RSS as an antidote to "content"
An RSS refresher, why it's anti-"content," and some tips
Where were you on July 1, 2013?
I was taking the CTA Blue Line to my first day of work at a content mill. In an amazing coincidence, that day was also the day that Google Reader, Google’s RSS aggregator, shut down for good.
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Reading RSS feeds was moving out of the tech spotlight, just as overwhelming “content” generation—for climbing to the top of Google SERPs, as well as sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and yes, even Google Plus at that time—was moving in.
What’s RSS, by the way?
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of RSS, it’s a standardized format for syndicating the updates to a website. Many people casually call it a “feed” when talking about the RSS associated with a particular website.
For example, the RSS feed for this website is
You can add this feed and others to any RSS reader (or “feed reader”) application, such as NetNewsWire. Think of a feed reader as basically an email client, but for website posts rather than emails. You can open your feed reader and see the sites you’ve “subscribed to” in a list, with unread counts for their updates, in a similar way to how you open your email and see mail from lists and individuals. From within the app, you can read these stories. It’s a way of making the news come to you.
Here’s an example of NetNewsWire on macOS:
RSS vs. “content”
RSS readers are alive and well today, but they’re for an enthusiast audience. Their peak as mass-appeal applications was in the mid-to-late 2000s, before the runaway growth of social media and of tightly containerized “content.”
As noted before, “content” as a concept centers the notion of a proprietary, tightly controlled container—think Facebook, YouTube, or Netflix—that must be continuously filled with interchangeable (in the eyes of the container owner) stuff, whether that’s text, video, audio, or games, to overwhelm the audience with the false illusion of choice and get them to spend more time dwelling on the platform, hunting for something (anything) to “consume” (this is the verb that is so often paired with the “content” noun).
RSS as a technology and the RSS reader as an application type both cut against all these notions:
RSS isn’t proprietary: It was standardized decades ago, before the current walled gardens took root, and you can find it pretty easily on websites by just viewing their source code in your browser. Meanwhile, the best RSS reader application, NetNewsWire, is open source. There’s no CEO of RSS, and despite the handwringing about Google Reader’s demise, it was just an RSS app, and not the technology itself.
You’re in control: So much of the “content” ecosystem is about producing stuff for and (increasingly) by machines, stuff meant to be algorithmically ranked and served, in an in-your-face way that you have no power either to understand or to resist. Algorithmic timelines, such as those on Meta properties (Facebook and Instagram), Twitter and TikTok (called “For you” on both platforms), and really even SERPs themselves, are serving you things others (and like I said, often other machines, certainly not any devices you control). But with RSS feeds, you decide what to add or remove. You “pull,” rather than “get pushed.” There’s no black box that decides what shows up and what gets hidden. You consciously decide to add Feed A and not Feed B. What a concept!
Small volumes work best: “Content” is synonymous with and inescapable from the notion of massive volume. The content mill I worked at expected people to churn out 4,000 words per day, and a similar overload ethic can be seen everywhere from Peacock (80,000 hours of content!) to various subscription game services such as Game Pass, and of course in the seemingly infinite stream of stuff posted to any social media platform. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, what’s on/in these content platforms isn’t as important as what else is on them—there’s always something else to spur your sense of FOMO, to keep you looking, to give you the same sensation that a gambler gets when they give the slot machine another pull. In contrast, RSS feeds aren’t volume-friendly; they work best with indie blogs and occasionally updated specialty news sites, not with massive general sites such as CNN or The Verge. Otherwise, they become unwieldy, and might not look as nice either, because those big sites, where RSS friendliness is an afterthought, often send you to their janky main sites to read the full article.
RSS can look so nice: Speaking of nice, reading writing within a good feed reader is the polar opposite of trying to read ad-stuffed SEO “content” on a website. Here’s one of my previous posts viewed in NetNewsWire for iOS, for instance.
I’m writing about RSS today mainly because I started spending a lot more time as Twitter became almost unusable. Instead of trying to get a dopamine hit from obsessively scrolling the bird site, I just periodically open up NetNewsWire and flip through the stories from a carefully curated list of sites I’ve subbed to.
Wanting to spare yourself the exhaustion from “content” and gain back some semblance of control with feed reading instead? Here’s a few things to try:
Install a feed reader and use its share extension to add sites
With NetNewsWire on iOS, it’s easy to go to any website you frequently visit, select the share button to open the share sheet (as if you were going to email the page or share it to another app), and then choose NetsNewsWire, which then adds that feed to your list. This is a pretty easy way to initially populate your feed reader.
Add Substacks as RSS feeds
You can add any Substack publication, including this one, as an RSS feed in the following format:
[publication name; this’ll usually be “<something>.substack.com,” though some sites have custom domains; they still work, though]/feed
Example (for this excellent marketing newsletter from someone I follow on Mastodon):
I find RSS feeds to be better than either email (too much going on in my inbox) or the Substack app (too barebones) for reading Substack posts.
Subscribe to Mastodon accounts as RSS feeds
You may have heard of Mastodon, the open alternative to Twitter. Without going too much into the current meta commentary on it, I’ll just say I think it’s OK. It works in a similar way to Twitter, with short posts, although it has no ads and no algorithmic timelines. It’s also decentralized and federated—lots of different servers run by organizations and individuals use the Mastodon protocol to communicate with each other, sort of like how different email servers (e.g., Gmail and Yahoo) communicate via protocols such as SMTP.
This structure makes it a little slow in my experience; posts from accounts I follow, if those accounts are on different servers, might not show up in my Mastodon client for hours. But if I subscribe to them as RSS feeds, I get to see their posts right away. You can add any public Mastodon account as an RSS feed in the following format:
For example, my own feed would be
Happy RSS reading! Enjoy some moments away from the “content” machine if you can.
This bit is so good that it shows up in multiple episodes of “Seinfeld,” in a rare instance of a narrative being created around Jerry’s standup routine.