I want to convince you to try using an RSS feed reader.
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. RSS is used to syndicate blog posts, articles, and news stories so that you can view those posts elsewhere. (Fun fact: RSS is also used for podcasts.) If a site publishes an RSS feed, you can follow that feed and read those posts in an RSS reader, and your RSS reader will let you know when new posts are available from that site. RSS readers will show you the post without all of the other junk that typically appears on a website, and they’ll let you customize the text as well. It’s often simple to change the font, font size, or colors in an RSS reader.
There are a lot of different types of RSS readers, and you can choose one that works for you. Your RSS reader can be a desktop program or a mobile app. Some RSS readers are online services that you can access from your web browser or across different apps on different devices.
RSS is one specific web standard you can use for a web feed. Another similar standard is called Atom. Many RSS readers support both RSS and Atom feeds, and many people use the term “RSS feed” to refer to both RSS and Atom feeds interchangeably. That’s what I’m doing here: I want you to try using web feeds. I don’t particularly care whether you use RSS feeds or Atom feeds.
I access RSS feeds on my laptop using NewsFlash. I use RSS feeds to follow local news, tech news, accessibility blogs, science fiction blogs, and a couple other blogs I appreciate, such as The Jesuit Post. On weekdays, I’ll sometimes spend 5–10 minutes looking over new posts, and on the weekend I’ll often scan through all my unread posts. I’m able to read most posts in NewsFlash, but sometimes I’ll choose to open a post in Firefox and read it there. (Some websites only publish excerpts in their RSS feed, so you may need to access the post on their website for the full version.)
Why should you try using a feed reader, and how does this connect to the four pillars?
In my experience, using an RSS reader helps me live more simply and consume content online more intentionally.
I have a Twitter account, but I don’t tend to use it. I don’t like Twitter’s algorithm: it privileges inflammatory and extreme content, and it incentivizes endless scrolling. Beyond that, everything just moves so fast on Twitter. I’m often lacking the context that informs a sub-tweet, and I often feel overwhelmed when using the site.
Meanwhile, here’s how the algorithm works with RSS: I follow a feed, and then new posts appear in reverse-chronological order. I can view feeds individually, all together, or grouped into different categories. (I have one group for all my science fiction blogs, for example.) With RSS, I have more control over what’s in my feed, and because it takes more work to publish a blog post, the content I come across is more thoughtful and considered. If I want to share my thoughts, I’ll need to write and publish a post of my own. I can still listen to and participate in conversations, but I find there’s more depth and it feels much calmer. Using my RSS reader and writing blog posts like this, I’m participating in what Cal Newport calls the social internet, rather than social media. I like it more.
That said, I’ve always been more of a web surfer than a social media user. Rather than scroll Facebook endlessly, I’m much more likely to cycle through twenty websites ten times a day. This can be a bad habit of mine: it makes me feel stressed and hurried, and it makes me struggle to focus. It’s not intentional, and it’s not living simply. Using my feed reader helps me avoid this. I check my feed reader once, maybe twice a day, and when I’m caught up on posts there, I know it’s time to move on to something else.
That’s the “FJV pitch.” Using RSS feeds help me avoid compulsively consuming content, and it helps me focus on slower, more considered pieces of writing.
There are other reasons RSS feeds are great. They can be great for personalization, for accessibility, and for simply focusing on what I’m reading. NewsFlash gives me a better reading experience than many websites. For example, San Jose Spotlight is a great source of local news, but I find their website quite frustrating — I much prefer to read their articles in NewsFlash.
RSS feeds have their advantages, and I think more people should be using them. That said, I do want to hedge a little. Like everything, RSS feeds have their limitations. I’ll readily admit that Tumblr is much better if you care about memes or that Twitter is much better if you want to come across new voices. RSS feeds, for their part, are best if you want to follow a specific news site, a specific blog, or a specific writer.
I’ve explained what RSS feeds are and why I think you should try using an RSS reader. Now let me offer some tips to help you get started.
In addition to following a specific site or blog, you can also follow particular individuals. For example, if I want to follow just Emily VanDerWerff’s posts on Vox (rather than every single post on Vox), I can. On her author page, there’s a link to an RSS feed with just her posts. This is a great way to follow particular columnists you like. Not every news site supports this, but many do, including The Ruined Report. If you want to follow just my posts on The Ruined Report, for example, add this link to your RSS reader: https://theruinedreport.com/author/cameronncoulter/feed.
That leads us nicely to another tip. Many content management systems (like WordPress) automatically create RSS feeds for a site. If you can’t find an RSS link on a website, try adding “/feed” or “/rss” to either the main website’s URL or an individual contributor’s URL. This tactic is a great way to find “secret” RSS feeds. Also, you can often just enter a website’s base URL, such as theruinedreport.com, into your feed reader, and it will automatically search for the site’s RSS feed for you.
Many feed readers allow you to export or import a list of your RSS feeds as an OPML file. You might want to do this in order to backup your favorite feeds, share your feeds with others, or to migrate from one feed reader to another.
One last recommendation: resist the temptation to go and follow every feed you think is interesting. It’s fine to try that out at first, but you don’t want to have a long list of posts that aren’t particularly interesting or that feels like work to sift through. Instead, curate your feeds over time so that you just have the best stuff: really interesting, thoughtful articles that you look forward to reading over each week.
Welcome to the delightful world of web feeds! Good luck, have fun, and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about it!
Featured Image: Screenshot of NewsFlash, taken by Cam Coulter.
“Use RSS Feeds” by Cam Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.