I defy the world and go back to RSS

It may be perverse, but in this age of Facebook (now 2 billion strong) I’ve decided to rededicate myself to RSS reading.  That’s right: old school, Web 2.0 style.


A big reason is that Facebook’s front page is so, so massively unreliable.  Despite having huge numbers of people that are my friends, clients, and contacts, it’s just not a good reading and writing service.  Facebook’s black box algorithm(s) may or may not present a given’s user’s post for reasons generally inscrutable.  I’ve missed friends’ news about new jobs, divorces, and deaths because the Zuckerbergmachine deems them unworthy of inclusion in my personalized river of news.  In turn, I have little sense of who will see my posts, so it’s hard to get responses and very hard to pitch my writing for an intended audience.  Together, this makes the FB experience sketchy at best.  To improve our use of it we have to turn to experiments and research that remind me of Cold War Kremlinology.

Twitter helps a bit, but not too much.  They’re running their own feed management software to some unknown degree.  Moreover, while I can use Twitter to find some good content hosted elsewhere (blog posts, articles, podcasts, videos, etc.) I still keep missing items un-tweeted, or at least un-tweeted by people I follow.  So Twitter is a flawed filter.

What else can I use to conduct research into the swiftly developing worlds of technology and education?  Some individual platforms let me follow content there or via email alerts (for example: WordPress, Medium, Tumblr), but that fragments the web and becomes unmanageable as the number of platforms grows.

People claim that RSS readers are history.  It’s popular to proclaim that blogs are dead.  I defy them all.

So I’m back to the sweet, open goodness of RSS reading*.  For the rest of this post I’ll describe my current setup.

In 2013 Google Reader died, and I and millions of others went on a quest for a successor.  For my primary research needs I settled on the Digg Reader, and haven’t changed since.  It’s free, reliable, cleanly designed, easy to use.  I run it on several laptops.  On my phone I make do with Feedly, which is pretty but not serious.

Here’s what my feed setup looks like now.  The list of feed categories, organized into folders, occupies the left (grey-ish) column.  Output from one of those folders, Futures and Futurists, runs down the left two-thirds of the screen:

Digg Reader sample screenshot

Let me break this down.

One strength of RSS is the way it lets users arrange feeds into whatever sequence makes sense to them.  I like clumping feeds into categories, then arranging those folders into an order that works for my day.

My RSS feeds, part 1

Starting off that order are feeds directly based on my work (see screenshot to left).  There’s a folder with output from my various blogs, so I can see what impression I’ve leaving, along with keyword searches for myself and my work.

Then there are folders for clients, broken down into different groups.  This way I can follow the progress of schools, organizations, governments, libraries, museums, and individuals I’ve helped and/or are currently working with.  As you can see from their placement in my workflow, they are a leading priority.   Some are represented here by organizational feeds, such as the Ithaka S&R blog.  Others appear through individual faculty members, librarians, or technologists.

Following that are feeds from Future Trends Forum guests.  That growing community is vital to my work, and I learn a great deal from these fine people.  Right after them come a set of futurists and other folks writing about the future (see compressed image up above): again, central to my work.

My RSS feeds - 2

Following that first group of folders (each containing a group of RSS feeds) comes another swarm.  This one is my main politics, economics, and environmental scan.  My readers know these huge trends play a major role in shaping both education and technology.

This begins with a survey of world news, from sources with a minimum of bias.  The Memeorandum trawl is a major force within this folder – and since that’s an aggregator, its results save me some time.  There are also several feeds for local (Vermont) politics, like the excellent web-based Vt Digger.

Then follow feed groups for economics, for environmental news, and for a loose category upon which I’ve slapped the label “information warfare” (some of which is actually about info ops, but also includes linked observations on culture and geopolitics).  Along with those folders are two dedicated to bias from the left and right.  Bloggers there instruct me on what the respective ideologies (and their branches: libertarian, feminist, socialist, etc.) are thinking, and also point me to news articles I might have otherwise missed.

I learn best when starting with a big picture, then drilling down into small units and more finely grained details, so this top-level section fits that mental stance.

my RSS feeds - 3

A third folder group follows, structured upon other dimensions of my research agenda.  Several trends and megatrends from FTTE get their folders here.  We begin with a daily reads list, which includes major publications (ex: Inside Higher Ed), several crucial bloggers (ex: Stephen Downes’ OLDaily), and several friends whose words mean a great deal to me both personally and professionally (ex: Alan Levine, Brian Lamb).

