one more plea for RSS

As I’ve said many times over the years, I’m a big fan of RSS as a way of reading the internet, though I have had little success convincing others that it’s the way to go — that’s why I’m back on Twitter. Most of us who praise, and for that matter just use, RSS have become rather self-conscious about our attachement to the Good Old Internet Days — we tend to use a lot of “old man shakes fist at cloud” images.

But darn it, there are good reasons for using RSS! As Molly McHugh recently wrote, in one of several pieces I’ve read about Digg Reader’s demise,

The end of Digg Reader is another blow to chronological consumption of the internet. Users are curators of their internet experiences, from who they follow on Instagram to what news sources they see on Facebook, but no one is entirely responsible for what content is put in front of them. User input is selected and fed into these machines, which then decide what is laid out in feeds and when; often, that tends to be viral, salacious content…. RSS readers are not social applications, and they certainly are not flashy—which is probably why they are a dying breed. Headlines aren’t altered for maximum shareability by the platform, and the simplest among them eschew images altogether. Readers are nothing more than a timestamped list of stories from places the user trusts.

Why isn’t RSS more popular? As McHugh rightly says, “There is no argument as to whether RSS readers are better than Twitter or Facebook for news gathering; they are.” However: “there is no currency in a self-contained internet experience; how far something can move across the web is its value.” As long as we want clicks and likes and shares and RTs more than we want genuine understanding, we’ll use social media platforms rather than RSS.

So does RSS have a future at all? Bryan Alexander considers that question:

A giant company (Google) exited the RSS space. One smaller company (Digg) jumped in, then exited. Are all of the other RSS readers provided by start-ups and tiny firms? Has RSS reading become that marginalized? Are we this bound up with the “helpful”, AI-driven feeds so many experience through Facebook and the like? For another science fiction reference, we might collectively accustom ourselves to benevolent AI oversight, as with Iain Banks’ Culture universe (thanks to Crainist for the idea). This is one future path.
One would think that the rising disgust at giant social media and other tech firms might drive people back to RSS, as an open, easy to use standard. Perhaps we’ll see the RSS reader equivalent of Mastodon. There will be a reactionary movement growing in strength. RSS could ride alongside people seeking social media detoxes and setting up their own, tiny social networks. Call it the Butlerian Jihad for RSS and the open web. That’s another way forward.
Or maybe a small number of us will tend the open flame, huddled around a shrinking number of oddball RSS reader, stolidly blogging away. We’ll be like the Amish in Pennsylvania, plodding along while the others whiz past. Or we’ll become something like a minority religion, somewhat tolerated, sometimes disdained, often sidestepped.

I’ll be content as a member of that despised tech-Amish tribe, if it comes to that, but I’m not going to give up on the possibility of a Butlerian Jihad against social media platforms and for the open web. And along those lines, if you haven’t read my recent essay on tending the digital commons, please do.

If a Butlerian Jihad is going to happen, the geeks will need to get on board with it, and perhaps lead it — but will they? Boone Gorges is a little worried about that, and has some important words for said geeks:

The more worrisome trend is content that’s not available through RSS simply because there’s no feed mechanism. A shamefully large number of my geekier aquantainces have moved their blogs to Jekyll and other static-site-generation tools, which don’t appear to have feed support out of the box; and – this is the “shameful” part – since these folks, geeky as they may be, think so little of RSS, they don’t bother setting up the secondary plugins or whatever necessary to serve feeds. I expect that kind of behavior from lock-up-my-content companies and technically-clueless organizations that rely heavily on proprietary and bespoke software, but not from people who ought to know better.
For all of its lumbering bloatedness, one of the truly wonderful things about CMSes like WordPress is that they give you things like RSS – along with a pile of other boring-but-critical-to-the-future-of-the-open-web tools – by default. You don’t need to make the decision to support RSS readers (or responsive images, or markup that is accessible to assistive technologies, etc) – the system provides them for you, and you have to go out of your way to turn them off.
Those who build their own systems for old-school things like bloggish content distribution, or who rely on teh new hotness to do these tasks in ways that are slicker than the old-school tools, should beware the dangers of discarding the automated systems that are the result of many years and many minds and many mistakes. If you must reinvent the wheel, then do your due diligence. RSS feeds, like other assistive technologies, should not be an afterthought.

Geeky folk, please read and heed!

a further word of exhortation: RSS

Some of you will have discovered my previous post exhorting you to abandon Twitter by finding a link to it on Twitter (possibly a link posted by me). I have scripts set up to send various things I do online to Twitter because by using such scripts (a) I don’t have to visit Twitter to announce what I’ve posted and (b) I acknowledge that many of you now get your news, and more generally your sense of what is worth reading online, from Twitter.

