Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

What does it feel like to read RSS feeds?

Giles wrote a blog post a couple of years ago about how he’d describe the feeling of using RSS feeds.

His main points were:

  • You’re the curator
  • You decide what’s interesting
  • You have more control over what you read and how
  • It’s a fast and efficient way of reading a lot of web
  • It’s just better than the endless scroll of a social media feed

It’s like social media used to be

For me, a lot of what I like about RSS and what Giles also talked about, is about the things that social media used to be like 10-15 years ago. When the main feed was filled with posts by people you chose to follow/befriend/connect with and it was chronological and every post was visible.

Then Facebook started its enshittification by starting to restrict the visibility of posts by pages and posts in groups unless you paid. Then came the ads and suddenly the feed became nearly useless for my use case: keeping up with friends and their projects.

Others followed suite and these days every major commercial social media platform prioritizes a feed that’s run by a set of recommendation algorithms. They are now about what the platform wants you to see to increase engagement (for example by making you angry) and to sell ads and not about who you have chosen to follow. Mastodon is a notable exception and that’s why it’s where I spend my time almost exclusively when it comes to social media.

RSS feels like social media used to be. I choose which blogs I read and there’s no algorithm in between deciding what I should be shown and what not.

It slows down the hectic life

Compared to social media, a main difference with blogs is that the posts are (usually) longer form articles instead of short bits. I feel like it helps with the attention span when I spend more time with one topic or story. The interconnectivity to other pieces in the web helps me find new perspectives and ideas on the same topic.

I start my day (well, actually I start my day most of the time by watching NHL highlights from DTMTS) with taking my iPad and opening up my RSS reader. I then go through the posts that have arrived during the night.

I do this before I check my phone or open my computer. I have no notifications enabled for iPad so before the world starts to hammer with requests for my attention, I get to read what my Internet friends have been thinking and working on.

I mostly subscribe to blogs that offer full-text RSS feed so I can get my reading done without leaving the app. That helps me not get distracted by other things in the web.

Offline RSS is lovely

I use Feedly as my RSS service and lire on my iPad because lire downloads the feeds for offline reading. I travel quite a lot and spend a lot of time in boats and trains often without reliable Internet access so the ability to keep reading is invaluable.

Sometimes, it’s also a good move to just turn off the wifi to help focus when there’s no way to get distracted with what the web has to offer.

No need to compete for attention

This is more about the feel for the writers but I feel like it also spills over to the reader.

All the recommendation algorithm driven platforms tend to encourage active posting and discourage occasional participation. It happens because the feed is ephemeral and a lot of stuff comes and goes. So if you only post once a month or twice a year, the likelihood of someone noticing your post is low. In addition, companies want people to use their platform so the algorithms are tuned to promote posts from those who post regularly.

With RSS, we don’t need to worry about that.

For writers, it means you can write when you feel like it and when you have something to say and you know people who subscribe to you will see your post with equal standing compared to everything else.

For readers, it means the people you follow don’t need to publish for the sake of publishing and staying relevant. I believe that helps increase the quality and depth of the writing. You don’t need to worry about missing their post if they only post twice a year because it will come to your feed.

Content is the primary focus

What people write is what you read once you subscribe to them. Most RSS readers have a very simplistic and minimal UI: the focus is on the content. No ads sprinkled in to distract you or ads and trackers that slow down the site. The reading experience is great.

I do like the creativity of different designs that people have on their websites but I also really like reading blogs on my RSS readers because of its uniform style. I don’t get a different experience for every post but rather I get to focus on what’s being said.

Build your RSS feed one blog at the time

To wrap up, I want to give one piece of practical advice.

Start adding sites you encounter to your RSS feed one at the time when you encounter ones that you enjoy. In the beginning, it will be a bit slow to accumulate but it also helps you build a taste for those blogs when you are not overwhelmed with hundreds of blogs at once.

Add blogs liberally and prune the feed aggressively.

Don’t overthink when adding a blog. If you read a post that’s interesting and check that the blog’s other posts are even remotely interesting, subscribe to its feed.

Don’t feel bad for removing blogs from the feed either. If you notice you always keep skipping certain blogs, remove them from your feed.