Next we get folders on higher education, libraries, technology, search, Google (because so important *and* so sprawling), and gaming (a rich and special interest).  Then two folders (because of so many blogs) on ed tech; one on MOOCs; one on gaming in education.

Following this third big section is a fourth one for fun and culture.  That has folders on Gothic literature, comedy, science fiction, books, friends with whom I do not have a professional connect, food, and music.  I’ll leave off a graphic for now, because they lead away from my research focus.

So that’s around 40 folders, and maybe 400 feeds.  Naturally I’ve curated these over time, and continue to add and subtract as we progress.

Does this giant pile and apparatus save me time?  Yes.  Instead of leaping from platform to platform, I just inhabit the Digg.  I don’t have to worry if Facebook has hidden someone’s latest, or if a story escaped people I follow on Twitter.

Yes, this is a lot of reading… but I’m a researcher and writer, and need this range of inputs.  We can’t do futures work without diversity and variety of sources.  Moreover, some repetition occurs across multiple feeds, which is itself useful.  I can look for different perspectives on the same story, while noting rising interest in a development as something potentially noteworthy as well.

There’s a politics here.  RSS reading is based on the open web, and I continue to fight for that, even in an age of rising silos and walled gardens.  Less clearly is a theme of conversation through connections, which is increasingly vital to me.  I love being able to arrange feeds across filter bubbles, and to see ideas move across boundaries.

I still use Twitter for professional reasons.  For whatever reason I can’t get professional discussions rolling on Facebook, but do manage to stir up good conversations on politics (!!), culture, and animals.

Is anyone else still using RSS?  Am I bonkers to do so?  Should I do a post like this about my Twitter setup?

(If I have time I’ll write about the foolishness of proclaiming blogs to be dead.)

*I wonder if I need to define RSS in 2017.  How many people will confuse the technological standard with this group?

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64 Responses to I defy the world and go back to RSS

  1. Josh says:

    Just the other day, I was enjoying refreshing the feed on my FB app repeatedly and getting dark delight in the unpredictable, outwardly meaningless rearrangement, reappearance, and disappearance of content with each pull. I have no idea what this thing is showing me, not showing me, or why, when.

  2. ted says:

    Still using RSS for my daily news (including this post). I settled on Newsblur after google reader went away.

  3. edwebb says:

    I make do with Feedly, but will look again at Digg.

    In classes where I require students to blog, I discuss RSS early in the semester and ask students to follow each other’s blogs via a reader of their choice.

  4. I use RSS extensively and particularly rely on the extensive power user features of Inoreader to manage the many hundreds of feeds I routinely dig in to.

  5. Steven Kaye says:

    For work, since I have Outlook, I tried plugging in feeds to my Outlook client. A few key sources don’t have RSS feeds, which is annoying. Looks like I can create folders and ingest OPML. I wonder if there’s value in an RSS reader separate from an email client?

    For personal use, I use Leaf on my Macbook Air. It doesn’t have folder creation capabilities, but it has a few viewing options (article summary, clutter-free article, viewing the website), and I can mark articles as read or unread. Since I only have 25 feeds currently, mostly personal blogs or webcomics, I don’t miss folders.

  6. Kate Borowske says:

    I’m with you. I don’t want someone/thing else to decide what I “want” to read. So, thanks for the RSS advice. I’m going back.

  7. I use Feedly on my desktop and mobile. I’ve found it does everything I need and a bunch of stuff I’ll never need. I do pay for the Pro version (to support the company, not really for any of the extra features), so maybe I have something that those of you saying you “get by” with Feedly don’t have?

  8. Chuck Steel says:

    Never stopped using it. I use my own instance of TinyTinyRSS, https://tt-rss.org/.

  9. Hello Bryan —
    Absolutely! I’m still a big fan of RSS feeds as a means to tap into the streams of content that I enjoy/learn from. I like the pull (vs push) of information– content that I care about. I’m of the opinion that tapping into these streams of content helps us scan whichever landscapes that we need to; putting the relevant items on our radars.

