RSS is awesome

, 7 minutes to read, 450 views

RSS is one of those technologies that power a large part of the world, but is often a bit hidden behind a layer of obscurity. For me, though, RSS is probably one of the most awesome technologies and I use it every single day. RSS is really, really awesome. In fact, it is hard for me to articulate why and how RSS is so awesome, but this blog post will be my best attempt to do so.

Really Simple Syndication

An RSS feed is actually simple. It is just a feed of a website that shows what content is available. In fact, it uses XML to structure the data that you want to provide in a machine-readable format. This document then lives somewhere on a website and is consumed by a programming, frequently lovingly called feed catchers. With a feed reader, you can subscribe to various RSS feeds and they will update all together. Often one can then navigate through specific feeds or just have a look at all unread feeds. It’s that simple!

In its essence, the RSS feed describes a list of posts (or something similar), and attaches some metadata such as the title and a date1. And that is it. It’s that simple!

A brief history (RIP Google Reader)

RSS was really popular a many years ago, during the Web 2.0 era, mostly people were using it on Google through Google Reader. Many people were using Google Reader, and it was a super convenient way to read sources from almost everyone. It was especially convenient because so many sites on the internet had RSS feeds. Newspapers all had RSS feeds (regularly distinguished for different sections and tags), so did YouTube, as well as Twitter and Tumblr (I believe Tumlbr still has RSS feeds in some places, not sure how present they are anymore). Even better, most of these places would provide the full-page content in the RSS feed, meaning you could read entire articles without leaving your feed reader, which was a wonderful user experience.

After some time, Google decided to kill Google Reader, while the product was at peak popularity Google decided to kill Google Reader. The reasons for this move were never apparent, not understandable to most people, and the motives behind it are cause for speculation.

How to consume RSS feeds

There is a lot of different software to consume RSS feeds. Lots of it comes down to personal taste and preferences, such as using a bigger service, smaller service, open-source or even self-hosted. Basically, the world is your oyster.

Before getting into the more general aspect of RSS feeds, there is the speciality of podcasts. Yes, any podcast runs on an RSS feed as well, with some special tags to ensure that the podcast player knows where to find the episode artwork as well as where to find the audio file. There are many podcast players, with Apple Podcasts probably being the one that is known best. Similarly, Spotify2 includes podcasts as well, as does YouTube (albeit with a heavy focus on video podcasts). I, personally, would recommend using Pocket Casts, which is a beautiful, multi-platform application that has many great features3. If you are iOS only, Overcast by Marco Arment is also a great solution.

As for normal feeds, because most places have stopped providing access to the full content and only provide a summary, some tools provide some kind of way to extract the full content of a website. I generally think this is very useful, and I made sure the application I’m using is also built in such a way. Since for me being cross-platform is significant, I decided I want to have a central place where I can log in and read my RSS feed. For me, this place is Feedbin. I really like Feedbin for its clear user interface, simple and straightforward business model, and I typically like to support great indie software4. Feedbin also has an absolutely awesome and easy to use API.

Finally, to actually read on my phone or laptop, I mostly use Reeder by Silvio Rizzi. Reeder includes the full-text extraction tools and has a very solid sync function to Feedbin. It also has a read later function, which allows to locally (well, actually it also syncs via iCloud) store articles for later consumption. I often read on my phone, as well as my laptop, and for very long articles I combine the two. I sometimes only add to read later on my phone, and then actually read the article on the laptop.

The rumours of the death of RSS have greatly been exaggerated

RSS is a member of the old web. It is open, it is inclusive, and it is very hard to make money with it. And maybe this is what really draws me to it so much. And therefore, questions have been posed as to how long it will stick around. Andrew Chen, points to Google Trends to make the argument that RSS is on the decline. And while there certainly is some decline, especially if we look at the big publishers, he also argues that moving off RSS will lead to better content, as RSS does not provide a way for feedback. I would wholeheartedly disagree with that, as I, personally, think that too much feedback is not necessarily a great thing. When you are creating content, it should really be for the sake of creating something and not necessarily for an audience. In fact, if everything is created for an audience, you often get the least good denominator, which results in everything trying to be very inoffensive and addressing as much as possible. Trying to please everyone is a surefire way to get quite bland content, which loses a bit of the edge.

Further, I think the open web, such as provided by RSS and, for the sake of this argument, Activity Pub, allows for wonderful interaction. In fact, Bridgy allows for interaction using the Webmention standard, which allows for open communication and will lead, in my opinion, to better, more productive communication. Also, I find it hard for someone who advertises their email newsletter that hard to take anything about how email is better than RSS at face value.

And while Michael Walter Van Der Velden5 argues that RSS will move more behind the scenes, I’m not sure if that is necessarily true. While, for example, podcasts are more about discovery by name, than pasting an RSS feed, I would not attribute this to RSS alone. I would mostly attribute this, people being bad at URLs and people being more likely to use search engines or similar to access content.

And who knows, Nikki Usher even argues that RSS time is still to come.

This Blog has RSS! (of course)

Now, with me finding RSS so awesome, this blog is also using RSS in various places. For starters, there is an RSS feed for everything on this blog. But you can also just have the RSS feed for all posts or just for a single tag, for example all posts that are about RSS6.

If you want to read this blog, I recommend using the RSS feed, it even provides the full content to your RSS reader. You can, of course, also check the website every once in a while. Do whatever you like7.

  1. Technically, the date pubDate element is optional, but I would strongly recommend it for almost any application. ↩︎

  2. I cannot recommend using Spotify for podcasts. While it’s possible to use Spotify, they prefer big companies in the way they ingest the podcasts and also don’t follow the standard RSS protocol, but rather try to use something similar that they built themselves. ↩︎

  3. I really like the auto-download option, as well as automatically adding my new episodes to the up next queue. I also sometimes use Pocket Casts on my Smartwatch, which works surprisingly well. If only they could implement the episode images, that would be great and address my biggest gripe with the application. ↩︎

  4. Not sure if there is an official definition for indie software. I generally just mean software developed by a small team from an independent company. ↩︎

  5. A name so beautiful and long it should always be fully spelled out. ↩︎

  6. An RSS feed for all blog posts about RSS should really be called a meta RSS feed. I don’t know why I keep making those meta jokes. But as we all know, recursion is a fact of life in informatics. ↩︎

  7. It is important to me to mention that while everyone can access this blog in whatever manner they like, RSS is treated as a primary way of accessing the content and not just an afterthought. ↩︎

Tags: Blog, Feedbin, Old Web, Podcast, Reeder, RSS