tech

Advanced Internetting: RSS

UPDATE: In the post I say that I say that I am too lazy to separate feeds out into more categories than “comics” and “everything else.” But then I was on vacation for a week and had several thousand items to read.

Now it’s split into the following:

  • comics (same as before)
  • pay attention (stuff that I want to make sure I pay attention to)
  • bullshit (stuff that I don’t care if I blindly mark as read, but is actually really fast to blast through – typically these are sites that post single images as the sole post)
  • too many posts (these have good content, but they’re first on the chopping block, because they post too often; eg hacker news and fark)
  • subscriptions (my catch all, which needs a better name)

Ultimately, the point is to be able to prioritize which categories I really care about if I have too much stuff to read, and I need to mark an entire category as read, so I don’t have to declare complete RSS bankruptcy.

There was a pretty big dustup when Google announced it was shuttering Google Reader earlier this year. If you were using it, you’ve almost certainly found a replacement by now. But if you weren’t, and you aren’t familiar with RSS, now is probably the best possible time to get familiar. Google Reader replacements have started popping up all over the place, but they won’t do you any good, if you don’t know what they do.

RSS is a way for blogs (or other websites) to announce new content programmatically. Which allows their new content to be consumed programmatically. What this means for you is that you can use a program (or website, app, what-have-you) to track websites so you don’t have to.

Using an RSS reader allows you to keep track of any and all posts to a website and whether you’ve already read the post. As an example, when I publish this blog post, its contents will be added to the top of this site’s RSS feed, including a link to the actual post. Then, anyone who’s subscribed to my site’s RSS feed will see that the RSS feed has updated, and add a new item to their RSS reader. Whenever they next use their reader, the post will appear there. Once they’ve read the post (or skipped it), it will be marked as read; like an email. Now, the reader will not have to go to my site multiple times per day to check for updates. And they won’t have to remember which post they read last, and scroll back through the posts until they find that one and start reading from there.

RSS readers have the added benefit of allowing you to categorize multiple feeds together; say, “sports” or “politics.” Personally, I only have two categories: “web comics” and “everything else.” Mostly that is because I subscribe to so many feeds that trying to maintain categories is more trouble than it’s worth. I also find that I’m more likely to actually read posts if they aren’t in a specific category. When they are, I tend to not feel like looking at that category that day, and then the number of unread posts gets so large I end up declaring “RSS Bankruptcy” on that category and marking everything in it as read. By not splitting feeds out, I am more likely to catch a diamond in the rough. As always, though, your mileage may vary.

Aside from RSS, there aren’t a lot of alternatives to following blogs, for lack of a better term. Obviously, there is just checking them by hand. However, this quickly becomes untenable if you follow a lot of blogs. You have to not only remember each of the sites, but which articles on each site you’ve already read. Obviously bookmarking can resolve the first of those issues, but there aren’t any alternatives to the latter that I’m aware of. Other than actually trying to remember, or writing it down by hand. Both of which seem crazy to me.

Some popular blogs have the ability to subscribe by email. I don’t know about you, but I get enough email as it is. I don’t want to have to set up that many more email filters to consume content. Finally, there’s social networking. You could follow blogs on Twitter (or Facebook, Google Plus, etc), and in a lot of cases, even the individual authors themselves. That doesn’t work for me either. I use Twitter a lot, but I treat it as temporary. If I miss hours, or days, on Twitter, I don’t go back through my timeline and read everything I missed. But I do if I’m off RSS for a few days. Also, with Twitter (or your social network of choice), you will get the links you want, but you’ll also get stuff you probably don’t. I do follow a few writers on Twitter, but not because I want their links – I’m typically subscribed to their RSS feed already – but because I want to see everything else they’re posting. BUT there are plenty of blogs I subscribe to via RSS that I don’t follow on Twitter. Because their blog posts might be good, but I don’t like whatever it is they tweet. Also, I try to keep the number of people I follow on Twitter low (always under 100 – right now only 56), and if I had to follow all the blogs that way, too, that number would be WAY higher.

As far as actual readers, I’ve tried several. I used to use Google Reader like everybody else. I’ve also tried The Old Reader, Tiny-Tiny-RSS, Venice, Liferea, and probably others that I can’t remember. Ultimately, I stuck with Feedly. Most RSS readers are fairly similar, but Feedly stands out for me in a few key ways:

  • Mobile app
  • Buffer and Pocket integration
  • Save for later
  • IFTTT integration

Feedly is browser-based, but I really don’t like using mobile browsers unless I have to. Feedly has a really good Android app that I use on my tablet when I’m away from my computer. Like, most readers, Feedly has hotkey support. Unlike most readers (at least that I’m aware of), I can hit “b” on the keybaord, and it pops up a window that lets me send that post to Buffer, which will eventually go to Twitter. I use both Readability and Pocket. Feedly has Pocket integration, too. I can easily send blog posts to it to save for later. Feedly also has a feature actually called “Save for Later,” and, because Feedly works with IFTTT, I have a recipe set up that sends any posts I Save for Later in Feedly to Readability.

Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you how awesome RSS is, if you didn’t already know. But now you need to know how to subscribe to the blogs you read. First, be on the look out for the RSS logo (pictured at the top of this post), or something like it. Failing that, if you dig around on most blogs, you’ll see a link called “RSS” or “Feed” or something along those lines. If none of that works, you can typically just dump a root URL (ie http://lifehacker.com) into the new feed box on your reader of choice, and it will find the actual feed for you.

Finally, if you’re looking for some recommendations, I’ve added a link in the sidebar to an export of all the feeds I read. I’m going to try to keep it current. Until I forget, once per month I’ll update it, so as I add and remove feeds, the link will stay up to date. And of course, you can subscribe to my blog here, or in the sidebar with the “Blog RSS” link.

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