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Posted on March 16, 2018, 09:53:25 PM by Jubal
The Beauty of RSS

The Beauty of RSS
By Jubal

The RSS logo - look for this to find feeds!
Algorithmic content finding is at the core of the modern internet. Search engines and social media sites line up some of the best minds money can buy to design systems for showing you content you want to look at, articles you want to read, and products you want to buy.

...or at least, that's how it's marketed. There's a lot of downside to the sort of hyper-targeting that goes on nowadays, especially in that it ultimately means you have. Facebook is the most egregious example of this: which posts appear on your news feed is determined far more by what Facebook thinks is popular than what you think you want to see, making it extremely difficult to get updates from people who Facebook doesn't think you want to see news from. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this latter category is especially populated by smaller content creators, businesses, and hobbyists, who can't afford the increasingly exorbitant sums needed to pay to break through Facebook's content algorithms and build a large audience. Twitter operates a similar model, allowing promoted tweets to stay in view as others shoot down the timeline at a rate of knots. Facebook is, despite some signs that its market share may arguably be dropping, still extremely dominant in how people use the internet, both in how they discover content and how they get updates on it. In other words, if your Facebook page gets a new user, that's not necessarily a promise of future engagement: to access all of the users who've "liked" your page, nowadays, you now often actually need to pay to boost your posts in order to do so.

To put it in starker terms, Facebook is actively using the fact it controls the main platform for content finding and social updates to choke off creators who aren't prepared to pay them. Of course, they're a business, and that's their decision - but if you want smaller creators to survive, or if you just want to make sure you're actually seeing the content you want to see, it's time to start thinking harder about how you get updates.

RSS, or Rich Site Summary, is one possible answer. RSS is, essentially, a way for websites to create easy feeds for content in a format that can then be picked up by aggregators. It's essentially a standard XML sheet format that can be updated by the site, published to a known URL, and then picked up by aggregated "feeders" which can then show people the content and notify them when it's updated Created in the late 1990s, it was a major part of internet ecosystems through the mid-2000s until social media really started taking over people's content feeding habits.

So why go back to it? For one thing - no algorithms. RSS will just list the sites you add to it, and tell you when one of them updates, it's as simple as that. No more rolling a d20 to see if you're one of the lucky 10% who gets told what your favourite comic artist has actually published this week. These days, RSS feeders will sit as a little taskbar icon at the top of your web browser - you can then click on it, scroll down your list of feeds, and see what's new. I guess it's possible this could get difficult if you were trying to syndicate a really large amount of content this way, but I tend to find that I can leave off sites I check super regularly anyway and that even the fairly sizeable amount of content I look at doesn't pose a problem. For content from sites where I really need to get those updates, RSS is especially good: I won't run the risk of missing something like I would with a social media follow. It also ensures I can better support and read stuff from smaller creators, most of whom will have RSS running for their blogs or comics as it's easy to set up the feed. Even better, I don't need to give anyone my email address like for a mail newsletter - I just pick up the RSS newsletter via my reader, without risking it disappearing into the dark abyss of my inbox or cluttering things there up at the wrong time.

I mainly use the Firefox add-on Brief as my main feed reader, and I'd really recommend it. I've also got the free version of Feeder running on my chrome browser, which has a few annoying features telling me to upgrade to the non-free version but is otherwise very good. Other options for different browsers or app systems include Feedly, Panda, and Reeder. It's worth having a hunt around to find what's good for you; another advantage of RSS systems is that there's genuine diversity and choice in what's out there, and the standard XML format is open for all sorts of readers and aggregators to parse it. Once you have a reader, all you need to do is go to the URL of a feed, and your browsers/readers will offer you the option to subscribe to it. That's it!

So there you have it - the beauty of RSS. I don't think it's the only solution or part of building a more open internet, but I think it's a very good first step and I'd really encourage people to use it especially to support smaller content creators. If you liked this article, go get a reader and get finding sites to subscribe to (look for the RSS logo like the one above). And of course, make sure you add the Exilian newsfeed to get more like this in future!