RSS stands for “really simple syndication”, or “rich site summary”. It allows subscribers to access their favorite content in a user-friendly format that doesn’t allow them to miss a single issue. The users are the ones who choose the sources of the content, not any algorithms.
The first RSS technology was developed over 20 years ago and has undergone a few changes since. Some even say that it was “invented twice”. The basic principle has always remained the same – the platform presents the content in XML format and automatically posts updates whenever a content provider releases them. So rather than search for the news and scroll through the web, stumbling upon irrelevant sources, a user received the news directly on the platform from the sources they trusted and chose for themselves. Every website had the RSS orange button through the 2000s. Even Google launched its own RSS product in 2005 called Google Reader.
How RSS dwindled in popularity
All industries evolve, though – and technology is one of those industries that evolves the fastest, and even sets the trends. With the introduction of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, it became easier than ever to engage, interact and get unlimited customization opportunities. You can like, retweet, repost, comment with no fuss.
With a single click of a button, you can log in onto multiple platforms and websites – so many e-commerce retailers, for instance, now allow to login with Facebook. In fact, most social media like Pinterest or Instagram cannot be used without a Facebook account. Google Chrome’s autofill made shopping easier than ever. YouTube now requires you to have a Google account to like and comment, and the integration with Facebook, WhatsApp, and other apps makes it easier than ever to share your favorite video content with everyone. Most sites now have a Pinterest button and most browsers offer the extension, which allows you to save what you like on your boards in one click, for the world (especially Facebook) to see.
This snowballing of technological development and fast-changing consumer communication habits meant that users were able to view the content they wanted and interact with the entire world simply by clicking some buttons. The user-friendly UI, the convenience of having all your data stored by tech conglomerates for instant access to most of the internet, the “freebies” of Facebook, Twitter and Google are what the consumers were drawn to. RSS platforms, on the other hand, weren’t what we know today as “user-friendly”. The feeds weren’t always presented in an accessible, attractive format. The XML files that opened when you clicked on a feed looked like a bunch of code to a regular person and caused a lot of people to just give up on their RSS in favor of a sleeker interface and more accessible content.
As a result, a lot of brands stopped putting the effort into their RSS updates and concentrated them on social media channels instead. They also preferred the latter option for the purpose of monetizing content and website visits which is quite tricky to execute via RSS. The stats were also difficult to view since RSS didn’t have a “Google Analytics” tool.
All of the above caused RSS to decrease in popularity and Google even retired their Google Reader in 2013, causing a lot of outrage amongst RSS loyalists. Apple also dropped their RSS tool from the Mail app. A popular RSS platform called Digg Reader, where a lot of people have moved to, also disappeared last year.
This is why you don’t often hear about this technology in the news today and many people believe it to be dead. But I don't agree.
Why should we bring back RSS
I believe that RSS’ reputation as “outdated” and “dead” technology isn’t deserved, and there are still many advantages a user can get from it. It might not be the same as it was even a decade ago, but few technologies are. Today, about 20 million people use RSS platforms, despite social media’s predominance, and the numbers appear to be growing.
Today, Facebook, Twitter, and Google rely heavily on algorithms and Big Data. When you hand your data over to them (including your online behavior), their algorithms analyze it and target various things towards you. For instance, if you’re researching a specific topic for an article about traveling, you scroll through various news sources – either on your desktop on phone. Next thing you know, you log into Facebook and see an ad from a travel agency, offering you discounts for the very destination you’ve just been Googling! Disconcerting, to say the least. Shoshana Zuboff calls that way of making money “surveillance capitalism” in her new book. By analyzing your behavior and targeting content towards you, big corporations can easily monetize using your habits; they effectively create that very behavior.
Even though you consent to various data processing activities when you sign up to Google and Facebook, the analysis algorithms do of you can be overwhelming. Which is why more and more people are moving towards RSS. They’re simply exhausted from various algorithmic processes they have little understanding of and wish to be more in control of the content they consume and their data.
RSS applications allow for just that. They don't rely on algorithms to provide you with fresh content – instead, YOU choose the sources. If you want daily updates about Digital Trends, but don’t want ads of products encompassing these shoved in your face, subscribe to an RSS feed. If you’re a researcher who needs to keep their sources in the same place and don’t want to be distracted by irrelevant content encouraging you to buy something, RSS is for you. And if you have a lot of interests, some RSS platforms allow you to sort them into categories – News, Humor, Fashion, etc. – without an algorithm spamming your feed with the promoted updates you don’t care about.
Recent Facebook privacy scandals (Cambridge Analytica and the like) are another privacy-related reason for the increase in RSS usage. People are finding more and more reasons to leave Facebook, and RSS is a tried-and-tested method to stay on top of current events. That’s not to say, though, that RSS is completely devoid of social media features. In fact, most of them have an option to “share” content.
