School me on RSS.
July 18, 2013 6:25 PM   Subscribe

It has, ahem, belatedly come to my attention that I have neglected to engage with what seems to be the cornerstone of Internetlandia for many web travelers: the RSS reader. I am interested in getting in on this party, since I currently rely on the Chrome bookmarks bar and I know I'm leaving lots of stones unturned given the bookmarks bar space constraints.

I understand that RSS readers are blog? news? website? thread-within-website? aggregators that enable you to look at everything you want to look at in a feed. That is where my CLEARLY SUPER EXTENSIVE knowledge taps out, and Google search results are clogged with 1. articles decrying the demise of Google Reader and 2. articles about things promising to replicate the Google Reader experience.

So: Why do I want an RSS reader? What do I want in an RSS reader? Is this an in-browser thing, or a client? Are there best practices for setting one up? I've got a Macbook Pro, an iPhone, and an iPad - can I integrate across all three devices?

I feel like I'm stepping out of some sort of intellectual closet here. Help!
posted by sevensnowflakes to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
RSS feeds are neat! They're especially good if you're following a number of blogs, periodicals, or webcomics, and you want to make sure you're catching everything.

They essentially collect posts or updates from websites and list them in one spot so you can flip through them at your leisure. They can order them so you can make sure you're reading your stories in order, or they can list them by topic or by site.

Feedly is currently the most popular one after google reader now. It's integrated across devices, so the 'list' of posts it collects will be the same as you read them on your mobile devices or in your browser. You can go there and make an account, then search for the sites you want to follow. It exists as an app to download on your devices.

Not everyone likes or uses RSS feeds, but mine lets me keep up to date on the hundreds or sites/comics I follow - and I always have a bunch of stuff to read through when I'm bored!
posted by robot-hugs at 6:36 PM on July 18, 2013

Hi, I am you, devicewise. I use Feedly for this purpose (and am hoping that NetNewsWire, the best Mac desktop client, which I used to use with Google Reader integrates with it). Feedly lives in the cloud and I get it through the web on my browser on my Mac and through iOS apps on my phone and tablet.

Why I like RSS is that it tells me when my favorite web sites update. Instead of having to waste time looking at sites that update infrequently, the updates come to me. It's actually more use to me for sites that don't update every day because those are the ones I'd forget to look at.

My RSS feeds have replaced my paper newspaper and magazine subscriptions. My husband has a student subscription to the NYT for me and I also get the local paper's local coverage and the Guardian's US edition coverage. I subscribe to a couple of political sites (e.g., TPM) for political news; to several music news sites for music news (e.g., Rolling Stone's new record reviews, also some sites that specialize in 80s music) and some fashion blogs to replace fashion magazines. I have direct subscriptions to cartoonists I like on gocomics and also some web comics (e.g., Hark, a Vagrant) for my comics subscriptions.

You can find RSS feeds for a lot of different kinds of web sites that update, but that's a large part of what I do with mine.
posted by immlass at 6:41 PM on July 18, 2013

Seconding immlass, I like RSS for sites that update intermittently or once a day at an inconsistent time, since it allows me to not miss a post without having to specifically check each one. For sites that update multiple times per day, I'll just go directly to the site.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:44 PM on July 18, 2013

RSS lets you deal with the firehose of information. I use it to track multiple streams of information and also tracking topics in professional journals. One of the things I do is actually weigh out whether a source is better as a condensed newsletter such as, Hacker News. It can get overwhelming seeing so much information to be navigated, processed, digested and synthesized so RSS is part of the information junkie tool kit.

It was strangely liberating starting completely new in my RSS readers (I have yet to truly settle to one true reader since gReader went tits up). I started becoming RUTHLESS about what I was willing to track for constant updates. One of the ways to divide your streams is to have a broad category titled, "once a month" and "once a year". This took some pressure off the guilt of not reading every single post.

Sites like Metafilter that is on permanently in my browser tab is not even in my feed lines unless it is a very specific topic area that I just do not want to miss out on such as, food and drink in askmefi.

