Recently, Gizmodo published a post making the argument that you should resist the siren song of social media and instead consume your news through an RSS reader. “RSS…cuts out everything you don’t want to hear about,” wrote David Nield. “You’re in full control of what’s in your feed and what isn’t, so you don’t get friends and colleagues throwing links into your feeds that you’ve got no interest in reading.”
I still remember the euphoric moment I used an RSS reader for the first time. Before RSS, I had been forced to bookmark all my favorite blogs in my browser, and several times each day I’d essentially have to make my way down the list to check whether a particular blog had published a new post. It was a pretty inefficient experience.
I had heard about RSS readers long before I actually tried one, and then one day I finally broke down and created an account on Bloglines. The benefits were felt immediately. Suddenly, I could just go to this one repository, hit refresh, and get an instantaneous readout on who had published new posts. I no longer had to visit blogs; those blogs came to me.
I eventually graduated from Bloglines to Google Reader, and for a couple years I always kept it open in my browser tab, waiting there for when I had free time and wanted to dip in for some fresh content.
The blogosphere back then seemed huge but was actually small and insular when you compare it to the chaotic web of today. I remember bloggers would have these esoteric debates about whether RSS readers should show full posts or partial posts, the latter of which you’d have to click on so it would take you to the actual blog post itself. Some bloggers (including Nick Denton, if I remember correctly) argued that full RSS posts meant that you couldn’t monetize those views with advertising, while a few RSS purists announced they would never subscribe to a blog that didn’t display full post RSS.
But then something changed. I started using RSS less and less. And then, when Google announced it was shutting down Google Reader in 2013, I went ahead and signed up for an alternate RSS reader — the newly-launched Digg Reader. But I didn’t stick with it for very long, and it eventually fell out of my internet browsing diet completely.
What changed? Why did I abandon RSS, a technology that had felt so magical to me when I first embraced it? A few reasons.
The web fundamentally changed
The RSS golden age coincided with the blogosphere’s golden age, and that’s not a coincidence. There used to be thousands upon thousands of independent bloggers who were publishing semi-regularly to sites like Blogspot, Typepad, and WordPress. If you wanted to write and publish your thoughts and you didn’t belong to a traditional media company, you had to publish to a blog.
The rise of social media changed all that. It divided the blogosphere into two realms. A large portion of the bloggers just began publishing to places like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc… These platforms weren’t as robust from a CMS standpoint, but they were easy to use and they created a network effect that allowed for wider distribution. Suddenly, bloggers didn’t have to fight so hard to get people to read their stuff; they just had to amass followers on these platforms.
The second realm, what many used to call the “A-list bloggers” (god, it’s been so long since I’ve used that phrase), got subsumed into larger, more traditional media companies.
So suddenly, if you wanted to subscribe to individual voices to hear their thoughts and what they were covering, you had to subscribe to them on a social media channel. Sure, some media websites had RSS functionality that would allow you to subscribe to a specific author, but that functionality varied widely across websites.
Social media added a layer of commentary over the news
It used to be that reading commentary on news stories was relatively inefficient. You had to stumble across a blog post that might link to another blog post or news article. It could take upwards of 24 hours after a post or article was published for it to generate wider discussion within the blogosphere.
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These days, if the New York Times breaks a major story about the Trump administration, I can read hundreds of tweets in real time about the story mere minutes after it’s been published. Social media effectively atomizes and deconstructs news events in a way that RSS never could.
Social media is a participatory medium
For all it had going for it, at the end of the day, RSS was just a passive consumption device. Sure, Google Reader had some social networking functionality, but for the most part I just went there to read articles.
Social media allows me to participate in the conversation. I can react to news, riff on it, or make up jokes on the spot. I can challenge assumptions or even let out an impassioned “eff you” whenever Trump is tweeting something particularly horrifying.
So while I certainly appreciate the contribution RSS has made to the web, it’s just not something that I can devote myself to anymore.
That being said, there is an RSS-like tool I’ve fallen in love with and use daily: Instapaper. No longer does my browser crash under the weight of a dozen open tabs. As with RSS, I had heard about it long before I actually tried it, and the day I finally broke down and started using it was just as euphoric as the first time I used RSS. In a world where I’m a constantly bombarded with new content to consume, Instapaper allows me to slow the internet down.
If Twitter represents media overload, then Instapaper is my antidote.
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