YOU don’t miss anything
In addition to privacy advantages, RSS also makes it easier to stay updated on your interests. Daily scrolling through various news sources, even when they’re sorted by categories (like in the Fox News mobile app), takes up a lot of time. That’s particularly relevant if you need to find information quickly. And since an RSS platform automatically publishes content from the sources you’re subscribed to, there’s no chance you’d miss out on a single piece of content that YOU asked for, even if you’ve been offline all day.
A lot of great sources still retain the orange RSS button, but even if not, you can still add them to your feed manually.
Some RSS platforms, like Inoreader, allow for filtering the content you don’t want to see. That comes in handy when multiple sources you subscribe to publish the same news story. If you don’t want to get too overwhelmed by repetitive content, you can tweak the filtering settings according to your preferences.
That’s also why Google Reader’s closure in 2013 didn’t deter RSS fanatics and competitors like Feedly and Inoreader quickly began to saturate that market. As a result, fans of Google’s RSS joined those platforms and RSS has begun to come back, in a sense. The new RSS apps have a much more user-friendly interface than their ancestors from 1997.
Apple & Google News
Like Google, Apple also used to have RSS support which was stopped a couple of years ago. And like with Google Reader, the move proved to be extremely unpopular with RSS fans. Nonetheless, both services are still extremely popular. The sleek interface, the easy access to top stories and most importantly, the free basis are arguably the main USPs.
However, your news feeds on both aggregators are generated by algorithms as well as humans. Google, for instance, shows you the top 5 news stories of the day that IT believes you should care about. Siri, on the other side, can suggest the news stories that Apple believes you should be interested in.
Like I mentioned earlier, the involvement of behavioral analysis is staggering, and the amount the algorithms can – and have – learned about an average user is very hard to estimate. We’re certain, though, that most people would much prefer to choose your own sources and news stories without any AI-based suggestions. Which is what RSS platforms are good for – the content is yours and yours alone. If you want content from a particular source or sources, unfiltered by any algorithms that think they know better, without having to refresh a webpage or an app every time, I advise that you try out RSS platforms like InoReader.
YouTube is essentially a monopoly and you get access to very few features unless you’re constantly signed in with your Google account. That, in turn, raises many privacy concerns, such as data centralization we’ve previously written about. Fortunately, there is more than one way to add YouTube videos to your RSS feed using either Google Takeout or IFTTT. The latter, in fact, allows you to stay updated on your social media feed as well, without actually having to log onto your social media apps and wasting your time.
Check out my guide on subscribing to YouTube channels through RSS.
Not many of us check out Spam folders on a daily, or even a weekly basis, for a very good reason. This folder is, after all, meant for Spam, a.k.a. things I don’t care about and investment pitches from Nigerian princes. Sometimes, though, Gmail sends really important e-mails to the Spam folder, just because its algorithm didn’t like it. That can apply to your subscriptions, too. It can be quite disheartening to miss a story from your favorite source because you don’t check your Gmail spam folder.
With RSS, that wouldn’t be an issue. As I stated earlier, RSS only has filters that YOU set – no algorithms involved. YOU set the sources and YOU choose not to subscribe to those Gmail may or may not see as “spammy”.
If you’re a blogger and are fortunate enough to have subscribers, this also applies to you. You might believe that all your readers get the updates from e-mails, but you may not even suspect that some of them could be blocked by Gmail’s spam filter. For that reason, I recommend that you enable, or re-enable the RSS icon on your website for wider outreach. You can also use RSS to post across various platforms at the same time, for the same purpose.
Most contemporary Internet users consume a lot more content on mobile platforms than on desktop. It’s no surprise – the convenience and mobile-friendly interfaces of most content creator platforms make it easy. It’s no surprise, therefore, that RSS users would expect the same from the feed providers.
Most modern RSS providers can be used across various platforms, like most digital content operators. Inoreader, for instance, is available for the mobile (Android and iOS), and desktop platforms, with all features intact across all of them. It also supports cross-browser RSS extensions for Chrome, Safari, Opera, and Firefox.
Some RSS platforms are actually Open Source, such as RSSOwl, which is also available across all platforms. If you’re truly ready to make the move away from Google and consume content without them monitoring it, try Tiny Tiny RSS. It’s self-hosted with no third-party services. Unfortunately, it’s only available through a web browser at the moment.
As you can see, RSS is not dead, despite a lot of web experts’ proclamations to the contrary. It’s merely transformed with the times, whilst preserving its original purpose and remaining a platform that’s yours and yours alone to do with whatever you please and customize to your heart’s content.
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