Another aspect of RSS in certain apps is the sharing of reads, interesting links and all that. So you can be part of the collective info junkie trends.

Is RSS the best thing evar? Well, it sure ain't bad and beats getting a poke in the eye.
posted by jadepearl at 7:24 PM on July 18, 2013

On Feedly as well, but I access it through a Windows 8 Metro app called NextGen Reader. For me, it is my daily paper: I open it up over breakfast, and I have a full load of articles divided into sections of my own choosing, all gathered together for me to read on my little screen. Mine are simply News, Comics, Dev, Local, and Curiosity (mostly science and history blogs). You have the option of going through sources and sites individually, but the main benefit of RSS readers is the ability to aggregate reading materials of similar natures, so that you don't have to jump from site to site or feed to feed, as on a bookmarks bar.

There are other ways to sort all your materials. Some sites you don't want to comb through every day, and some you want to track like a bloodhound. On preview, what jadepearl said.

According to my settings, all text is fed to me in the same simple format, which is something of a comfort in the morning. (You might already be familiar with services like Instapaper and Readability that do this.) You can always set your reader to take you directly to the site that published the article, however, and some news sites will make you do so for the full text anyway.

I still go to a few dedicated blogs when I am as interested in the comments section as the articles themselves, MetaFilter being a big one. And sometimes it's nice to browse free-form, not confined to the regular spaces. If I spend too much time reading feeds, I start to miss search bars and hyperlinks the same way some people, being landlocked for too long, begin to dream of the shore. Chalk it up partly to stubborn habit, but a reader isn't for everything. It is, however, worth its salt if you do a lot of reading online and like to keep up with a number of sites.
posted by mcoo at 7:34 PM on July 18, 2013

RSS is like opening every site you're interested in and checking to see if it's updated, except an app slash webapp does it for you.

In practical terms, it means that (for me at least), I get a little thing which says "304 new items" which I then scroll through as a list of headlines, occasionally opening the full page when it seems worthwhile. At its best, it's a very efficient personal assistant bringing you the daily news. At its worst, it's another hour wasted checking off every "to read" item in case one of them is important.
posted by lucidium at 7:34 PM on July 18, 2013

I use and like newsblur.
posted by michellenoel at 8:17 PM on July 18, 2013

Best answer: I use RSS feeds to keep up with all my work and personal websites, and it's awesome. I couldn't do my job without it (or rather, I would go crazier without it). Here is an adapted version of something simple that I wrote for my interns a while back:

What is an RSS feed?
An RSS feed is a type of document that is specifically designed to show - in chronological order normally - frequently updated content online, e.g. news stories or blog posts. In order to make specific content available to others, the content creator can “syndicate” a feed from their site, i.e. make their content available in a format that allows users to subscribe to it. A feed generally contains the title of a specific content item, a short snipped of text from the item, the date and time of publication, and a link to the full version of the content item on the content creator’s website. Sometimes, however, the full text of the item is included in the feed.

RSS feeds are designed to be machine-readable rather than human-readable, which tends to be a source of confusion when people first encounter them. Most feeds are written in a coding language called “XML,” and for most people they look like just a jumble when you look at them directly in a browser. However, being machine-readable means that feeds can automatically transfer information from one website to another, without any human intervention. Blogs with news updates in the sidebar are often using RSS to automatically pull the specific headlines for display, for example.

Why should I use RSS feeds?
Feeds can allow you to faster and easier read the news that is important to you. It basically allows you to create a personalized newspaper, containing only content from sites that you have subscribed to.
- Users are notified of new content on a website without having to actively go there and check for updates. This is great for sites that only update occasionally.
- All the information from many different sites is shown on the same page, cutting down on time spent switching between sites.
- The information from many sites is presented in a uniform way, rather than having to switch between reading sites with different layouts.
- To unsubscribe from a feed, the user can simply remove the feed from their aggregator/reader – no “unsubscribe” requests like with emailed newsletters.

