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RSS is still pretty great

I think a lot about information and information consumption. The way the Internet made information readily available is phenomenal. Sadly, the signal-to-noise ratio here is pretty low. For me, consuming RSS feeds[1] offers the best way to read the kind of high-quality information that I want with very little noise.

What RSS is and how it works #

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Any site that publishes content may choose to additionally publish an RSS feed file based on a specification (e.g., RSS or Atom syndication). This feed will contains enough information to show its content elsewhere (that's the syndication part!). These specifications are really stable, with RSS last being updated in 2009 and Atom syndication last being updated in 2005.

Here's an example of what an RSS feed using the Atom spec looks like:

<feed xmlns="" xml:base="en">
    <subtitle>What the **** does that mean?</subtitle>
    <link href="" rel="self"/>
    <link href=""/>
        <title>RSS is still pretty great</title>
        <link href=""/>
        <content type="html">
            <p>I think a lot about information and information consumption. The way the Internet made information readily available is phenomenal. Sadly, the signal-to-noise ratio here is pretty low. For me, consuming RSS feeds<a href="">[1]</a> offers the best way to read the kind of high-quality information that I want with very little noise.</p> <h2 id="what-rss-is-and-how-it-works" tabindex="-1">What RSS is and how it works <a class="header-anchor" href="">#</a></h2> <p>RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Any site that publishes content may choose

That's actually the feed for this blog, and you can see the rest of it here if you want.

Now that a website has a published feed, anyone can consume it. While a reader could theoretically parse your RSS feed themselves, it's much more likely they're using an RSS feed aggregator (e.g., Feedly, NewsBlur, Inoreader) to subscribe to, and consume, multiple RSS feeds at once.

In the end, user interaction with your content looks something like this:

rss block diagram

While all RSS aggregators can act differently, they generally poll feeds based on update frequency and content popularity and cache the results.

If you're a content publisher, it's usually pretty simple to get RSS set up on your website. There are surely some RSS plugins for popular authoring platforms like Wordpress. For this site, I use the 11ty static site generator and it also has an RSS feed generation plugin.

If you need to generate your own feed, there are plenty of open source options. For example, python-feedgen will let you get up and running with a feed in just a few lines:

from feedgen.feed import FeedGenerator
fg = FeedGenerator()'')
fg.subtitle('What the **** does that mean?')
# etc

Why this model is really good for consuming high-quality content #

There are some attributes of RSS that make it innately good for consuming high-quality content.

The biggest pro of RSS is choice: I decide what blogs or sites to include in my RSS aggreator feed. There is no algorithm engineered to milk the maximum amount of interaction out of me. If I start disliking what an author is publishing, I simple unsubscribe from their feed. I am in total control of the content I consume.

Another selling point, for me, is that RSS feeds bias towards long-term content. This is usually content published to some person or organization's blog and the author has put in a good amount of time and effort into the post. They've had time to think, "Should I really write this on the Internet?" (a thought pattern I've found is sorely missing from social media).

Along the same lines, RSS reduces low-value content. It tends to greatly reduce the amount of content that exists sole for the sake of advertising. Often, when you're googling something and find a promising site, you'll visit it and be dismayed that the content is exceedingly shallow but there are plenty of ads to be found on the site. This doesn't really happen on RSS feeds because a lot of ads (especially the obnoxious ones) won't render in RSS feed aggregators.

There are no flame wars and no internet points on RSS. Social media has its value, but I really can't stand the flame wars, trolling, and people generally performing for Internet points. If there's an author I like, I just want to read what they wrote without having to wade through a sea of contrarian comments.

One final reason I really like RSS is that it's just-in-time: I can get to my content when I need it. I totally understand it's convenient for some to receive an email in their inbox with a website's latest article, but I don't love it. I'm almost never ready to ready the article when it hits my inbox, so now I have to decide what to do with the email. For me, it's a much better workflow to just browse to Feedly when I have the time and read.

Unfair criticisms of RSS #

RSS isn't without its detractors, but I think a lot of arguments against it are unfair.

One criticism is that publishers don't get analytics on who is reading their content. I don't think everything needs analytics. I also think analytics are closely related to one of the bigger content-corrupting forces on the Internet: ads.

RSS makes it hard to advertise and therefore publishers looking to make ad revenue off their content may be unwilling to use it. I don't think it's entirely wrong to want to monetize content, but I do see it as a big motivator for a lot of the bad content out there. When you make it hard to monetize, you reduce the number of "get rich quick" schemes involved.

Another criticism is that RSS isn't social and doesn't innately enable interaction. You know what else isn't social or interactive? Books. But they're still great. Sometimes you just want to read something without telling the world your opinion on it, or without some random stranger telling you why your opinion is wrong.

There's a class of criticisms about RSS due to fact that you effectively need to poll an RSS feed to get updates to it, so you don't get near real-time updates. Furthermore, some of the criticisms involve the fact that you could end up getting a lot of traffic to your RSS feed.

On the former point, I think it's a good thing that you don't get near real-time updates on RSS feeds. I mentioned before that social media has value: I think more real-time content is one of those. There was a time when Twitter was the go-to place to find out what was going on with developing situations. That's not the purpose of RSS feeds. If anything, the fact that we really can't get real-time updates from RSS helps keep the content focuses towards deliberate works.

With respect to traffic: I can't imagine this is actually a problem. If you're a large site maybe you have a number of aggregators hitting your RSS feed endpoint every couple minutes. That's not really that much, and is probably small in comparison to traffic to your actual website.

One final unfair criticism of RSS is that it's dying or dead. Every so often I see a post or article asserting that RSS is dead or dying. It's true RSS isn't as prevalent as it used to be, probably because it's hard to monetize as a publisher, but that's fine. It doesn't need to be wildly popular for it to be great. Why does everything need a billion upvotes and maximum popularity to be worthy? I think we should enjoy RSS for filling a somewhat niche use case really well.

Fair criticisms #

There are definitely some fair criticisms of RSS.

First, aggregators don't render content perfectly. It does for the type of content I write, but if you publish content with interesting visuals (e.g., svg animation, canvas, page scroll interaction) I don't think any RSS aggregator will display it correctly. This means there's potentially a whole class of interesting content that's not RSS-friendly. One approach here is to use RSS as a "preview" of sorts and then visit the actual content if you're interested in the associated visuals.

Another fair criticism is lack of discoverability. No matter how great RSS is for reading blogs I know about, it has no inherent capability to discover content that you don't know about. Some feed aggregators may have this kind of functionality as an add-on, but it's simply something that's not possible with how underlying RSS technology works.

Given that you just publish your feed and allow aggregators to interpret that feed, you also give up a bit of control about the publishing process. For example, there is really no way to tell aggregators that you changed an article's path. I did this a couple times on this blog, and you can see the duplicates in Feedly here.

Finally, and one of the biggest issues with RSS, is that it's not very intuitive to non-tech savvy individuals. If someone non-technical clicks the RSS link on the bottom of my website, their eyes might glaze over at the sight of a bunch of XML. Their best chance of subscribing to my RSS feed may be to go to an aggregator and use the search feature in its UI to find this blog.

Final thoughts #

As long as you're using RSS for its purpose (consuming content) and not trying to use it for something it's not designed for (social media, content discovery), it's still a really solid technology. If you've ditched RSS in favor of social media in the past decades, consider adding RSS back into your life!

[1] Note: I'm lazily using the term RSS to refer to all syndication feeds. This site uses Atom, for example. Kind of like how we use Kleenex to refer to any kind of facial tissue.