Taking Control of Content and Breaking Algorithms With RSS

“Engagement isn’t a form of serendipity through algorithmically personalized feeds; it’s the repeated satisfaction of Present You with your myopically current loves and interests, at the expense of Future You, who will want new curiosities, hobbies, and experiences.”

—Dan Cohen. “Engagement Is the Enemy of Serendipity.” DanCohen.org. July 23, 2019.

In the post above, Dan Cohen writes about how The New York Times (NYT) changed their iPad app and how it ruined his experience of their content. He then talks about how algorithmic feeds undermine serendipity and the evolution of the self. Valid complaints and correct to the point of cliché, but what is to be done about it?

There are often options. If you read the NYT, you don’t have to use their app or their website and be annoyed. What should you do instead?

Newspaper RSS Feeds

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) provides a list of posts from a particular website. For example, here’s the RSS for the Top Stories from the NYT. Want to browse by section? There’s RSS feeds for sections as well.

Most newspaper services and newspapers provide RSS. Reuters, The Guardian, Der Spiegel in English, Times of India, Le Monde in English, Jerusalem Post, China Daily, The Age, The Japan Times, the Financial Times and of course, The BBC are all good examples.

Given these options, why would you want to use a single newspaper’s app, particularly one that is annoying you? There’s a whole world of options. You can select each yourself, and they all inter-leaf in the display based on time (or you can sort it by a different method), which facilitates serendipity.

How Does It Work?

To use RSS feeds, you need an RSS reader. There are many. Just yesterday, for instance, someone accessed this website using Inoreader. I’ve never heard of it. Feedly is probably the RSS reader most commonly used. I use Nextcloud News. This is what Nextcloud News looks like on a computer:

This is the display in the mobile app:

Getting Beyond the News

You can use RSS to replace the WordPress Reader. For example, if you wanted to subscribe to the RSS feed for this website, you’d need to add this url to your RSS reader:

https://cafebedouin.org/feed

Add /feed to the main site url to any WordPress site, and you can add it to your Reader. Most other blog websites have a standard formula, e.g.:

RSS is also used for other forms of media. For example, it’s used extensively in delivering podcasts. The BBC’s World Service is just one of many podcasts they offer with an RSS feed. Every NPR podcast has an RSS feed. Most podcasts provide a feed either from their website or one of the many podcast aggregators.

Why Haven’t I Heard of This Before?

Content providers and aggregators do not like RSS. You’ll frequently hear the claim that usage is declining. The fact is that it’s harder to track usage and monetize content delivered through RSS. The user has much more control over what they see and in what context. As you can see above, this website is thrown in right next to Reuters, Mother Jones, and TheHill.com with little to differentiate them when I look at my feeds through Nextcloud News. Then, there’s this when I look in on a Reuter’s article:

There’s no need to click in to the Reuter’s website and read the article. There’s no advertising, and Reuter’s only knows my RSS reader pulled the feed. They don’t know whether I looked at this article or not.

RSS does not just challenge the business model of content providers like the NYT. It’s does the same for content aggregators. Google, for example, launched Google News in September 2002, and it became an official product in January 2006. Google Reader, Google’s RSS reader, was launched in October 2005, became an official product in September 2007 and was discontinued in July 2013.

The speculation, at the time, was that Google was trying to drive sharing of information through their now-defunct Google+ social media network. But, there’s an easier explanation. Google News makes Google money. Google Reader didn’t, even though Google Reader’s users loved it.

In the same way, the NYT wants people to use their apps and to subscribe to their services. Google wants you to click on their links and not RSS links direct to the article, so they can get credit for the referral. So, the poor user experience that makes them money is invested in and the better user experience that doesn’t make them money is discontinued because usage is “declining.”

Conclusion

Using an RSS feed reader is often better than using a dedicated website or application by a single content provider. By using and demanding these services, we are able to take more control over selecting what we see from algorithms and we cut down on surveillance capitalism making money by tracking us.

Many newsletters are moving to a model where there are some public posts, and then there are some posts that are only available to subscribers. This model also works for RSS feeds. The Browser, for instance, has a RSS feed for subscribers. Personally, I’d like newsletters to move over to the RSS format, so I could read them in my reader rather than having them sit in my email inbox, many of them without a text only option.

But, right now, the incentives are for single content provider, single site based on surveillance capitalism. You can choose differently. If you don’t like RSS, maybe consider that the web is mutable and it is possible to change it to your liking. At the very least, if you find a website or an application by someone annoying, stop using it and do something else.

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