How do I know if a site I like offers a feed?
On web pages, feeds are typically identified by an orange square with wavy lines or an orange rectangle with the letters XML, RSS, or ATOM. Some browsers will auto detect if a feed is available for a particular website. In Firefox, for example, you can subscribe to any feeds for a specific page by left-clicking on the icon in your address bar and choosing Information/Feeds. Google Chrome requires an extension in order to support one-click subscribing to feeds.

Sometimes, feeds are unavailable for a specific site, because the content creator hasn't made one available. However, you can use a “scraper” program to create a feed from a site that doesn't offer one. If you know a bit of HMTL, you can use services such as to create a feed directly from the web page itself. The problem with this approach can be that if the website changes its formatting, it breaks the feed.

How do I read feeds?
A feed reader is software that retrieves syndicated content from feeds and displays it for you to read in a human-readable format. There are two major types of feed readers - independent programs that run on your computer, and web based feed readers that run in your browser. Obviously, Google Reader used to be the market leader. I currently use Feedly - it's the best replacement that I've found since GR went belly up. You should try a few of the other suggestions in this thread - I hear good things about newsblur, and the new Digg reader is pretty good (it's lacking a few features I use extensively, or I would consider it for my everyday use). Most feed readers will allow you to categorize your feeds to organize them, and you can easily mark individual articles for later perusal using a "save" feature and/or by tagging them, so you can access them even once new articles arrive.

Neat Uses of Feeds
There are all kinds of ways to use feeds, in addition to viewing them in a feed reader. For example, you can use a service called twitterfeed, which takes an RSS feed and posts each new item in the feed to a Twitter account, to Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Another way to use feeds is as a search spy for a specific search term. If you do a search on Yahoo, you have an option to create a feed from the search. If you want to do the same for Google, you can use its Google Alerts system ( For Google News or Google Blog Search, however, you can just click the “RSS” button at the bottom of the page. By subscribing to these feeds, you will get notified when the search engines come upon a new match for the search term. Some other tools, like Yahoo Pipes ( offer ways to combine a number of feeds together and to output the results into a single feed.
posted by gemmy at 10:09 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you have an iPad & iPhone , I strongly recommend Flipboard. Hopefully they will come up with a desktop client one day soon.
posted by Megami at 12:10 AM on July 19, 2013

Just as a data point for your consideration:

I LOVED Google Reader. It integrated nicely with the iPhone (an app called Newsify).

Today, I use Feedly's excellent service - they took Reader's OPML file and ran with it. For someone just starting out, I'd suggest doing the following:

1: Start from and set up an account.
2: From Chrome, look for an extension called RSS Subscription Extension ( The orange icon lives in your omnibar - click it, the program finds the RSS feed, and will send it to Feedly. You can then pick which category / folder that feed should go to.

Newsify still works, by the way - it's jumped on the Feedly bandwagon. Flipboard is gorgeous, but I've stuck with Newsify because it downloads the feed for offline reading (and only gets the pictures when you read them).
posted by chrisinseoul at 12:50 AM on July 19, 2013

Best answer: RSS is great, but I've found that it can get overwhelming very quickly if you subscribe to too many feeds. By the time Google announced Reader's death, I had stopped using the service because it was the source of more stress than convenience. I subscribed to *lots* of high-volume feeds. I couldn't keep up with them, and I'd feel guilty about it every time I logged in.

So, when Reader went down, I saw an opportunity to change my internet content consumption habits. I started from scratch, and split my content into three sources: RSS, Twitter, and email. In my RSS reader, I've only been subscribing to high quality, low quantity feeds. Stuff that I can't miss. There's only about 30 feeds coming in, and most of them post less than once a day. It's easy to keep up with, and is no longer a guilt trip. I go to RSS for the best of the web. I've found that some of the feeds I'd been subscribing to, like The Morning News and Evening Edition, were better suited as daily email deliveries. They've been switched over to my inbox for timely consumption. For the rest of the high-volume feeds that used to cause me so much RSS stress, I rely on Twitter to surface the content that I'm interested in.

