty), then you’ll want more feeds with more-frequent updates. Luckily, you’re 100% in control of your subscriptions and what you see.

A recent episode of the Shoptalk Show podcast included the question: what are the right number of feeds for your reader. I thought the answers were pretty good:

  • Avoid “firehose” feeds from popular news websites that put out dozens of posts a day. You’ll get overwhelmed. (Many sites that categorize and tag their articles offer RSS feeds for just those categories. If you can find the feed, that can be a great way to subscribe to larger sites.)
  • You can probably manage to follow somewhere in the range of 100-250 feeds that are updated somewhat frequently.

I follow feeds that post daily, weekly, monthly, or even just a few times a year. The trick is that every day, there are always 15-30 new things to browse and read about WordPress, my favorite soccer team, Seattle politics and news, and what my favorite nonprofits are up to.

(Side note: I also use Pocket for reading long-form articles or things that are less timely. Having devoted spaces for the different types of information I’m interested in helps me focus on what I’m reading at any time and let’s me choose how focused I want to be when reading on my laptop or phone. Pocket is also excellent for saving stuff offline for long airplane rides!)

Let 2023 be the year of RSS

With so much change in social media and the start of the new year, there’s never been a better time to try out RSS (again). If you put in the [small amount of] time to add the right mix of sources you care about, you may never go back. Let me know how it goes!

2 thoughts on “It’s time to give RSS another chance (you probably already have)”

  1. Interesting. I was an early fan of RSS. I just checked my old Feedly account and found it still had some active links. But several of the organizations I’ve followed have fallen back on e-newsletters and no longer have reliable RSS feeds. The time I used to spend reading LifeHacker and such now goes into weeding through email. I do wish it was different, but…

    1. Nancy, thanks for the comment! You inspired me to look back at my list of unreachable feeds in Feedly and it was so interesting. There are friends I’ve falled out of touch with, organizations that have shuttered, and of course lots of websites that have died, moved, or been reborn without an RSS feed anymore. (That last one is extra disappointing.) Just like anything, gardening your feeds from time to time is helpful to make sure you get the most out of it, but it’s also exciting to hear that you still had active posts coming in after abandoning your Feedly for a while.

      I had mentioned this in a previous draft of this post and cut it, but Feedly, Inoreader, and Feedbin all allow you to subscribe to newsletters in your feed on their paid plans. If you’re looking to quiet your inbox and focus on your newsletters in a better context, that might be worth a look!

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