The modern web contains no shortage of horrors, from ubiquitous ad trackers to all-consuming platforms to YouTube comments, generally. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for what ails this internet we’ve built. But anyone weary of black-box algorithms controlling what you see online at least has a respite, one that’s been there all along but has often gone ignored. Tired of Twitter? Facebook fatigued? It’s time to head back to RSS.
For many of you, that means finding a replacement for Digg Reader, which went the way of the ghost this month. Or maybe you haven’t used RSS since five years ago, when Google Reader, the beloved firehose of news headlines got the axe. For others, it means figuring out what the heck an RSS feed is in the first place—we’ll get to that in just a minute. And some of you have already moved on to the next article in your Feedly queue.
No matter what your current disposition, though, in this age of algorithmic overreach there’s something deeply satisfying about finding stories beyond what your loudest Twitter follows shared, or that Facebook’s News Feed optimized into your life. And lots of tools that can get you there.
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it was first stitched into the tapestry of the open web around the turn of the millennium. Its aim is straightforward: to make it easy to track updates to the content of a given website in a standardized format.
In practice, and for your purposes, that means it can give you a comprehensive, regularly updated look at all of the content your favorite sites publish throughout the day. Think of it as the ultimate aggregator; every morsel from every source you care about, fed directly to you. Or, more commonly, fed to you through an intermediary known as an RSS feed reader, software that helps you wrangle all of those disparate headlines into something remotely manageable.
‘We’re trying to keep things as they were.’
Ben Wolf, The Old Reader
The difference between getting news from an RSS reader and getting it from Facebook or Twitter or Nuzzel or Apple News is a bit like the difference between a Vegas buffet and an a la carte menu. In either case, you decide what you actually want to consume. But the buffet gives you a whole world of options you otherwise might never have seen.
“There are multiple approaches to connecting to news. Social felt pretty interesting at first, but when you mix social and algorithmic, you can easily get into these noise bubbles, or areas where you don’t necessarily feel 100 percent in control of the algorithm,” says Edwin Khodabakchian, cofounder and CEO of popular RSS reader Feedly. “A tool like Feedly gives you a more transparent and controllable way to connect to the information you need.”
With 14 million users, Feedly is the largest RSS reader on the market. And it’s easy to see why; it’s as feature-full as one could hope for, and has been around since 2008. (It also inherited a sizeable chunk of Google Reader’s jilted audience.) It’s far from your only option, though.
All RSS readers function within the same basic outline. You tell them what RSS feeds you’d like to follow—The New York Times, say, or WIRED—and they collect every new headline those sites churn out, offering anything from a snippet of information to the full story, depending on how much the publisher allows. Each puts a slightly different spin on the process from there.
Feedly, for instance, has for the last two years gravitated toward being a tool for research rather than passive entertainment. That’s partly in response to platforms eating the open web. “If you go after entertainment, you’re not competing against other reader news tools. You’re really competing with Instagram and other things people do to kill time,” says Khodabakchian. “On the other hand, if you think of this as an intelligence tool, or research assistant, we see a huge and increasing demand for that.”
Still, Feedly has plenty to offer casual users. It has a clean user interface, and the free version of its service lets you follow 100 sources, categorized into up to three feeds—think News, Sports, Humor, or wherever your interests lie. It also shows how popular each story is, both on Feedly and across various social networks, to give you a sense of what people are reading without letting that information dictate what you see. Paid accounts—of which Feedly has about 100,000—get you more feeds and integrations, faster updates, and better tools for teams.
For more of a throwback feel, you might try The Old Reader, which strips down the RSS reader experience while still emphasizing a social component.
“In terms of evolution, we’re coming from a different perspective,” says Ben Wolf, whose Levee Labs acquired The Old Reader in 2013. “We’re trying to keep things as they were.”
For the million or so Old Reader users, that means not many bells and whistles. Even the mechanism to add new feeds feels just a touch more onerous than you’ll find elsewhere. But once you do get properly organized, it’s a fast and light experience, and if you can convince some friends to join, its social features will help you cut through the clutter. Most of all, there’s not much to get in the way of the headlines, which is what you came for in the first place.
Power users, meanwhile, might try Inoreader, which offers for free many of the features—unlimited feeds and tags, and some key integrations—Feedly reserves for paid accounts. “I would say that at the moment Feedly is ahead of us in terms of mass appeal design look and UX, which is something we will try to tackle with our upcoming redesign,” says Victor Stankov, Inoreader’s business development manager. “Hardcore nerds love us way more than Feedly.”