So, definitely use RSS. It's a great service. Here are a few reasons why. But my advice would be to limit your RSS feeds to the handful of sites that you love. Otherwise, it can become more stressful than email.

There's (obviously) been a huge debate about the best post-Reader reader. I've tried a few of them, so here are a few thoughts. Feedly is obviously the most popular right now, and I used it for a few months last year. I like the web interface, but I never loved the iPhone app. It syncs up with Reeder now, which is my favorite iOS RSS app, but I'm leery of Feedly's business model. After Reader shut down, I wanted to start paying for a service. I also spent a few days with Digg Reader. I really like the new Digg, and having their top stories and my RSS feeds in the same app was tempting, but their reader is still lacking some basic features, which (for me) crippled its usefulness. So, I've been using Feedbin, which costs a few dollars each month. It has a great web interface, and an API that lets it sync up with most of the best RSS clients out there. The developer released Feedbin as a solo project the day before Google announced Reader's death, so it hasn't received the attention it deserves. I like to support the underdog, and as far as I can tell, it's the best option out there right now.
posted by rensar at 5:31 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to re-post what I shared in a Metatalk thread a few months back when Google Reader was newly demised:
There are 2 types of things I follow in an RSS reader:

1. Tasting from the Hose of Too Much Information

Things I want a regular taste of, things that make the phrase "I'm almost done reading the Internet" a hilarious joke because they are ever-expanding at a pace which the human brain simply cannot encompass.

Included here:
  • Lifehacker and other best-of sites
  • Houzz and other forum/interest based sites
  • MeFi (You can get the RSS for specific tags! I recommend this more than using the Big RSS Feed, which is Altogether Too Much.)
  • random Tumblrs
  • A List Apart and other tech blogs where I'm only interested in a few of their topics
  • Give Me Something To Read (but I'm not interested in reading it ALL)
  • Flickr feeds and Urban Sketchers and other photography/art/craft/illustration/design blogs that are fun to skim for pretty things
These feeds are for skimming, starring, and sharing. I could conceivably replace this aspect of Reader with Twitter/FB/Instapaper.

Use Mark All As Read liberally here to keep your RSS reader subscriptions manageable.

2. Pikachu Edition: Gotta Catch Em All

This is a much smaller set, but this is the set that made me panic about losing Google Reader.

Some Internet things must be read completely and in order. Often these items are not published in a predictable or frequent way.

Maybe there is a blog that you follow that is updated every 4-6 months but when it is, it's freaking amazing and you MUST read it. But they have no email list, you miss their posts on Twitter (another Hose of TMI), and maybe you only remember its existence in moments when you don't actually have time to sit down and give it your full attention.

Sometimes these items are serialized and the order is incredibly important. I speak here in particular of serialized webcomics.

Here is a good example that meets all 3 criteria: Teahouse (NSFW) is gorgeous and funny and I don't want to miss a single strip. It is a serialized strip, so I can't just read a random one and expect to know what's going on. Its schedule is also wildly unpredictable, given that it is an intensive side project of busy people.

RSS gives me a complete list of Teahouse comics whenever they publish (I don't need to remember to go looking), in order.

Included here:
  • so many webcomics
  • personal blogs by certain people (e.g. your family, good friends)
  • stories
  • rarely published amazing things
  • projects you're keeping an eye on (e.g. I want to be notified when the next episode of WormWorld Saga is finished, so I subscribe to Daniel Lieske's RSS)
  • local yearly festivals who only use their blog to remind you the festival is coming up
You know a feed belongs in this category when you are never overwhelmed and tempted to Mark All As Read!

