TL;DR: RSS is the best way to follow content online. My feed is here. Try something like Feedly if you’re new to RSS, though the options for how RSS can make your relationship with online media more healthy and meaningful are countless.
It’s been over 2 years since I deleted of all my social media accounts, and with them, all the attention sucking newsfeeds and updates that came with them.
And boy, what a 2 years it’s been!
In this post, I wanted to take some time to write an explanation/tutorial on what I think has been potentially the most useful technology for helping me thrive online without social media these last couple years.
It’s an old technology that pretty effectively solves a significant modern problem. It also has counter-intuitively helped me to be better and more deeply informed on issues I care about (and, honestly, better entertained) after having rid my life of the constant deluge and noise on social media, than before when I did have them.
Unbelievable? Maybe. But I think it might just be true.
That technology is RSS.
What is RSS? – Your Feed: Your Rules
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a silly acronym and name for a really cool technology.
RSS is basically a way to take ANY blog, website, or updating online content, and follow it all in a feed that you have 100% control of.
One of my favorite explanations I’ve heard of how RSS works comes from Seth Godin. He explains that, in essence, every creator or news source you might want to follow has something called an RSS Feed, which can be thought of like a specific frequency on a radio.
With radio, you can listen to any radio station you want by tuning your radio to the correct frequency.
In the same way, with RSS, you can follow anything you want on the internet by “tuning” your RSS app into the RSS Feed you want to follow.
When you do that, every new piece of content from that creator, news source, or online channel – from wherever place on the internet that creator is posting – will show up in your feed!
An RSS Feed itself is just a page of code, meant for computers to read — not people. It will be effectively unintelligible if you open it and try to read it yourself (you can try, with my website’s feed if you want ).
Just like you and I can’t see radio frequencies, RSS feeds themselves aren’t useful for people to look at. But, just like a radio turns unintelligible radio frequencies into music, your RSS app can turn any RSS feed that you want to follow into a news feed allowing you to follow all the stuff you care about.
In short, RSS gives you an online news feed that you own and control, and where you can set your own rules.
It’s quite cool, and has a lot of valuable uses.
Why should I use RSS?
Here are a few really cool benefits to RSS over modern social media feeds:
1. All your content in ONE PLACE
If you want to check Twitter, you do that on the Twitter app/website.
If you want to watch a new video from someone you’re subscribed to on YouTube, you do it in the YouTube app/website.
… or, at least, you used to!
RSS makes it so you can see all your subscriptions and things you care about in one place.
One app to rule them all!
(...and in the darkness bind them)
After several years now of RSS being the primary method I use to find newly posted content online, the idea of needing to check 6-8 different apps to see all the new things I care about feels primitive.
When you can see all the news, blogs, Twitter content, Reddit content, YouTube videos, web-comics, and newsletters you love at a glance with the tap of a single button, the idea of using a different app for each of those things begins to seem a little silly. 🤷🏻♂️
2. RSS keeps your email inbox clean
This one is simple: I think email should be used for communications, not content. Having newsletters or updates in my email inbox makes my inbox cluttered and distracts me from communicating with people. So, I pretty mercilessly unsubscribe to newsletters that get sent to my email. Instead, I use Kill The Newsletter to turn those email newsletters into RSS feeds, which I then follow in my RSS app.
My email inbox stays clean, but I still get to follow and read all the email newsletters I care about: Win-win.
3. RSS doesn’t “want” anything from you
As mentioned above, RSS is a news feed protocol, not a platform.
It’s a several-decades-old standard that you can teach any computer to use.
This is really useful, because it means that RSS is not owned by anyone.
There’s nothing it is intrinsically “pushing” you towards.
It doesn’t “want” anything from you.
Unlike news feeds created by big tech companies (companies which often make their money by showing you ads, and thus are incentivised to keep you scrolling their feeds as long as possible) with RSS there is no “goal” for your interaction. It’s a way for a website to tell your device that there is new content from sources you care about.
And that’s it.
No more multibillion dollar companies steering the content you’re shown to on your feed.
4. RSS gives you full control of your feed, showing you everything you’re subscribed to, indiscriminately
I remember when Facebook first started organizing content with the purpose of grabbing the maximum amount of attention possible, instead of organizing its content chronologically.
If you don’t remember those days, that old style of social media might feel a little foreign. We’re used to being shown the thing that the algorithm thinks we’re most likely to engage in; not the most recent thing.
Back in the day though, it was different.
Before social media companies had the primary goal of monetizing attention, most platforms would show your friends’ posts ordered from most recent to oldest. You’d open the app, and if someone posted a photo 5 seconds ago, you would see that at the top of your screen. That would be followed by the status update your other friend had posted 45 seconds ago, etc. It was simple, but great. It made it so that you could actually see all the things your friends were sharing. You didn’t miss something posted by someone you cared about because it wasn’t “engaging enough” by the algorithm’s standards.
Obviously, that’s no longer the case with most feeds today. Instead, most feeds today have some kind of mechanism that hides some content we’re subscribed to, and shows us other content we maybe didn’t chose to see.
That’s weird to me. If I click a button with the implication of “let me know when this person shares something new”, the fact I might not end up getting shown something new they put out seems kinda crazy.
