A month ago I was lamenting the state of social media (as well as the normal news media and the state of web blogs) and looking to transition to a system of information that would be best for me. It would have to be effective (giving me interesting information) it would have to be efficient (giving me information that is mostly useful for me and not wasting my time) and it would have to be tailored to my own style (should fit in my normal schedule, not be forced in). And I found it, relatively easy, because it was not a new system, but a very old one: RSS feeds!
For people who don't know what Really Simple Syndication (or RDF Site Summary) means, it is a standardized way of publishing just the information of a web site and any updates, for various use: aggregators, readers, automatic processes, even reuse in the website itself as a data source. It was most popular in the time of blogs (remember Web 2.0?) where people would just get a list of all the blogs they enjoyed and then read all of them in some software that would allow them to see them in one place. That software is called an RSS reader.
Imagine for a moment the grandiose design of RSS. Someone would spend considerable effort to design an attractive web site that would contain useful or entertaining information, then spend even more effort for creating content regularly, so that people would visit and get them ad revenue or make them well known in a community or hire them. Then they would allow you, the reader, to bypass all the design, the ads and what made that blog unique, for your own benefit, in order to get that information. And only if you are interested in what the post has to say, then you click on it and visit their website. Do you see the design flaw here? Of course someone would pervert it into a wall of images and videos followed by a little text, arranged and controlled by them, not by you, filled with ads and other nasty things. Because that's minimum effort for maximum gain, instead of the original purpose of Web 2.0: community effort for the gain of all.
Slowly, RSS feeds were pushed away from the people's consciousness, became obsolete. Free blogging platforms became bloated, then more and more irrelevant as no one spent any effort updating them with the times. Sites like Twitter started with having RSS feeds for any page, then just removed it later. People stopped blogging. RSS was dead... or was it?
Remember that RSS is a standard, so as long as you have a web site with periodical updates, implementing it is simple and often comes out of the box. For websites that refuse to implement RSS, someone else might come and parse their content and publish it as RSS. RSS feed reader software might also implement custom features for specific sources that are not, strictly speaking, RSS. And then what do you get? Exactly what I was looking for:
- a single source of information
- aggregating most of what I am interested in
- in the order, organization and format I want and control
And it doesn't even need to be an application you install on your computer, as there are free web sites that function as RSS feed readers. I know, it's the same old trap all over again, where you trust a "free" site and then it starts feeding (pardon the pun) on you, but this time it's quite hard to force people into anything. As quick as it becomes annoying, you just switch to another reader, because the reader does not hoard or control the source of information, it is just a tool.
So I use Feedly, which I think it's very nice. There are a lot of alternatives, though, with various features, some paid, some free. Feedly comes as a free RSS reader, it allows you to also add web sites as sources directly (so they would parse the web site for you and serve it as RSS) and has other gathering methods that are paid, but as I will show you, can be replaced by free options. You can mark items for reading later or use some other system, like opening them in the browser and then reading and closing tabs.
Here is what you do:
- go to Feedly and create a free account
- add sources from the web sites you are interested in
- read the things you want, how you want them, when you want them
- use the browser to read them on the Feedly web site
- use the Feedly app to read it on your phone or tablet
- Usually it is a two step process:
- you scan the list of items and select only the ones that are interesting to you (not unlike a social media wall)
- you read the things you selected on their original web sites
Now, there are some things that you might want to consider before you embark on trying this method. I will organize this section as an FAQ. Feel free to propose other questions and I will update the post.
Q: I am trying to read the articles I am interested in, but web sites are filled with ads! What to do?
A: for desktop browsers Chrome and Edge install an extension to block ads. I use uBlock Origin and I am very satisfied with it. When you get to a web site that is not covered or that has some non-advertising related page elements that annoy you, the extension has an option to let you choose the things you want to block.
A: for phone/tablet browsers, download and use Brave, which is a fork of Chrome with ad blocking included.
Q: I am getting stuff that I am interested in, then go to web sites and they have paywalls! What to do?
A: Yes, sites like NewScientist, TheEconomist, NewYorkTimes, even Medium, etc. love to ask you for money to read their stuff. There are methods to bypass those paywalls, but not always and not always reliable. For example Readium, or there is a web site that is called 12ft.io, which works as a proxy to remove paywalls, but it doesn't always work. I am sure there must be alternatives out there, too. Share them with me if you find them and I will update this answer.
Q: I love my RSS reader, but it always annoys me with requests to upgrade to a paid version or buy other things! What to do?
A: see the answer above, you can use uBlock Origin to block individual web page elements, assuming you use a web based RSS reader
Q: I am going through my list of items and then I am interrupted by some RL bullshit, I come back and I forgot where I was! What to do?
A: for Feedly, at least, there is an option to mark items as read as you scroll along, which I think it's very nice. Also, for the mobile app, the default way of reading things is to give you a list of up to 30 items, after which you have the option of marking them all as read and continue to the next batch of items
Q: But I liked to see what people say on Twitter! What to do?
A: Some RSS readers have the option to read items from Twitter directly. Feedly has it, too, but it's a paid option. So instead, use Nitter, which is a web site that give you an RSS feed for any Twitter URL, for free.