A side note on discovery: This will become much better if we all move to something like NewsBlur where sharing is integrated and easy. It used to be awesome on Google Reader — I could see what my contacts were starring and commenting on very easily and I discovered a lot of cool stuff that way. I've been exploring Feedly as well and they have a nice recommendation engine similar to Amazon's "other people who bought this also bought that" engine.
Since posting that comment I have moved over to Feedly, and I would now add elizardbits' hilarious Tumblr blog to Category 1.

On preview: rensar is recommending a Category-2-only RSS strategy, which is not a bad idea. Those are the feeds I check first, and I look at Category 1 feeds if I have extra time.
posted by heatherann at 7:44 AM on July 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

A key aspect of RSS is that it gives you a highly efficient way to digest all the content you get.

There are plenty of flashy apps like Flipboard that give you snazzy, image-heavy UIs, great for casual browsing. But the best ones (like Google Reader) keep track of the read/unread state of each item, let you easily bookmark them or email them, and offer spartan, text-centric interfaces with an extensive system of shortcuts that allow you to rapidly run through dozens or hundreds of items in a matter of minutes. You can always be confident that you've seen everything your chosen items have to offer, even if you stop reading them for days at a time (I'm currently working through a few months of the blue), and the items you have read are categorized and sorted for easy reference.

Another godsend is search. I didn't use it all the time, but Google Reader's search function was a custom-tailored window into content that you are not only interested, but have in most cases already read. Very easy to find something from a specific blog or topic you vaguely remember. The loss of Reader killed off the best provider of this search, but Feedly, among others, say they have their own system in the works.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:55 AM on July 20, 2013

Keep in mind that RSS is also the original format for podcast delivery, and still used by every android podcast application. It's basically a normal RSS feed, with an enclosure tag on every item pointing at a .mp3 (or whatever). The application downloads and queues shows so I don't have to think about anything other than pressing play on my daily commute. And if you want to run a podcast and want to reach beyond the iTunes echo chamber, you need RSS.

As for typical RSS as you probably envisioned it, I have 11 folders of feeds. The common theme here is that before I adopted RSS, lot of feeds used to be in bookmark folders so I could "Open All in Tabs" to see if there was anything new.

* Coders. People who write software for a living, but also occasionally blog. It's a huge list with a low churn rate. Having RSS means I don't have to open up 40 individual webpages daily.
* Friends. As you may have gathered, people in my field are more likely than typical to blog instead of just making facebook posts.
* Comics. Yay webcomics. They often update on weird schedules, but I don't even have to think about it. The best have the comic inline, but they have to make money somehow.
* CompSci. Like coders, this is a small list of authors who write infrequently but in depth about subjects that may interest me.
* Games. One of the challenges of Adblock Plus is how to get product information when you're actively blocking it. RSS is nice here because it's a pull mechanism. No email address, no cross marketing. If they mess with the feed, I unsubscribe. For example, I really like Android:Net Runner, so I subscribe to Fantasy Flight's RSS feed for that specific product.
* Linux. Mainly in the vein of Coders/Compsci, but also has my VPS host and conference blogs.
* Local. Mainly subreddits for the town and university; they're not super active, so RSS lets me know when someone posted.
* Finance. I have a few feeds for key economic indicators that they don't print on the newspaper or announce on TV or radio. S&P 500 price:earnings ratios, monthly US inflation rates, Case Schiller Home Indexes.
* Help Requests. If we pretend for a minute that online reputation is valuable, tags and RSS feeds make it easier to dig through the mountains of Stackoverflow and Ask Metafilter and mine for those precious favorites and karma points. Or if you want to learn more about a subject, subscribing to a feed helps. For example, I saw yout post, not because I subscribe to the tag RSSfeed (8 posts in the history of Mefi), but because I follow the entire Mefi "computers & internet" topic.
* Backups. This is a special section, because while for most RSS feeds, I only keep around a certain amount of history, backups are priceless. This is for personal stuff. The RSS feeds to my mefi account. My flickr. My blog. My blog backup was really helpful when I decided to self-host and the export feature required an export for every month. Basically, it's where I backup the cloud.
posted by pwnguin at 5:35 PM on July 20, 2013

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