Monthly Archives: November 2017

Back to RSS and the Indie Web

At the end of last year, I quit using RSS. It was a big step for me. I had been using RSS practically since it first became available. My first RSS reader was the Sage plugin for FireFox, which I started using in 2004. I subscribed to Slate, LifeHacker, a couple other professional publications, and a fairly large number of personal blogs, covering topics ranging from technology, economics, and personal finance to cooking and television shows. I was obsessive about skimming my feed many times a day, reading every headline, and often every article, of Slate and my favorite blogs.

I eventually dropped Sage for Google Reader, and used it, and later Feedly, as a back-end to whatever smartphone RSS reader I was using. For years I checked my feeds a dozen times a day, read a ton of articles (though not all of them, as I used to), and generally felt pretty happy with the experience.

Why I quit using RSS

I stuck with RSS long after I became a habitual Twitter user, long after I started to see articles linked to from Twitter before they hit my RSS reader, and long after most technology writers and podcasters started disparaging RSS as some antiquated technology that, like dial-up internet service, was hopelessly out of date.

Eventually, though, I quit using RSS—not because it was uncool, but because it was no longer making me happy. Like those writers and podcasters said, the basic need RSS fulfilled for me—keeping current, and entertained with fresh reading material—was being fulfilled by other services. Twitter did so more timely, and with more commentary from the writers. News aggregators, such as Apple News, did so with a slicker visual style. (I am emphatically not a regular Facebook user, so I miss out on whatever is going on there.)

I thought these services were more hip, modern, and fun than RSS. Most importantly, I thought they were keeping me more current. After all, for a long time, my RSS reader (the wonderful Reeder app for iOS) fed me the same articles that I had already seen on Twitter. Worse, it fed me five or six different publications’ takes on the same subject every day, which was interesting a few days of the year (such as when reviews of new Apple devices hit the streets), but was otherwise completely redundant.

What I missed without RSS

After a year RSS-free, I started to think something was missing. I was literally missing articles that I would like to read, especially those from bloggers I liked, such as Erica Sadun and John Gruber, because they would pass by in the timeline before I would see them. I was missing bloggers’ voices in general, because most of my Twitter list (like everybody’s, I’m sure) is heavily news related. I could keep up with what the New York Times and Washington Post are publishing each day pretty well; but what about what Manton Reece and Tyler Cowlin are publishing? Their voices were being buried in my Twitter feed by the daily (hourly?) news cycle.

Without RSS, I missed the spirit of the independent web: all those individuals and small publications who are sharing knowledge and expressing opinions that don’t fit into 140 characters, or even 280.

Back to RSS (and Atom, and JSON Feed)

After many months away from it, I realized that RSS wasn’t the problem—I was. I wasn’t using RSS in a way that made me happy. Worse, I supplanted it with Twitter, which both sucked up all my attention every day, and reduced my attention span for content to 140 characters (a length perfect for snipes and jabs and headlines, but insufficient for most cogent thoughts). Fortunately, RSS has not died since the rise of Twitter and Facebook. It has quietly remained a fundamental internet technology, undergirding nearly every online publishing platform. Many, many sites support it without advertising it the way they used to ten years ago. Luckily, any good client can find feeds using just the site URL.

Not only RSS is still there: my longstanding RSS software is still there, too. Like in 2013, I am using Reeder on iOS as a front end, and Feedly as a back end. Reeder has been around almost as long as the App Store. It is rarely updated, but it just works. It’s simplicity, elegance, and stability make it one of the finest apps on the platform. Feedly, the back end service that actually checks my feeds, is a free service that I basically never look at. I don’t use their website. I don’t use their app. I don’t really know or care how they make money off of me. It, like Reeder, is solid, stable, and just works.

Using RSS with a different perspective

After returning to my RSS reader after such a long break, I had thousands of unread items and dozens of subscriptions. I decided to start over, so I unsubscribed to all my feeds, and started thinking about what I really wanted to get out of RSS, and, in general, out of the Internet.

I decided to use RSS differently now. I no longer need it to drink the content firehose and keep current with the minute-by-minute news cycle; Twitter is available for that, for good or ill. Instead, RSS enables me to follow a few interesting voices on the Internet, read their actual, in-depth thoughts, and not miss anything they have to say.

To these ends, I no longer follow big media sites. Primarily, I follow blogs: real blogs, written by actual people, rather than published by massive organizations. I’m mostly following Apple-focused tech bloggers and Swift programmers, which reflects my favorite hobbies—but that’s just what I’m doing for now. Lastly, I’m not checking my RSS feeds a hundred times per day. I am checking only a one or two times per day, and often I don’t have any updates. Instead of adding more feeds, I just accept it now. Sometimes there’s nothing new to read, and that’s OK.

I’m happy with RSS again. All it took was figuring out what I really needed to get out of it, and taking control of how I used it. It’s a really great technology, no matter how passé or uncool it seems to be.

Ulysses, a peerless writing tool

I love Ulysses.

This post on the Ulysses blog illustrates its value proposition. It is a minimalistic plaintext editor. It eschews common word processing features (such as rich text formatting) and some high-end “writing app” features (storyboarding, a character name generator, etc.) in favor of a stark, clean interface and generalized organizational tools (a unified library of “sheets” that can be organized in folders or with keywords).

In a way, its lack of features is its greatest feature. It focuses on the text, both from a writing standpoint and a publishing standpoint. That’s what writers should do—and want to do (really!). But writing is hard work. It requires incredible focus, and achieving and maintaining that focus is really hard. Just about anything is easier than writing most of the time. That’s why writers, famously, procrastinate. Sometimes, though, writers get into a flow state, just like software developers do, and any distraction will break that flow. App-induced distractions are particularly unwelcome. The worst offenders, ironically, tend to be features that promise to help make your writing process easier—especially if those features don’t exactly gel with what you are doing.

Ulysses gets that. Its feature set is intentionally uncomplicated and applicable to a broad base of writers. It hides some of its most powerful functionality, such as its awesome publishing features, until you actually need it. It doesn’t impose any system, workflow, or rules on you. Its simple system of sheets, folders, and keywords allows you to build your own organizational system that is specific to your projects—or, alternatively, to ignore organization until you absolutely need it. Most importantly, it puts the focus on the text, right where it needs to be.

Interesting Updates to the Essential Phone

The Essential Phone has been making some interesting moves in the market lately.

  1. Essential dropped its asking price by $200.
  2. Essential released their second monthly software update, which improved performance (smoother scrolling! faster camera app!) and added some gesture support to the fingerprint sensor on the back.
  3. Essential is releasing new colors, starting with Pure White, which looks really good.

It has had a reputation amongst tech writers and podcasters as a market failure. This reputation was somewhat deserved. At launch, it had its share of problems. Its camera app was slow, unstable, and took inferior pictures. Some people (not me) experienced lag in the user interface, mostly micro-stutter while scrolling (a common Android defect). The speaker grill had a tendency to fall out. Reports circulated that only an embarrassingly low 5,000 units had been sold in the first few weeks.

Essential has almost completely fixed these problems. The camera app is faster and takes better photos. The user interface runs more smoothly than ever; micro-stutter is gone. I had the misfortune to have the speaker grill defect on my phone, but they RMA’d it within three days, and the new phone has a different grill design. I think the recent drop in sales price by $200, to a more reasonable $499, will probably make a huge difference in sales volume.

I feel heartened that they are working hard to solve their problems, and get their phone (which is pretty great) into more people’s hands. People are coming around—case in point, these articles:

I really like the Essential phone, and hope it can find a profitable place in the market for years to come.