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By Glenn Fleishman

How I stopped using RSS and didn’t even notice

RSS used to be the clock by which I watched the news. At regular intervals, a flood of headlines and other folderol would flood in, and if I had time, I would switch to NetNewsWire to scan through the several or dozens of new items, and see if any were worth previewing in the program or opening in a browser.

I haven’t checked RSS for more than a few minutes here and there in the last year, and I don’t think I’ve looked at the aggregator I use at all in a couple of months. It’s not intentional; the need seems gone. It’s been replaced by a change in my needs and a combination of other sources.

I started off aggregating RSS from early blogs using Radio Userland, a multi-purpose tool developed by Dave Winer and his company. Winer is widely and rightly considered a parent of RSS, as he adapted, made consistent, and popularized a standard version that had all the basics still used today. (RSS 2.0 and Atom have some improvements on the original RSS 0.91, but remained structured around “atomic” or individual news items that are uniquely identified and timestamped.)

I found out about 9/11 from Radio Userland, waking up one morning in Seattle, firing it up, and reading an entry from Robert Scoble (site now gone), who posted a short item about what he’d just seen on CNN. It seemed a joke in bad taste, but in fact was the day that blogs came of age and a large group of people started sorting out how to use RSS.

When NetNewsWire came out in 2002, I was a relatively early adopter, and used it religiously for the next decade. When Google Reader emerged as a way to synchronize across multiple readers, including NetNewsWire and Google’s Web app, I switched to that as my backend.

And when Google Reader was killed off in 2013, I dutifully migrated back to manual maintenance of sync, using Dropbox and carefully quitting NNW on one machine before launching it on another. While Black Pixel, NNW’s current owner, delayed on perfecting its 4.0 release — still in public beta 18 months later — I switched to Jordan Sherer’s niftily designed Web app, Minimal Reader.

But despite the ease of access to Minimal Reader and its general resemblance and similarity in featureset to NNW, I consulted it less and less. You see, you may not realize this, but I use Twitter. Shocking, I know.

I was never an RSS completist: I didn’t need to read every headline, much less every article. I developed a kind of quick scanning technique, sometimes scrolling through hundreds of headlines in a few minutes to catch up, before marking all as read. (This is in contrast to tab-based colleagues, who have 1,000 tabs open and unread because they “need” them and will one day read them, like back issues of the New Yorker or Economist.)

Even before switching to Minimal Reader, I had begun to prune my feeds. In every case in which there was a Twitter account that duplicated a feed I didn’t avidly read, I followed on Twitter and unsubscribed in NNW. When I migrated to the Web app, I had a truncated list of a few hundred sources, but many rarely update or have been dead for years.2

I don’t “read” Twitter, either, but body surf it, reading a small fraction of the several thousand messages that flow across my timeline. This is in contrast to Twitter “completists,” who have to manage who they follow to ensure that they can read every single Tweet. Since Twitter never ends, I find this a difficulty strategy to understand, no matter how I try3.

Now, Twitter combines tweets from friends, feeds from news sites, humor, nonsense, and much more. It’s not as organized as RSS by any means—an aggregator is much more like an mail inbox of news, with the same feeling of needing to deal with it. In fact, I thought RSS and email would merge into a single client, and that was tried by some developers (even Apple!) with software and plug-ins, but it never caught on.

But I prefer the perishability of Twitter rather than the potential finishabilty. I’d rather stuff expired and I pretended it no longer existed because it scrolled into the past than me having an inbox of items that have to be dispatched, even if it’s to mark them as read.

My little cheat is Pinboard ($11/year, $25/year for full-text storage), an inexpensive bookmarking service that can be used through bookmarklets and an API, but can also be set to monitor up to three Twitter accounts, and add favorited tweets or our own posts that contain URLs. These are searchable and archived eternally. I also use Instapaper (free; premium service, $2.99 per month or $29.99 a year) via my Web browser and Tweetbot (iOS, $4.99; Mac OS X, $19.99) to add items I definitely want to catch up on when they stream by.

I’d like to say I miss RSS, because it gave me this feeling of immediacy, and plugging into the world of news with a mix of blogs, more formal editorial operations, and all sorts of hybrids. I could create a list or multiple lists in Twitter to simulate this effect, but the last thing I likely need is more things to read or look at.

Rather, the way I use Twitter with Instapaper and Pinboard is most likely the sensible course for me. Important links recur and are discussed; more obscure items of interest I may miss entirely, of course. But Twitter conversations can themselves turn into news, and I’ve developed many stories that began with a tweet here and there.

The biggest missing feature from Twitter and third-party clients and Web apps that would help more fully replace and improve on RSS aggregation is using the timeline I’ve created or lists I put together to surface information that’s correlated against items I look at more thoroughly: that I fave, view the Twitter threaded conversation, retweet, or send a referenced URL to Instapaper.

I want a Twitter client or back-end Web app — just like I wanted NetNewsWire to do the same years ago — that reads me and helps surface items that are clearly going to be relevant to me without reshaping my feed. [Editor’s note: I use Nuzzel to fulfill many of these needs. -J.S.]

In the meantime, despite the amount of time I spend on Twitter, I enjoy the feeling of less pressure to keep up with what’s going on. I can walk away for hours or days, and put my toes in and get a read on what the world and my friends and colleagues are saying without the tick-tock tick-tock of hundreds of headlines dropping hourly upon me.

[Glenn Fleishman is a prolific freelance writer who writes regularly for the Economist, Boing Boing, and Macworld, and tweets incessantly—someone please make him stop—at @glennf.]

  1. Aaron Swartz was widely credited after his death with “inventing” RSS, which he never claimed nor did anyone else during his lifetime. He was on a small committee that created a spec called RSS 1.0 that was an entirely different format. RSS 2.0 descended from the RSS 0.9x tree. ↩

  2. Not everything has a Twitter feed, and not everything makes sense to push into Twitter, and so a very small number of sites and updates I now wind up missing as a result. It’s worth it. ↩

  3. I discussed finishability — getting to the end of a thing, like a magazine — and completism with Tom Standage, the digital editor of the Economist for an episode of The Periodicalist podcast in December 2014.) ↩

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