And those are just three options of many. The point being: In 2018, it’s easy to find an RSS reader out there that suits your needs. Which, in hindsight, is no small miracle.
Five years ago, when Wolf took over The Old Reader, he offered a prescient insight: “How long will it be before your Facebook stream is so full of promoted content, bizarre algorithmic decisions, and tracking cookie based shopping cart reminders that you won’t be getting any valuable information,” Wolf wrote. “For as little as $60, a business can promote a page to Facebook users. It won’t be long before your news feed is worthless.”
Which, well, here we are. Not only that, but two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, leaving traditional sources behind.
‘RSS readers have not only survived in the era of social media, but are driving more and more attention back to themselves.’
Victor Stankov, Inoreader
The platformization of the web has claimed many victims, RSS readers included. Google Reader’s 2013 demise was a major blow; the company offed it in favor of “products to address each user’s interest with the right information at the right time via the most appropriate means,” as it Google executive Richard Gingras put it at the time. In other words, letting Google Now decide what you want. And the popular Digg Reader, which was born in response to that shuttering, closed its doors this week after a nearly four-year run.
Despite those setbacks, though, RSS has persisted. “I can’t really explain it, I would have thought given all the abuse it’s taken over the years that it would be stumbling a lot worse,” says programmer Dave Winer, who helped create RSS.
It owes that resilience in part thanks to social media burnout. Stankov says search traffic to Inoreader has nearly doubled since 2015, all organically. “RSS readers have not only survived in the era of social media, but are driving more and more attention back to themselves, as people are realizing the pitfalls” of relying too much on Facebook and others, Stankov says.
RSS readers obviously have their own shortcomings as well. The firehose approach can easily overwhelm, especially when multiple outlets all publish the same news at the same time. There are various solutions to this; Stankov points to filtering tools that help you skip the things you don’t care about, while Wolf says The Old Reader has experimented with tools to help highlight just one story when there are dozens of near-identicals.
Different publishers also offer RSS feeds of varyingly helpful degrees. The New York Times and The Ringer, for instance, offer granular choices to help focus on the topics you care about, while others offer either only one big jumble or oddly sparse updates. Sites that publish infrequently can easily get lost in the mix. And multimedia elements sometimes don’t cross the transom; FiveThirtyEight recently ran a fun, interactive trade war game that RSS couldn’t parse.
The readers all have settings to help cope with these issues to varying degrees, where possible; it’s just a matter of how many hours you want to spend shaping your RSS bonsai.
“Social media has mass appeal because it is simple to understand and use, with little to no challenges involved for the user,” says Stankov. “RSS is whole different game, where the main goal is for the end user to research and find valuable information sources, as well as periodically clean up the news feed from irrelevant noise.” (Those who want a truly passive experience outside of Facebook and Twitter might look instead to aggregators like Apple News or Flipboard, or even Texture, which for $10 a month gives you full issues of dozens of magazine titles to flip through.)
Even with minimal tweaking, though, returning to RSS this week offered up a few fun surprises I never would have seen otherwise: the Yankees getting in trouble for player beer-foam art; an American contending for the world chess championship; the latest on Ben Affleck’s hilariously oversized back tattoo. These aren’t the stories everyone is reading. But they’re the ones I want to read.
While RSS readers offer a sanctuary from the algorithmic approach, they’re also not opposed to using algorithms of their own, as they continue to evolve and regain relevance. That’s not quite the conflict it might seem.
“Machines can have a big role in helping understand the information, so algorithms can be very useful, but for that they have to be transparent and the user has to feel in control,” says Khodabakchian. “What’s missing today with the black-box algorithms is where they look over your shoulder, and don’t trust you to be able to tell what’s right.”
With its focus on professional users, Feedly hopes AI can better connect users with niche experts. Wolf, too, touts AI as a way to better flag standout stories. “I think algorithms are great,” Wolf says. “I think the problem is when the algorithms are run by advertising companies.”
And despite Digg Reader’s demise, new RSS tools continue to come online. Even Winer has re-entered the fray, this week introducing feedbase, a database of feeds that makes it easy to see what others subscribe to, ideally prompting discovery and an even more open approach. “I thought it might be a good time to try to add an important feature to RSS that was always part of the vision, dynamic subscription lists,” Winer says.
Still, the lasting appeal of RSS remains the parts that haven’t changed: the unfiltered view of the open web, and the chance to make your own decisions about what you find there.
“The most amazing thing to me about RSS is that no one really went away from it,” says Wolf. “It still exists. Somehow through all of this. It’s crazy, in a way, that when you go away from RSS and then come back to it, it’s all still there.”