The social media web is built on a lie. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have enticed countless users to join with the promise of being able to see everything their friends or favorite celebrities have posted in one convenient place.
Over time though, the sites were fine-tuned to filter what users saw regardless of their stated preferences, in order to manipulate their attention and keep them on the platform. Algorithmic timelines quietly replaced chronological ones, until our social media feeds no longer took direction from us, but rather directed us where they wanted us to go.
Lately, this deception has become more transparent. Last month, Elon Musk reportedly asked his engineers to tweak Twitter’s algorithm so that it delivers his tweets to users of the platform, whether they follow him or not. (Musk denies that he did.) This might seem to say more about Musk’s vanity than about social media in its entirety. But in his typically crass way, Musk was just making it obvious what was always the case for his industry. Meta did the same when he launched Meta Verified, a subscription service that promised to give paying users more visibility and reach.
These developments underscore a stark reality: As long as we rely on social media sites to curate what we read, we allow them to control what we read, and their interests are not our interests. Fortunately, there is already a long-standing alternative that provides users with what social media doesn’t: RSS.
Presenting a quarter-century-old technology as if it were a novel might seem a little strange. But despite the cult-followed syndication formats, most Internet users have never heard of them. This is unfortunate, because RSS provides everyday Internet users with an easy way to organize all their online content consumption media, blogs, YouTube channels, even search results for their favorite terms in one place. by the user, not an algorithm. The answer to our relatively recent social media problems has always been there.
But while RSS is tremendously useful, it can be daunting to the uninitiated, and it lacks the good marketing and cultural footprint of the social media giants. So I thought I’d offer a simple guide for anyone who wants to take back control of their online experience.
Get an RSS reader.
Basically, RSS is an underlying internet protocol that tracks the content posted on a particular website. To access this material, you need an RSS reader, which transforms these feeds into a format you can view on your computer or phone. I have been using Feedly for many years and find it extremely easy to manage: just place a link to a website or social media page and the service will automatically grab its RSS feed, if any, and add its content. Non-paying users receive up to 100 feeds, while paying users have no limit. Several other excellent RSS readers such as Inoreader and NewsBlur have similar provisions. And my friends with Apple devices rave about NetNewsWire, which is completely free. These apps work in your browser and on your phone, so your reading is always in sync and available wherever you are.
Fill your reader with subscriptions to the things you love to read.
This is the fun part. You want The Atlanticthe latest stories? There is a feed for that. Would you prefer to follow only a specific section? There are feeds for those too. Do you want to become more specialized? There are also unique feeds for each individual Atlantic writer (like me). Love Substack’s newsletters, but afraid they’ll overload your inbox? Each of them has an RSS feed, so now you can download their editions to your RSS reader and enjoy them alongside everything you read. You can do the same with your favorite webcomics, like xkcd.
Many sites publicly link to their RSS feeds on their pages, but you don’t actually have to search for them. Just copy the URL of any page into your reader, such as TheAtlantic.com, and the reader of your choice should be able to find any RSS feed linked to it. Also, if a page doesn’t have a feed, many of today’s readers can create one for you. And if your RSS reader doesn’t have this feature, you can use an app like Fetch RSS, RSS.app, or FiveFilters (free but more technical) to create a custom feed yourself, then add it to your reader.
Subscribe to social media feeds you don’t want to miss and you will never miss them.
Unlike the algorithmic timelines of social media giants, RSS readers don’t suppress content based on what they think will and won’t catch your attention. This means that you will receive every single post from every single social feed you subscribe to, in whatever order it was posted, and you can scroll and select the items you want to explore. For example, each YouTube channel has its own feed, so with RSS, you can always find every video posted by an artist. The same goes for Reddit pages, if there are any subreddits you want to keep track of. And while it’s not that simple, creating feeds for Instagram and TikTok accounts is also easy. Twitter and Facebook don’t always work well with RSS, but many of today’s readers can get content from them as well.
Get imaginative and follow things you can’t on social media.
Many years ago, as part of my day job in the Middle East, I met an aspiring right-wing politician and thought he might be walking around. So I set up an RSS feed for all the YouTube video search results that included his name, which allowed me to follow his rise. That meant I was ready when, in 2021, Naftali Bennett briefly dethroned Benjamin Netanyahu and became Israel’s prime minister. But search results feeds like these can be useful for everyone, not just political junkies. For example, I have one for every YouTube appearance by The High Kings, my favorite Irish folk band, which means my RSS reader captures every live performance of theirs that is uploaded, including new songs before they are recorded in study.
Services like RSS.app can take any YouTube search query and turn it into a personalized feed for your reader. Google’s Google Alerts can do the same for any internet search term. One trick I recommend: Put any multi-word search term in quotes (as in vegan birthday cake), which limits search results to exact mentions of that phrase; otherwise, you’ll get results in your feed that only partially match your query.
The internet it has introduced many problems into our increasingly chaotic digital lives, but in the case of RSS it has also provided a solution. The question is whether enough users are willing to implement it.
In 2013, Google shut down its celebrated RSS client, Google Reader, citing a decline in RSS usage. Today, millions of people still use RSS readers, but many times more use social media sites and don’t even know that RSS exists. This imbalance means that media and other content providers have a greater incentive to invest in social media infrastructure rather than RSS support, leading some to abandon the latter entirely. But while the creative output of the internet deserves our attention, social media companies don’t. When the primary way we read online is filtered through the algorithms of capricious companies that can change what we see on a whim, both writers and readers suffer. RSS is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.
#control #read #internet