RSS solves that problem.
It won’t push you to consume content you don’t want to consume, or hide from you content you do want to consume.
If you subscribe to something that’s available through RSS, it will end up in your feed. Period.
5. It has an End
I was recently listening to the Your Undivided Attention podcast. One of the hosts, Aza Raskin, is the original creator of the “infinite scroll” scroll feature now standard in basically all feed-based apps. Infinite scroll is that feature where, if you scroll to the “bottom” of your feed, more content will just automatically be loaded onto the page. It makes it so that you can scroll for hours upon hours, and more content will constantly be fed onto to your screen, ad infinitum.
It was fascinating to hear Raskin discuss this feature he created. It’s now a mainstay feature of every social media app on the market, largely because the “scroll-vortex” we so easily slip into when we use apps with infinite scroll is insanely profitable for companies with an attention extraction business model.
Raskin now recognizes that this feature he created has actually been a major negative for the world.
Hearing the creator of infinite scroll observe that he thinks the world is actually worse-off because of his invention being included in apps on billions of people’s devices today makes me think I probably don’t want it in my life either.
Luckily, RSS does not have infinite scroll.
RSS shows you the things your subscribed to, and when you’ve read those things, the feed stops.
As an example, if you look at my RSS app right now, you’ll see that it says, “There are no unread articles”.
I’ve read my news, blogs, comics, and the rest of stuff that showed up on my feed today… and now, I can go about the rest of my day! If there’s a particularly long or interesting article that pops up, I can save it to read later. But even then, when I come back, there will just be those saved posts waiting for me to read. When I’ve read all the stuff I’m subscribed to, I’m done.
No vortex of infinite scrolling for hours.
That’s replaced with just reading or watching the stuff I care about, then moving on with my life.
6. It won’t actively push you towards vile content and fake news
You remember I mentioned maybe “saving the world” in the title? This is that part.
It’s little secret that most feeds today expose us to content that makes us angry, fearful, stressed, threatened, and ultimately more hooked. This results on average in people around the world trending towards more distrust and division. (Go watch The Social Dilemma or listen to the aforementioned Your Undivided Attention podcast if you want further exploration on all of that.)
Basically, newsfeeds that are monetized by algorithmically maximizing users’ time-on-screen are naturally going to make us gravitate towards content that makes us the most emotionally charged – often, enraging, saddening, and divisive content.
That’s disconcerting. One might wonder how long a society can be saturated in that kind of media environment before something breaks. 😬
Such a problem is massive in both its implications and societal scope, so I obviously don’t expect that a tech protocol built 30 years ago could actually be the full and complete solution to it…
That being said, if you allow me a moment of reductivism in regards to this issue, it does seem like a keystone element of this problem comes back to the fact a majority of people are getting their news from sources that are incentivized to squeeze every second out of their attention by enraging them and confirming their biases, instead of striving to accurately inform them on the matters they care about. It stands to reason, then, that an effective way to counteract that problem would be for people to cease their exposure to that media that is demonstrably incentivized to mislead and outrage, and instead get their media from sources that focus on unbiased reporting of facts.
Now, RSS is not THE solution to that. Again, it’s just a news-delivery protocol.
BUT, RSS can be an effective tool to enable people to receive news with a focus on fact-based and minimal-bias reporting.
My personal technique for that has been to find a good Media Bias Assessment organization – something like Ad Fontes or AllSides – and use their work to find 2 or 3 news sources that have high accuracy and low bias in their reporting. Then, I subscribe to those sources’ daily or weekly news roundups on my RSS app… and basically I don’t worry about any other news beyond that.
(Edit - May 19, 2023: since writing this I’ve also come across Ground News, which can be added to the list of useful Media Bias Assessment organizations and news-sources.)
In doing that, it brings my relationship with the news back to an experience much more comparable to reading a newspaper: I open it up, see the headlines of those things that have come to pass since the last edition, I read the articles that are noteworthy, and then I close it and move on with my life. It leaves me informed enough on the issues of the day that I can talk about them knowledgeably, while keeping away from the crazy and misleading ideas that propaganda-focused organizations put out.
It’s a simple solution… But it’s also been a profound way to get away from my personal exposure to fake news.
Now, just imagine for a second if everyone did that.
It could be a grassroots solution to the fake news epidemic.
We can quite easily and effectively disengage ourselves from fake news, if we want.
And RSS can be a tool to help make that possible.
So, how do I get started? — Where to find RSS Feeds
Alright, the fun part! How do we start using RSS?
Like we talked about near the start, you need to find the “feed” of the content you want to follow – that “frequency” to tune your “digital radio” to, so you can get new content.
That feed will look like a standard web address/URL. Here’s what mine looks like:
If you copy that URL and paste it into your RSS reader app, you’ll be able to see all the content I’ve shared in the past, as well as all the future posts I share.
However, it’s become common lately to not advertise RSS feeds, because many people don’t know how to make use of them.
If you’re wanting to follow a creator whose RSS feed you can’t readily find, here are a few options:
- Try using the RSS Finder Plugin. Simply click the plugin when you’re on a page you want to follow. If there’s an RSS feed available, it should show it to you. This works for tons of services like blogs, YouTube, Medium, and more.