Q: But I liked to see what people say on Facebook! What to do?
A: Due to the assholiness of that platform, it is next to impossible to get a feed of items compatible with an RSS feed, but there are some options. Some are little more than hacks, using not the Facebook API, but asking you to give them the browser cookies you have (for a few months) when you connect to your Facebook account. First of all, I don't recommend this at all, since it is a horrible security breach. Second of all, it would only give you the items in the Facebook feed you would normally get when using the web site, probably with ads included, and the normal crappy item order, duplicates and having a different list of items every time you refresh the page. The optimal way of using this would be something that could safely get the list of your friends, read the list of the posts of each of them, then return an actual list of posts in chronological order as an RSS feed. Alas, I couldn't find a free version of a software to do that and I fear the Facebook API would intentionally prevent you from doing this anyway. However, who knows, maybe I will attempt to build such a tool myself in the future. Interested?
Q: But I liked to see what videos appeared on YouTube! What to do?
A: actually, YouTube channels have their own RSS feed you can use. The problem is that YouTube videos are not really... web pages. I usually follow and watch those as a separate process, using the YouTube web site. But that's my own choice.
Q: I got the reader, but where do I get the blogs that hold the information I want?
A: Feedly has a very nice feature to add items. You can add a web site, you can search for keywords, etc. It's not perfect, though, and perhaps you don't want to trust their list of information sources. There is of course Google, but what I found is that most "Top X blogs in field Y" pages are woefully incomplete or outright misleading. I guess this part is always the hardest: find sources of information that can be trusted and provide accurate information in the fields you are interested in.
Q: I want to get suggestions for interesting web sites or share my own choices with others! How?
A: RSS feeds are usually shared or backed up as OPML content, which is a standard XML file containing the list of RSS feeds, organized in the categories you have chosen for them. I recommend you periodically export your OPML file to your computer, so you can always switch from a reader to another or make sure you don't lose the hard sought sources of information you found. Any RSS reader worth the name has an import/export feature for OPML files.
Q: What are your sources?
A: That could be a blog post in itself. I start with the web sites that I am usually following, like BBC News, for example. But I am saving the feeds for the categories I am interested in: Science, Medicine, Entertainment, etc. This way I get around all the stupid politics. Then there are web sites like Phys.org, Hacker News, Space News, Medical Xpress, Ars Technica, etc. Of course, every time I find an interesting person, book author, good programmer and so on, I try to find their blog and add it to the list, or at least their Twitter feed (see above). And then there are some web sites that pride themselves in serving "long content": well thought out articles, researched and crafted over time. Alas, most of them tend to be political, but still very informative occasionally. Mentioning just a few: Longform, Longreads, The Conversation, The American Scholar.
This is by no means the end all solution. In fact, as in the title, it is a (permanently?) transitional one. A complete solution would include reading a lot of books, making more personal connections and meeting new people, experimenting with everything I read, since experience only comes through trial, not information absorption. This is not just a need for hobbies and social interaction brought on by the pandemic, but a necessary step towards establishing a network of reliable sources of experience. While I would prefer I do everything passively, online and automated, alas, I have reached the conclusion it's not feasible at the moment.
First of all, the state of the blogosphere, as far as I see, is not good. Influenced by pressure from various (some even well intentioned) directions, people have stopped investing in regularly updated personal content sites. Facebook pushed people towards sharing rather than digesting information, meaning the Internet is flooded with shares, but not with actual original content. Twitter pushed people towards microblogging, which is basically limiting what you have to say about things and then sharing something. Dev.to is a blogging platform for developers, anyone can blog there. Great source for information, one might think, but it quickly turned into a place where people recycle short content in order to be rewarded with "hearts", which most people do not award to articles that are informative, complex and take a long time to read and process. They don't even read those. This of course if they do not blatantly advertise something or push some agenda. So many people have moved their tutorials, experiments and knowledge sharing to video, as this is the way children and young people absorb information nowadays. It is slow and not something that can be browsed easily or split into useful bits that can be reused. All of these are making people write less, in smaller bits and with reduced complexity or publish it as video. Basically the ordinary TV news item that I am trying to avoid.
Second of all, most content that requires effort also often requires financial or political capital. Meaning even long form content on the Internet is corrupted by market forces, with truth and innovation secondary to whatever purpose the author is pursuing. Without personal effort to detect early and filter out this kind of stuff, the method I outlined above will not work. The list of information sources you consume must be constantly curated. Forever.
One big peril of this method is having so many sources that to keep up with the news (RSS feeds are read only from a few days ago, so if you completely miss a week of RSS, you will lose those articles) you need to devote a lot of time to reading them. In the end, you get an even more addictive social media feed, that gives you more interesting things with less annoyance. The solution for this, I believe, is to dedicate a maximum time for news reading. This way, when the number of sources becomes untenable, you are forced to remove the less relevant ones.
I hope you find this guide useful for your own purposes and it helps you expand and enrich your experience. Please do share any questions, ideas or anything relevant to improving the method and this post. Be Web2.0 again!