What are RSS feeds?
- RSS Feeds let you subscribe to your favorite sites
- To use them you'll need an RSS reader
- You can get a simple one here and add this link to subscribe to this blog
There's a lot that's wrong with the Internet today, not least black-box recommendation algorithms, egregious violations of privacy, blatant censorship, and domination by a corrupt media. Amidst all this chaos though, there is a technology that gives readers a simpler way to keep up with their favorite sites, and so much more. RSS feeds are simple files on the web that contain brief summaries and links to a site's most recent articles, for which you'll need an RSS reader, so let's go over a few.
One popular option is to use an online service rather than a traditional desktop program, since after all you'll be reading the articles in your browser anyway, and it can be cumbersome to switch back and forth between an external program. Of these, probably the most popular are Feedly, The Old Reader, and Inoreader, of which you can find more in-depth reviews here. If you're feeling ambitious, you can even host your own such service with Tiny Tiny RSS. These services often offer things like more advanced curation and recommendation, social features, and extensibility via API's and IFTTT integration. There are also browser extensions such as FeedBro if you just want a simple reader in your browser, and Thunderbird users already have an RSS reader built right in. Some other standalone desktop programs for Linux include LifeRea and Akregator, though there's not any I'd really recommend for Windows other than Thunderbird. And last but not least, for all you CLI lovers there's NewsBoat with a keyboard-driven text interface and all the extensibility you'd expect on the UNIX shell.
Now, it used to be that you could easily find a site's feed with a bright orange button like this but unfortunately nowadays you'll often have to dig a little deeper. Thankfully there are addons like the aptly-named RSS Subscription Extension for Chromium-based browsers and Awesome RSS for Firefox which will try to find the feed for you. Otherwise, a good starting point would be to try "example.com/feed", "example.com/index.xml", "example.com/rss.xml", or "example.com/atom.xml". If you really want to get your hands dirty, you could try searching through the website's RSS, but at that point you might just need to find an RSS feed generator, or write one yourself if you know how.
So you may be asking, if RSS is so great, how come it's so unheard of/unused? Well the simple answer would be that there's no money in it, and a lot of people are now accustomed to using social media for much the same thing, but RSS isn't entirely without blame. For one thing, the name is stupid, and can even stand for two different things: Really Simple Syndication, and Rich Site Summary. Its sister format, Atom, isn't any better, and the icon does absolutely nothing to convey what it means. Also, no one has an RSS reader by default, so all most users will ever see is meaningless garbled XML data. In fact, with no potential for monetization, and a tiny userbase, it's not surprising that some websites don't have feeds at all. Still, the technology itself is a very nice and simple way for keeping up with your favorite sites, and its usefulness as a sort of crude API for web developers will keep it alive even long after Facebook and Twitter are gone. Google Reader is dead, but long live RSS!