- If that plugin doesn’t work, there’s likely a service that can turn what you’re wanting to follow into an RSS feed:
- Reach out and ask them. I’ve contacted several creators about their RSS support since moving all my feeds to RSS. Some of them ended up setting up new feeds so their content could be followed via RSS. Others provided other solutions (like newsletters, below) as effective alternatives.
- If you can’t find an RSS feed or a way create an RSS feed, more and more creators have email newsletters. As mentioned above, Kill the Newsletter is a great tool to turn email newsletters into RSS feeds.
If none of these options work, let me know and I’ll see if we can’t figure out a way for you to follow the thing you want to follow! 😁
Cool, cool, cool… now, what exactly do I do with this RSS Feed?
The simple answer to that is, “add it to your RSS reader app!”
Which raises a more complex question:
What RSS reader app should I use?
And answering that question is arguably the worst (and, kinda best) part about RSS.
The answer is, “it depends”.
It depends on what you want to do, and how you want to follow the content you care about.
You’re in full control, so you have to decide how you want to get your feeds.
This kinda sucks, in that you need to make a choice about how you want to consume your online content, when you are probably used to just consuming however has been the most convenient.
But while needing to make a choice is inconvenient, it’s also awesome for the same reason, because it’s you deciding what your relationship with digital content is going to be, instead of the owners of whatever social media company you’re using.
Because of how powerful RSS is, you can get quite creative with how your content gets to you. There are people who have used RSS feeds to give them their updates by:
- connecting to a paper printer, so they could read a physical copy of news content with their coffee in the morning,
- displaying on on digital signs or TVs
- playing their feeds with a smart speaker,
- feeding their news into their alarm clock.
The options are limited only by your imagination, and what you can make work for you practically.
Personally, I use two RSS apps, each for a unique purpose:
- One app is specifically for reading content. This includes global news, blogs, comics, and newsletters. I have this synced to my ebook reader and my phone. Having it on a device with an e-ink display, and having those feeds saved offline, gives be the very enjoyable experience of being able to read this content peacefully, say, over a coffee at café. Because my e-ink device is only for reading, I can use it either to read books like normal, or, now, to read the news and long-form articles I find interesting.
- The other app I use is for content which I know I will want to consume on my laptop. This is usually video content like YouTube subscriptions (which I prefer not to watch on mobile), or productivity focused updates (such as important software updates for servers I’m managing).
This is the setup I’ve found works well for me in this current season. However, as my needs change, it’s likely my setup will also change and adapt.
As such, it is difficult to give specific recommendation to you for which app to use for RSS, as that it is likely to change with your needs, too.
That being said, here are a few ideas for you to try out:
If I were an Apple user, it’s probably what I would use.
The RSS app I use right now is actually one I can’t recommend for the average person, as it would be pretty convoluted for most people to set up. (It’s my personal Nextcloud server with Nextcloud News installed; I use an app that’s no longer supported to read that news; because of its lack of support, I will probably need to change the app I use soon).
On account of that, the recommendations below aren’t actually ones I use day-to-day. But I have given them a preliminary test, and they seem to work well!
Assuming you don’t need to sync your RSS feeds from your Android device to a different device, I would probably recommend Aggregator.
Another option, if you’re using Brave Browser like I recommend elsewhere, is to use its built-in RSS reader. If you want a way to start following RSS feeds without setting up a dedicated app, this might be a decent option for you. Here’s a quick tutorial of how use it.
If you need to sync between devices, you will unfortunately probably either need to be ok with some limitations to the number of feeds you can follow, be ok seeing some ads on your app, or be ok paying a subscription fee of some kind. (Or, self-host an RSS service like I do)
Feedly is probably the best option here. It has a free version of the app that is limited to only 100 feeds, but that’s pretty decent for most people to get start.
Here is where you find an abundance of options.
Here are a few notable ones:
- Personally, I use
newsboat. It’s highly customizable and scriptable, which allows me to do a ton of cool stuff with it, like playing YouTube videos on my laptop without opening YouTube, or saving the text of an article directly to a file in my notes with a single keystroke. It’s super cool. But it’s also a command-line program, which can be intimidating for newcomers.
- If you’d like your email and news in one program, the Thunderbird email program has a fairly rich-featured RSS reader built into it.
- The note-taking app Obsidian has an RSS reader plugin that also looks cool.
- If you prefer a dedicated app, I’ve played with both RSSOwl and Fluent Reader, and they both seem like solid options.
All that to say, you have a TON of options.
There’s bound to be at least one that works well for how you would like to use it!
That’s Awesome! Now what?
Now, go out and follow some RSS feeds!
I would estimate that using RSS instead of scrolling social media feeds has saved me hundreds of hours over the last two years, freeing me up to spend that time on the stuff I care about, while also still equipping me to learn from and consume the content I love and care about.
My hope is that you benefit as much as I have from those saved hours, and that more meaningful relationship with your feed!
If you have any feedback, questions, or ideas related to this, I’d love to hear them!
Thanks for reading!