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podcasters started disparaging RSS as some antiquated technology that, like dial-up internet service, was hopelessly out of date.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.