Introduction

RSS provides a standardized way of aggregating content giving content creators the freedom to choose how they publish content while giving consumers the freedom to choose how they consume that content. I've used RSS for a long time. One of my favorite RSS readers was Google Reader while it was still around and I believe I'm not the only fan. Since then, I've bounced around between different RSS feed readers not settling one until recently when I started using NewsBlur. As a result of finding an RSS feed reader I liked, I've also started to expand the content I follow via RSS feeds to social media, videos, podcasts, and software projects. In part, this has gotten me thinking about some of the benefits of protocols. The essay Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach To Free Speech makes good points on some of these benefits. Though the focus of that article is on free speech, I prefer to think about the benefits in terms of user freedom.

Creator freedom using RSS

RSS provides content creators with the freedom to choose how and where they publish content. As a content creator, depending on the type of content you produce you use different platforms to publish. For example, when I blog, I publish on this site, when I create videos, I publish to YouTube or livestream on Twitch and to further expand the reach of my content, I publish links on social media like Reddit or Twitter. In each case, I use different platforms to publish content. This might be okay because the audiences interested in the video content may not be interested in blog posts and vice versa. However, now the content is split across all these various platforms with their own accounts, interfaces, policies, and audiences. It also means, when I tell people where they can follow me, it usually involves an entire speech like: "Follow me on GitHub at lqdev, Twitter at ljquintanilla, my blog at luisquintanilla.me...". Of course, I don't always list out all the platforms I'm active on and it's highly dependent on the setting, but the more platforms I'm active on the longer that speech gets.

Fortunately, some of these platforms generate RSS feeds. On GitHub, RSS feeds are generated for releases, issues, and pull requests. For example, the ML.NET releases RSS feed can be accessed by appending .atom to the releases URL https://github.com/dotnet/machinelearning/releases.atom. Note that while Atom and RSS are not the same, they both offer a way to aggregate content. Similarly, YouTube provides the option to generate feeds for channels. For example, you can find the RSS feed to my YouTube channel at the following URL https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=UCkA5fHdQ4cf3D1J19UNgV7A. On this blog, the RSS feed can be found at https://www.luisquintanilla.me/feed.rss. For social media, the experience is a bit more limited since platforms like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook don't generate RSS feeds which is unfortunate since they all have feeds of their own making them the perfect use case for RSS feeds. Platforms like Reddit provide RSS feeds to public subreddits and users by appending .rss at the end of the URL. For example, the RSS feed for the Zune subreddit can be found at https://www.reddit.com/r/Zune.rss. In each of these cases, though the content and platforms are different, the underlying protocol and format used is the same, RSS.

Therefore, a strategy to improve how I publish my content using RSS is, instead of sending users to the various platforms, I can provide links to the different RSS feeds for each of the platforms I'm active on in my personal site. Instead of having a long speech on the different platforms I'm active on, I can just say, "Go to my personal website at ...", and that's it! That becomes the gateway to the rest of my content. I can continue publishing on the different platforms because of the features they may provide me with for content creation and discovery, but only send users to a single place. For even more control over publishing, I can self-host videos or other content and create RSS feeds for it just like I do for my blog. In either case, users don't need to have an account in order to access and follow my content lowering the barrier to access content. This brings me to my next point of user freedom.

User freedom using RSS

RSS provides users with the freedom to choose how they consume content. One way it does so is by being a standard protocol for aggregating content. Because there's an agreed upon set of standards, clients or RSS feed readers that consume this protocol at minimum only need to be able to read an RSS feed. Once a client can read the RSS feed, it's free to build on top of that leading to diversity and competition among the various clients. Diversity and competition is good for users because it provides choice. If I want a minimal feed reader, I can subscribe to RSS feeds using an e-mail client like Outlook or Thunderbird. If I want more features, I can use something like NewsBlur. As an aside, one of the other things I like about NewsBlur is being provided with an e-mail address that I can use to subscribe to newsletters helping me both clear up my inbox and letting me access information in a single place. This shows how RSS readers don't have to stop at only reading RSS feeds and can build on top of the protocol while still performing their core functionality.

Another reason to use RSS is having a single place to consume almost all your content. As mentioned before, an RSS feed can aggregate content from a YouTube channel, subreddit, blog, newspaper, podcast, etc. RSS is agnostic in the sense it doesn't care what's in the feed so long as you're able to link to the content. Now, because RSS readers can read any RSS feed, it means you can follow almost all of your content from a single place so long as you're able to subscribe to the RSS feed. In fact, aside from some social media, the only other content I don't consume via RSS is podcasts. Not because I'm not able to since podcasts are usually aggregated using RSS feeds, but because I'm not able to play and sync them with other devices. Being able to consume content in a single place provides users with an incredible amount of freedom by not requiring the use of multiple apps, websites, or accounts.

One last way in which RSS gives user freedom to choose how they consume content is by giving them control of their feed. Various platforms like social media sites and YouTube generate feeds and recommend content using algorithms. These algorithms are sometimes useful by exposing you to new and diverse content. Other times, algorithms can create a bubble by reinforcing preferences and interests. In any case, there's little visibility or control into how the algorithms make choices and recommendations. RSS by default is ordered in chronological order. Therefore you know you're getting the newest content. Depending on the client, you might be able to sort content into folders in whichever way makes the most sense to you. You might also be able to choose how often the feeds you're subscribed to are checked for new content. If you don't want to get the latest updates every second, set it to update daily or weekly. If you want to get rid of the clutter and only see content from the previous day, you can automatically delete or mark older content as read. Note that all these capabilities are dependent on the client, but if this is important to you, you can choose a client that gives you these features making the possibilities endless. Finally, because you are actively choosing which feeds you subscribe to, you're not presented with content other people liked, retweeted, shared, or recommended. You only have access to the content you choose to subscribe to. If at any point you're no longer interested in the content, unsubscribe and you no longer see it on your feed.

Conclusion

As I continue my rediscovery of RSS, I want to find ways to subscribe to content on platforms I'm already using via RSS. It's important to note that this is not an either or approach. You can subscribe to content from the various platforms using RSS to get updates in a single place and since RSS links to the original content, you can consume content on the platform itself helping content creators with more page views, likes, subscriptions, and other forms of engagement. Ultimately though, the choice is yours. A choice of how you publish and consume content.