For me, it all started with “Google Reader.” Before the days of the social media firehose, and before the never-ending stream of newsletters and podcasts now filling up your various inboxes, there was a very easy way to curate and routinize your internet experience. It was called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS for short, and it made website aggregation accessible starting in the mid-2000’s. Even back then, the web was a sprawling and disorganized space. Browser mounted bookmarks could be helpful, but still required the user to actively visit any number of websites in order to become aware of ‘updates’ at a particular website or newsgroup of interest.
RSS is a way to reverse the dynamic by bringing the internet into your inbox. Using the late, great, Google Reader I was able to subscribe to any number of websites, categorize them by interest (like bookmarks) and then receive updates in a Gmail-style inbox. The ‘subject line’ was basically the article’s title, with some additional details below. Open the item and you get the article itself.
These RSS subscriptions became my newsfeed before there was a newsfeed. More than ten years into the future I am still consuming news in this manner, although the list of ‘trusted sources’ has changed dramatically over that time. Many websites are abandoned and stop updating. New sources are discovered and added all the time, sometimes on a trial basis and sometimes permanently. The point is that the platform (although I called it a website back then), was phenomenally easy to customize so that many different news-gathering experiences could be provided. This contrast’s mightily with Facebook, where newsfeed management is in a black box for maximum manipulation.
Google Reader was not the only aggregator of this bygone era, but it was the manner by which I came to understand and use RSS. When it shut down in 2013 I was not the only one lamenting the search giant’s capriciousness. Fortunately, the aggregation technology was available elsewhere. I currently use Feedly, who offers a very vanilla online interface and mobile apps. The good news is that the open source spirit of syndication is much as it ever was, meaning that the newsfeed from Feedly can be ‘read’ by anyone else’s aggregator platform. My favorite is the venerable Reeder app, which is gorgeous minimalism and subdued browns. It offers the functionality of Google Reader in an attractive native app for Macs.
We live In a hurtling age of endless tech innovations where something as old as RSS is uncommon. Surely something better would have rendered it completely obsolete by now. While its use may have shrunk, its reliability and longevity are proof that maybe some things were done better when we knew less.