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In Praise of RSS: An Unsung Hero

In Praise of RSS: An Unsung Hero

It’s been a decade since Google euphemistically sunset a beloved service called Google Reader. The untimely death of Reader was reported as the nail in the coffin for RSS, a technology that few had heard of and even fewer had used. 

In response, the world shifted its preference, opting to discover content on Facebook, Digg, FriendFeed, Google+, Tumblr, and the nascent Twitter and Reddit. RSS was out; social networks were in. But what if Google Reader hadn’t died? How would the world look different today if you could still use RSS? 

(Spoiler alert: you can.) 

What was RSS? 

Let’s start with the basics. What the heck was RSS? 

RSS (as I’m using it here) refers to the long-since extinct content syndication standards, such as RSS 2.0, Atom, and JSON Feed. 

It was a way of subscribing to or following creators anywhere on the Internet, not just on a particular platform. Then, similarly to your Twitter timeline, Reddit homescreen, or Facebook feed, you’d open your RSS app to see a list of everything new from the creators you follow. 

Imagining a World Where RSS Isn’t Dead 

In a hypothetical world where RSS was still thriving, I imagine things might look very different for anyone who used it. Let’s walk through a few of the ways an RSS feed could impact our day-to-day lives. 

A Single Hub for Content 

No more wasted time checking platforms that have nothing to see. 

Instead of checking each site and service for activity, we could go to one RSS reader app to see everything new. 

As new services arrive, we can add their content to our reader app, keeping it all in one place. 

Rising Above Platform Churn 

Did my earlier mentions of Digg, Google+, Tumblr, and FriendFeed elicit an “I remember those!” or “who?” response from you? 

Social networks rise and fall regularly. Threads, Bluesky, and Mastodon are all biting at X’s (née Twitter’s) heels. Reddit forcibly removed moderators from many of its largest subreddits after mass protests took place over the last several months. We’re widely believed to be at or near peak Facebook. 

Many networks have already fallen—MySpace, Friendster, LiveJournal, etc.—and with their fall comes the inevitable migration and re-acclimation as the community tries to get up and running elsewhere…exhausting, right? 

If you were using RSS, the rise and fall of a platform would hardly affect anything. A creator you follow shifts to a new platform? Easy. Subscribe to their RSS feed there instead. 

If your RSS reader of choice stops running, you can export your feeds and import them into a different RSS reader, much like moving bookmarks between browsers. 

Avoiding the Algorithm 

Unlike a Twitter timeline or Facebook feed, an RSS feed could be entirely in your own control. Sounds too good to be true, right? Wrong. 

Content could come in from the creators you follow, without Facebook, Google, or X inserting ads or promoted content. 

There wouldn’t be an algorithm increasing your engagement by selecting content designed to anger you. You’d see the content you wanted in the order you wanted. 

Private Interests 

Relatedly, whenever you follow something on YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook, those details feed into the algorithms used to identify your hobbies, concerns, and any interests you may have that you don’t want others to know about. 

That data is a gold mine for advertisers. 

With RSS, you can subscribe without identifying yourself by logging in to the sites that capitalize on Big Data, allowing you to follow subjects of interest anonymously. 


If RSS feeds were still thriving, we’d doubtless have apps that provide filters and actions, just like we have with email. 

For instance, if you enjoy following gaming news but aren’t interested in the latest Call of Duty or Pokémon, a quick filter could exclude those from your feed. Or maybe you want to see a photographer’s pictures without seeing their blog entries. Perhaps there’s a YouTube channel with multiple shows, only some of which you care to watch. 

If you were using RSS, you’d probably be tangentially using high-quality RSS apps that can filter such things, allowing you to tailor the experience to your exact tastes. 

If only. 

The Twist 

As spoiled at the beginning of this article, RSS is actually alive and well. It’s like the Internet’s best-kept secret: a hidden “Follow” or “Subscribe” button on nearly any website you visit. 

Frogslayer has an RSS feed. So does your favorite YouTube channel. So do most news sites, comic strips, newsletters, and more. Podcasting as a whole is built on top of RSS. 

WordPress sites—which account for 43% of all sites on the Internet—provide RSS feeds by default. Every Mastodon user has an RSS feed. And while it may look like scary gibberish if you look at those links, I promise an RSS reader knows what to do with them. 

RSS Options are Endless 

In the vacuum created by Google Reader’s demise, a myriad of competitors jumped into the gap. 

Feedly saw a 900% increase in its users over the next two years alone. Feedbin emerged as a tasteful, open source RSS client. NetNewsWire—widely considered the granddaddy of RSS clients—has returned to its original owner and experienced a resurgence.  

And if none of those suit your preferences, there are dozens more, including free services and self-hosted projects you can run yourself. 

They run on the web, desktop, and mobile. They’re baked into browsers. In many cases, you can even choose your own combination of background services that grab content and foreground apps that display content. For instance, the Feedbin service has an API that works with dozens of apps, so if Feedbin’s appearance doesn’t suit your tastes, you aren’t locked to it. 

Once you have an RSS reader, find the feeds for the sites you like and drop them into the RSS reader. If finding a feed sounds daunting because you don’t know where to look, you may not need to: in most major RSS readers, you can add the URL for a site to have it automatically find the feed(s) for you. 

Once you do that, you can begin enjoying the “hypothetical world” I mentioned above.  

In an era where every company wants to own your data, know everything you do, and tell you what you should view, RSS is a refreshing change of pace. 

Having a piece of the Internet that behaves how you choose is worth a try. 

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