  10. kargach says:

    I’ve been using Feedly for a good chunk of the online content I like (I find it super-useful for folloing comic strips and podcasts), but that Digg interface does look nice. I will look into that.

  11. Hunh. This was interesting. It wouldn’t occur to me to begin such an (interesting!) article with a dis of Facebook since to me it is so obviously about friends and family and that feeling of being connected into the hive mind. I do quite a bit of impulse shopping on FB because the algorithms correctly deduce what I would like, but I read zero informational articles or blogs from it.

    Twitter likewise is uninteresting and. Well, that is a full stop. I use it to follow DS 106 and nothing more. Instagram has also closed up around me and shows photos from friends and not the many great photographers I want to see appear in my feed.

    So I use Flipboard as my means of drawing in current articles on the topics I follow. https://about.flipboard.com
    Obviously, in retirement I’m not really needing to consume info at your level or with your ferocity, but I have plenty of topics to track, and Flipboard works for me.

    Thanks for a really interesting blog post😇🌎

    • Hey, I’m glad to be interesting.

      And I’m interested by many aspects of your comment, in turn.

      Facebook: it’s weird. Maybe it’s because the damn thing is so huge, but I hear very conflicting thoughts about it, and see very diverse uses. I hear you and your friends and family use, then hear from another that it’s just for fun (so adds games), then from others that they use it for some form of professional development.
      But even so, I can’t keep up with my friends because the front page is so random.

      Do you use Flipboard on phone or tablet or laptop or…?

  12. Absolutely still rely on RSS…currently using Feedly, but now prompted to give Inoreader a spin. I continue to promote syndication/aggregation as part of “thinking like the web.” While I don’t consider Facebook a place for “professional” use, many more faculty at our place (Austin College) are there than on Twitter (which I do use extensively both professionally/personally). And their usage blends somewhat into the professional realm (e.g., groups and pages for academic departments). I tried to promote RSS among them, but I think they mostly believe that they already have enough information coming at them as it is. That would make a good research project, though…what is the level of faculty awareness and use of RSS?

  13. VanessaVaile says:

    Still using rss and determined to continue. Like Morris, I promote RSS to colleagues stuck in Facebook, mostly to no avail.

    What, Bryan, a mere 400 feeds?

  14. aarondavis1 says:

    I use Feedly to consume RSS too. I thought that my 200+ blogs was a lot. Obviously not.

  15. Santa says:

    Use RSS through Outlook (from Office) at work to keep up with computers, machining, programming and GD&T. Been using it for over 15 years.

  16. mrnigelgreen says:

    I was ranting about RSS on Mastodon the other day – I still use it as my primary route to aggregate content and find it alarming how many sites don’t seem to provide a feed now. I mourn the fact that big sites feel they can just rely on their own methods for people to follow content, more nails in the coffin of a free and open information ecosystem.

    I use TinyTinyRSS on my own server and it’s really great for my use case. Very easy to set up and has awesome tools to add and manage feeds.

  17. Lauren says:

    Agree strongly re RSS. For my ‘light’ web reading i use Bloglovin, which has its merits (particularly in that if the blog is set up to do so, you can read the whole blog on just one app – but this doesn’t apply for all blogs. The stability has improved a lot in the recent updates, so less crashing.

    For other RSS feeds I often use Outlook, which means that everything is integrated into my email system, so nice and tidy. Several people have recently recommended Digg Reader to me, so i’ll be taking a look at that.

  18. laurion says:

    Still a huge fan of RSS. Not only does it let me manage the flow of information and not miss things in the jumble of algorithms, I can speed through it because I get an article’s title and opening paragraph is a preview. The content is separated from the original websites framework, so there is often less distraction in the reading. As for how it interacts with social media, I am fortunate that many of my friends still use livejournal/dreamwidth, as these offer RSS feeds so I keep up with those friends far more often than I do with those I am only connected with on facebook. As for consuming RSS, I’m likely an outlier, as I run tt-rss on my own server, which is not for everyone by far.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, laurion. Agreed on how much better the RSS reading experience is.

      LJ/Dreamwidth: you don’t use their internal dashboards?

      I’ve been meaning to scrape together time to run my own server. Too busy so far.

