Journal #5 – Return to RSS

Let's rewind the clock to a much simpler time: 2006. The internet was starting to mature from where it was in the 90s, social media barely existed, and most people were using RSS feeds to keep up with blogs and other such websites. RSS (Really Simple Syndication), for those of you who aren't familiar, is a web protocol that aggregates updates from websites like blogs, news outlets, and such in a simple, easy-to-read format. In the early days of the internet, RSS was a fucking godsend as it spared us all the trouble of bouncing between several websites at once; you'd instead load up your favourite RSS reader and just scroll through the feed. Of course, RSS nowadays is borderline irrelevant as most people opt to get updates on whatever from social media.

While I was never that big on RSS when I was younger, I did find it useful when I was in middle/high school because it gave me a leg up on my current events homework while also letting me follow a bunch of other websites like RuneScape fansites, art blogs, flash game websites, etc. Of course, my RSS reader gradually fell out of favour once I started getting more and more absorbed in social media. After all, why would I bother hopping between my web browser and my RSS reader when I could just as easily follow the blogs, news outlets, and such on Facebook? As time went on though, I started becoming more and more dissatisfied with the “quality” of my Facebook feed.

It all started when Facebook got rid of the chronological feed, which made it borderline impossible to keep track of the latest updates I from the stuff I was genuinely interested in. I can't recall exactly when that happened, but I'd like to say it occurred somewhere between 2011-2013. Then came the (now-discontinued) trending bar that showed what the latest talk of the town was on Facebook. While I welcomed it at first, it quickly wore off its welcome as I noticed the Trending section was a hotbed for flame wars and clickbait. As we fastforward into the modern era, social media has more or less become an anaethema for me. Most of my favourite pages were either getting flagged and eventually shadowbanned by fact checkers or were constantly getting taken down due to some arbitrary violation of the community guidelines.

Given the algorithmic editing of my feed, my favourite pages constantly being in jeopardy due to inconsistent moderation, and the general state of discourse on social media being a radicalised free-for-all where outrage and hot takes are the norm (among all the other reasons why Facebook is fucking awful as a company and as a service), I made the conscious decision to abandon Facebook altogether in mid-2020. While abandoning Facebook has been great for my overall mental health, there's one glaring problem that I've been dealing with for months: I've fallen so far out of the loop with current events to the point where I feel like an ignorant old man.

At first, I tried using stuff like Firefox Pocket and Brave Today but I found that they were grossly inadequate for my purposes. I understand that there are fans of Pocket, but I've always found it to be nothing short of an infuriating clickbait aggregator that compiles updates from websites that I don't like. Brave Today is marginally better in this regard, but I found that the articles it recommended me were completely out-of-touch with my own interests. On top of this, there was always the underlying debate over whether or not I wanted my browser to aggregate content on my behalf. The convenience is nice, but it didn't make much sense to switch from Facebook to my browser if I was trying to avoid centralised entities algorithmically aggregating content for me. The same logic also applied for entities like Google News.

A few days ago, I was watching a YouTube video on self-hosted Raspberry Pi projects. One of the projects that CensiClick used his Raspberry Pi on was a self-hosted RSS reader. That's when I finally decided to reject modernity and embrace tradition by returning to RSS. I won't lie, it was a bit of a “eureka” moment for me because I had otherwise completely forgotten about RSS as a concept until very recently. Either way though, installing Feedbro and Awesome RSS in Firefox was definitely the right call to make. With that in mind, there are a few quirks about RSS in the modern world that tick me off.

One of the great things about Feedbro is that it's generally able to pull the full contents of almost any web page I'm subscribed to. As it would happen, this is a feature that's sorely lacking in other apps like Feedly and Inoreader; most websites nowadays opt to provide a brief synopsis of the article before forcing you to click on the article for the full text. At that point, you gotta deal with all the other nonsense that most modern websites have: garish banner ads, trackers like analytics and browser fingerprinters, maybe an arbitrary limit on however many “free” articles you can view before having to buy into the paywall, etc. This isn't really a problem for me on a PC or a laptop, but mobile is where the real headache comes in as ad blocking technology is nowhere near as robust (especially if you're an iPhone owner like I am).

Another annoyance of trying to use RSS in the modern era is that almost every website that has a feed goes out of their way to obfuscate it; gone are the days when you could easily click on the “follow RSS” button to add the reader with ease. Even worse, some websites like Bloomberg decided to abandon RSS altogether which means that there's no way to add it to your reader even with an extension like Awesome RSS. Granted, this is a relatively minor gripe in the scheme of things but that doesn't make it any less annoying. If I were to get into how some RSS feeds are poorly formatted while others are perfectly legible, I'd be here for hours writing a fucking thesis on the subject.

All of these grievances aside, I cannot underscore how much I missed using RSS. There's something so immensely satisfying about being able to scroll through a feed without fear of algorithmic editing of any kind. The privacy benefits with my specific configuration are also insurmountable (at least while I'm on my PC/laptop). More than anything else though, returning to RSS gives me that nostalgic feeling of returning to a simpler web where I don't have to worry about paywalls, tracking, clickbait, and maintaining my engagement with the platform. If you're a disenfranchised internet user who's sick of getting news from social media, I can't recommend RSS enough. Just do yourself a favour and avoid the dodgy readers like Feedly and Inoreader and you should be fine.