Rediscovering RSS

In the wake of Facebook restricting Australians from sharing news, I extol the virtues of RSS as a means to build a curated news experience without all the noise and invasive tracking of social media.

Rediscovering RSS

When I published my post about Facebook banning Australians from sharing news, two things struck me as amazing in the comments I garnered on social media. 1, I was surprised that people used Facebook for news discovery and aggregation, and, 2, normal people seem to have forgotten about RSS, as though it disappeared off the internet when Google discontinued their once-dominant Google Reader service.

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a feed that allows publishers to broadcast their content in a standardised format across the web. It’s not restricted to news; in fact, you can find RSS feeds for blogs, forum posts and threads, weather forecasts, sports results, comment threads, Jira boards — just about any form of information out there. Incidentally, RSS is the technology that makes podcasts possible, and I use it to automatically cross-post articles to my social media accounts.

If a website publishes an RSS feed, then you can subscribe to it in an RSS reader or service. There are plenty of free readers out there for macOS, iOS, Windows, Android and Linux. Once you have one installed, it’s simply a matter of copying the RSS feed’s link into the app, and it will begin subscribing to that feed.

On the Mac, I used the free Reeder 4 app, and I subscribe to a mix of news outlets, blogs and information services. The app has a search engine built in, meaning I often don’t have to past in the exact URL, and it lets me organise content into folders.

My website's feed displayed in Reeder 4 for macOS
My website's feed displayed in Reeder 4 for macOS

One of the many things I like about RSS is that it doesn’t track you like social media does. Every time you share or click a link on Facebook, your activities are catalogued to feed Facebook’s algorithms. RSS isn’t architected like that. Feeds are XML — plain text using markup for structure.

With a bunch of RSS feeds and a reader you can aggregate and curate your news and information experience on the privacy of your device. You’re not forced to filter through pages of cat pictures and stupid memes to find useful information. There’s no Facebook or Twitter algorithm ordering and sorting what you can see, with adverts and boosted (paid) links surfacing in your feed like turds in a cesspit.

Of course, if you also like to share and comment on links, then Facebook is no longer a viable platform for you. RSS won’t help you there — it’s mostly for consumption. Facebook’s heavy-handedness demonstrates my biggest beef with social media — you don’t own it. Having gone the nuclear option, Facebook has driven home the power they have over its users. So, if you find yourself aghast by their behaviour, and how abruptly they can pull the rug from under you, perhaps it’s time you looked at the alternatives. Dare I say you could even build a platform yourself, or use a more open, federated network like Mastodon, or try your hand at microblogging with Facebook was novel 10 years ago, but now I think the majority of users only stick with it because of its perceived network effect. I use Facebook, but I can’t honestly say I like it, or need it. I’m not even sure it’s valuable as a marketing tool, and I’ve long since stopped advertising on the platform.

Concluding thoughts

ABCradio has been buzzing today with the fallout of Facebook’s action. In their heavy-handedness, their algorithm blocked access not only to Australian news companies, but also government information services, the Royal Children’s Hospital, community and health services, the volunteer Country Fire Authority, and a lot more besides. People are mad, business are suddenly without the primary marketing channel, and users are inconveniences in ways that belie the claim that only 4% of a user’s feed is news related. Facebook’s action has damaged their reputation and played in the hands of our politicians who’ve claimed Facebook is not a reliable source of news.

I don’t know or care what happens next in the story. But I do know that my ability to consume news will not be impacted by this. If anything, it’s reinforced much of my criticisms with the platform and social media in general. While I think Australia’s media compensation laws are asinine, and Facebook has the right to respond in whatever way they want, this isn’t something I’ll lose sleep over.

So, for those of you who want a quieter news experience, one you can control from the privacy and enjoyment of your device, install an RSS reader and start building your source of information. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to subscribe to my RSS feed!