May I suggest that you try an RSS service instead? RSS is the great neglected technology of the internet. It has never been super-popular, and such popularity as it had largely dissipated when Google shut down Google Reader, a much-loved service it cost them nearly nothing to maintain. (That was when I stopped trusting Google.) 
But there were then and are now a number of really good RSS services. I use NewsBlur, but Feedly is also very good, and you can see a long list of RSS aggregators here. Many of these come in both free and paid versions. If you don’t want to trust your reading practices to such a service, there are some excellent stand-alone aggregator apps, one of the oldest and best-known of which is NetNewsWire. Around fourteen years ago (!) NetNewsWire was my gateway drug to RSS; I still remember those early versions with great fondness. 
Every now and then I come across an interesting site that doesn’t have an RSS feed, but that’s a rare experience. An RSS feed is just a URL, slightly different than the URL of a website, but all modern aggregators can find the RSS feed from the main site URL: you can just paste into the aggregator’s Add Site box to subscribe to this blog, for instance. Big sites — the New York Times, CNN, ESPN, the Guardian, and the like — will have many feeds, and most of them have a page where all those feeds are listed. (It might take a little googling to find it.) 
Over time you can build up a roster of sites that you keep regular track of, sites where you can find substantive news and ideas and a minimum of crap, and then you’ll have a far better and more consistent source for what you want to know than social media can give you. Also, every aggregator and app I know of allows you to export that list as an OPML file, which you can then import into another service if you find one you like better than your original choice. 
Try RSS. You’ll love it. 

some friendly advice about online writing and reading

Dennis Cooper, a writer and artist, is a pretty unsavory character, so in an ideal world I wouldn’t choose him as a poster boy for the point I want to make, but … recently Google deleted his account, and along with it, 14 years of blog posts. And they are quite within their rights to do so.

People, if you blog, no matter on what platform, do not write in the online CMS that your platform provides. Instead, write in a text editor or, if you absolutely must, a word processing app, save it to your very own hard drive, and then copy and paste into the CMS. Yes, it’s an extra step. It’s also absolutely worth it, because it means you always have a plain-text backup of your blog posts.

You should of course then back up your hard drive in at least two different ways (I have an external drive and Dropbox).

Why write in a text editor instead of a word processing app? Because when you copy from the latter, especially MS Word, you tend to pick up a lot of unnecessary formatting cruft that can make your blog post look different than you want it to. I write in BBEdit using Markdown, and converting from Markdown to HTML yields exceptionally clean copy. If you’d like to try it without installing scripts, you can write a little Markdown and convert it to HTML by using this web dingus — there are several others like it.

While I’m giving advice about writing on the web, why not some about reading as well? Too many people rely on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get their news, which means that what they get is unpredictably variable, depending on what other people link to and how Facebook happens to be tweaking its algorithms on any given day. Apple News is similarly uncertain. And I fundamentally dislike the idea of reading what other people, especially other people who work for mega-corporations, want me to see.

Try using an RSS reader instead. RSS remains the foundation of the open web, and the overwhelming majority of useful websites have RSS feeds. There are several web-based RSS readers out there — I think the best are Feedly and Newsblur — and when you build up a roster of sites you profit from reading, you can export that roster as an OPML file and use it with a different service. And if you don’t like those web interfaces you can get a feed-reading app that works with those (and other) services: I’m a big fan of Reeder, though my introduction to RSS was NewNewsWire, which I started using when it was little more than a gleam in Brent Simmons’s eye.

So, the upshot: in online writing and reading alike, look for independence and sustainability. Your life will be better for it.

all the news that’s fit to read

In the past year or so, as more and more websites — of all kinds — have acquired Twitter feeds, my daily newsreading habits have shifted: whereas I once began the day by going through a large collection of RSS feeds, now I start with Twitter. And as I have added Twitter feeds, I’ve noticed a good deal of redundancy: sites giving me links to their new posts through RSS and Twitter alike. I responded to this phenomenon by purging my RSS feeds, ultimately leaving in my RSS reader only those sites that don’t have Twitter feeds, and making Twitter my chief portal for news as well as conversation with friends.

And you know what? This doesn’t work so well. Twitter doesn’t handle news as well as RSS, largely because of the 140-character limit. Given so little information, I often can’t tell whether a story is worth reading or not, so — because I don’t want to miss out on something awesome! — I often end up clicking through to stories that prove to be that interesting or informative. RSS, by contrast, typically gives me either a complete story or a full first paragraph, so it’s a much more efficient conduit, leading to fewer unnecessary click-throughs.
Also, while for conversations I might want Twitter to refresh frequently, for news that’s not necessary — unless it’s breaking news, in which case what you want is not your regular stream but searches by relevant hashtag. Setting the RSS reader to refresh every hour at most, the Twitter client to refresh more frequently, is the way to go. For me anyway.
Fortunately, before I started trimming my RSS feeds I made and stored a copy, as an OPML file, of my list when it was at its largest. So I’m restoring that, and cutting back my Twitter feed largely to friends. Twitter is great for conversations; RSS is better for the daily news.