  19. Doug Belshaw says:

    Thanks for this, Bryan! I discovered it via my RSS reader of choice – Feedly! I’ve only recently gone back to it, for many of the reasons you mention here. You inspired this post: http://discours.es/2017/back-to-the-rssr/

  20. I should probably check out newer versions of some of the self-hosted RSS readers…I like the idea, but they all seem to suffer from less than useful interfaces and/or performance problems with large numbers of feeds. TinyTinyRSS and Fever (RIP) stuck around the longest, but then back to Inoreader I keep going. And with large numbers of feeds, the desktop/app based become problematic (if capable of handling the load, they are just too slow) for synchronization.

  21. Like so many other commenters, I too, am an avid RSS user. When Google Reader shut down, I was devastated (okay, devastated may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I definitely wasn’t happy). After a period of mourning and trying several different options, I finally settled on Feedly. Ultimately, Feedly does everything I need, and I’ve not found a need to subscribe to the premium version.

    As useful as social media can be for consuming and sharing information, there are some sites (such as this one) that I simply MUST follow, and make sure I’m alerted to any new content. Facebook and Twitter use their own funky algorithms to deliver the content they think I want (or the content that they’ve been paid to deliver), but with RSS, I get to decide what’s most important without any input from The Algorithm.

    At the end of the day, RSS is one of the few technologies that allows me to control the content delivered to me. That alone is enough reason to stay with it.

  22. Luca says:

    Would You like to share Your OPML file please? Thank You

  23. Blogs are dead? Not really almost 30% of the internet
    runs on wordpress. It is sad so many people are addicted
    to Facebook Koolaid they can’t look for anything else online.

    The blogs we read on wordpress are thoughtful in depth
    & unique, something the uniform fb & instagram formats
    will never offer. It is surprising people more aren’t bored
    of the stale layouts & algorithms, a panopticon paradise.

    The borg collective is very real, RSS is the resistance.

    • Excellent, 924.
      Maybe we should get even more active on this front.

      • A lot of this current political climate can be directly correlated
        to the Facebook “Peanut Gallery” Where people spam each
        other with trigger words & click bait, yet have no real inclination
        of actually researching the information for themselves, & even
        worse no interest in listening to the other side. They take these
        differences of opinion as personal attacks. We saw the way the
        FB Empire was headed (with their acquisitions of Instagram &
        Whatsapp) & we ran the other direction. For us WordPress is
        one of the few remaining safe spaces online, that mirrors the
        web pre-social media which was a wondrous & diverse jungle .

        We learn more in a day via WordPress than we have in the last
        5 years of main stream media, your blog is definitely one of our
        go-to sites to see the future of education, & our society at large.

      • Thank you very much, 924.

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  25. robertmcguire says:

    When folks say blogs are dead, what they mean is that easy SEO wins aren’t possible anymore. Getting a blog on page 1 of Google for valuable search terms isn’t as easy to game as it used to be and it takes a lot more time.

    All the more reason to use RSS to make sure that you are getting content from good blogs that may not yet be dominating search on a given subject.

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  27. Daniel McCoy says:

    Rock on! I’ll stick with RSS. Been using it from the beginning. Had it at Google until they dumped it and not on digg, too. By the way, I listened to your panel this morning. How many people do you think know about this usenet thing you mentioned? (alt.hypertext)

  28. ryan says:

    if you want to consolidate even more into your feed reader, feel free to try (blatant plug) https://twitter-atom.appspot.com/ , https://facebook-atom.appspot.com/ , https://instagram-atom.appspot.com/ , etc!

  29. Alan Cooper says:

    I use Feedly to follow a number of news sources, bloggers, and aggregators (such as Downes’ OLD which led via Belshaw to here). But although I have a subject category system similar to yours I rarely use it. Instead I just scan the list of ‘All’ new items and open tabs on those that look interesting – which I often then push aside with OneTab for future reading and/or grouping by topic.

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  31. Matt says:

    I agree. IMO browsing RSS feeds makes the Internet fun (and relaxing) again.

    Thanks for all the good info here. I struggle to find an RSS Reader app (besides WordPress) that I like.

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  33. rmbenson says:

    I’m with you, Bryan. My return to RSS feeds rescued my Internet experience, making it a productive tool for getting deeply informed rather than a random mashup of vague curiosities. I’ve been using Feedly but may give Digg another look.

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