@radekmie

On RSS

By Radosław Miernik · Published on · Comment on reddit

Table of contents

Intro

Hey kids, have you heard of RSS? Some “older” people laugh that “younger” people nowadays are not able to use a can opener or have no idea why does a pencil combines with a cassette tape. These are two extreme generalizations.

But, at the same time, I’d say that RSS is one of these things. Most people have heard about it at some point, and then it kind of… died? Well, luckily for me us, that’s not true. At the end of the day, aren’t you fed up with the tens of apps that you have to use in order to stay up to date with stuff? I certainly am.

And that’s where the RSS kicks in! It lets you stay up to date with stuff but in a centralized and personalized manner. Of course, it requires some setup from the publisher, but once set, it just works! Let’s see what’s in there for you.

The How

As I said, setting up an RSS feed requires additional setup. But is it actually that hard? Every feed is basically an XML file that you have to host next to your content. Mine looks like this.

Of course, there are a couple of decisions to be made. Do you want to include the entire content in the feed, the gist of it, or maybe just the title? How to handle translations – multiple feeds, multiple entries? What about multimedia, like images or videos? And finally, the format: RSS1 or Atom?

Some say that Atom is clearly the winner long term; others don’t even mention it while talking about feeds… Overall, I agree that it doesn’t matter at all and is need and convenience based. Really, there’s literally one program for each that doesn’t support it.

And while we’re talking about it – how to consume a feed? Well, there are at least a hundred ways, ranging from web applications and browser extensions2, through smartphone apps, to full-blown desktop applications.

For years now, I’ve been using Feedly. I’ve tried at least a dozen different readers, but this one suits me best. Both web and mobile apps are straightforward and more than enough for me. Most importantly, the web app supports shortcuts – it’s crucial for someone who goes through more than 5500 entries every single month. (I’ve just checked my stats… That’s a lot.)

And just to be clear – I’m still using the free version. My feed list is somehow short (I’ll get to that later), I don’t mind an ad here or there, I have no need to search through the feeds, and I don’t need any integrations with other services. (Whenever I read something interesting, I either bookmark or share it.)

The Who

Who should publish a feed? Well, the short answer would be everyone, but that’s not an answer… I use them to stay up to date with tens of personal (yet technical) blogs, multiple changelogs, and a couple of subreddits. There is also other, less formal stuff, like comics or photo blogs.

It may sound like it targets only very technical people, but it’s not true at all! Even YouTube channels have feeds (official ones, not through external apps). Your favorite website that you visit daily likely has a feed that you could follow instead. But it’s not always the case, as…

Sharing your content through feeds lets the users consume it without seeing and interacting with the ads. This is why apps like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok don’t have such an option. (Or it’s limited, like the Facebook’s calendar.)

But I recommend using them, basically for the same reason. Smashing Magazine or CSS-Tricks takes a couple of seconds to load on my fast internet and a decent machine. I know it’s not long, but if I’d like to do it twice a day for each of my nearly hundred feeds, it’s simply too much time. Keep in mind that I’d also have to remember whether I’ve already seen the latest article or not; it’s nearly impossible for the bigger subreddits, like r/programming.

The Why

Getting rid of ads while being able to read the same article is one thing3, but it’s definitely not my most important one. As I said, without these feeds, I’d need to check like a hundred websites twice a day. Right, I wouldn’t have to do it, but I’d like to. Sorry people – FOMO is real.

Honestly, I no longer consider this time-saving but rather mind-saving. The fact that I’m confident of being up to date once my Feedly is cleaned up is… Weirdly calming. I know it sounds like an issue, but it definitely helps to spend less time on your computer and phone (and tablet; I mostly read on an iPad).

Another area where feed readers are superior to manually checking multiple sources are rarely-updated ones. Imagine someone publishes only once a month, just like me. You know it doesn’t make sense to check it daily, but otherwise, you wouldn’t know that the latest post is already there, right? Also, if you’d check it every day, each time you do it, you’re less and less eager to do it again – in the end, nothing changes4.

Closing thoughts

Feeds are a mature technology that is here to stay. It’s been “in production” for more than twenty years, is accessible, and easy to consume and implement. At the same time, there are literally no alternatives other than hand-crafting something that could be replaced with a much simpler feed.

Will we see a new era of feeds? I’m sure not.

Oh, new xkcd is in!

1

I’d say that everyone should use RSS 2.0, as the older versions are (rather) severely outdated. See this article for a detailed comparison of the versions.

2

Vivaldi browser recently introduced a built-in feed reader. I myself don’t use it as I like my current setup, but it shows that it’s something users would like to have. I have tried it, though – it’s nice, simple, and clean.

3

I’m one of these people who use ad blockers heavily. Like, really, I have the strictest settings that allow me to surf the net mostly without problems. Once in a while, a government website breaks on me, but I’m willing to deal with that for a slightly faster web in return. (Also, the battery lasts longer!)

4

You can kindly ask others to add feeds to their blogs. Sometimes it takes full four months, but hey – you have it. (Sorry for being picky!)