RSS: Really Simple Syndication!

RSS: Really Simple Syndication!

Have you ever come across the following icon on a website before?

RSS Logo

If so, that means you have come across a wild RSS feed! RSS is an important part of the world wide web, but as time has marched onward it has visibly disappeared from a lot of sites. This page is all about RSS and hopefully if you aren't already a fan of RSS, I can convince you to start subscribing to RSS feeds by the end of it!

What is RSS?

RSS (what it stands for depends on who you ask) is a format for defining a feed of web content. The main idea behind RSS is that websites can host their RSS feeds and push out updates to subscribers. Subscribers can see updates appear on their feeds without having to pull up the main website.

The main prototypical usage for RSS feeds is for something like news websites. Instead of having to navigate through the front page, users can plug a news website's RSS feed into a feed reader and get headlines or even full articles delivered to them in a more efficient way, potentially without even opening their internet browser.

Typically feed readers will automatically check for updates and notify the user when a feed has been updated, so the user doesn't have to manually check all their favorite sites on their own.

An RSS feed itself is just a specific kind of XML file. If you're not familiar with XML, it's similar to HTML but with different tag names. Many sites automatically generate RSS feeds in some way, but it's not that hard to upload and maintain a handwritten RSS feed onto your website.

Why use RSS?

I'm sure the idea of users "subscribing to" (or perhaps "following") a feed sounds familiar to you. One reason why RSS faded away is that other kinds of feeds showed up on the internet: social media in particular. Why link people to a weird XML file when you can just tell them to follow you on Twitter?

As the web became more monetized, RSS also became a way to avoid ads. Its goal of allowing website content to be "syndicated" to other contexts such as feed readers meant that users could have a lot more control over the specific web content they wanted to see. Skipping the front page of a website means losing precious engagement and ad clicks.

And this is why I think RSS is so important.

RSS is a decentralized way to subscribe to web content. It is the way any website lets you "follow" or "subscribe" without having to go through social media. I love the IndieWeb and Neocities, but modern social media has trained us all to follow other user's feeds. Having to go back to manually check all your favorite sites is an awful experience. RSS enables us to subscribe to sites like they're social media without using social media.

Another plus side: Usually, you do not have to create an account to subscribe to a website's RSS feed. Unlike corporate social media, RSS feeds also don't have any form of ads or other engagement algorithms tied to them. If you subscribe to an RSS feed, you won't ever have to stress about having this new subscription messing with your recommendation algorithm... because there is no algorithm in RSS. It's just a bunch of XML files hosted on different websites.

Because feeds are decentralized, you also don't have to worry about all of your feeds going down at once. That also means anyone can host an RSS feed, and websites can even have as many feeds on them as they want; they just have to create a new XML file (for instance BBC News has many different RSS feeds for various news categories).

I think RSS is especially important for one of my favorite things on the world wide web: small personal websites. A typical tiny website isn't necessarily going to be posting updates on Twitter. Even on a platform like Neocities that does offer a follow function and an automatically generated feed of site updates, you still have to register for an account. And you still have to check your Neocities home feed every time you want to get updates on Neocities sites.

In theory, RSS allows you to subscribe to all of your web things in one place. You can get the latest news headlines, see the newest podcast episodes, and find out that a random website you subscribed to finally had its first update in years... all in your feed reader! For free! With no ads!

And yes, you can subscribe to any podcast via RSS, since podcasts actually just are RSS feeds.

How can I subscribe to RSS Feeds?

I honestly am not an expert in feed readers. I strongly suggest you just do a web search for "RSS feed readers"; there are many to choose from. There are both desktop and mobile clients, as well as browser extensions. (Also there are almost certainly various terminal RSS feed readers for all you UNIX nerds out there).

I personally use Feedbro for Firefox as my current RSS feed reader and I think it's perfectly suitable. My main issue is that I don't really know the best way to easily sync my RSS feeds between devices, so currently my RSS reader is only available to me on my desktop computer.

If anyone has other suggestions for good RSS readers, feel free to reach out and I'll add some to this section!

Of course, RSS readers can't do much if you can't find any feeds to follow. Typically you'll just want to keep your eyes peeled for that orange RSS icon for your best way to find a feed; most of the time near other social media buttons if it is there at all.

One of the best ways I've been able to find RSS feeds is by using a browser extension to help me find them. There are many, many browser extensions that allow you to find RSS feeds while you're surfing the web. Most websites with feeds typically have a hidden piece of metadata defined in their HTML document that actually links to the RSS feed and these extensions just expose these links to the user. This is especially helpful on sites like Youtube that have RSS functionality but otherwise obfuscate it from the user.

You can also use certain services to generate feeds from social media to RSS feeds. For example, if you want to follow a certain user from Twitter on an RSS feed, you can subscribe to an RSS feed generated by Nitter by plugging{USERNAME}/rss into your feed reader, substituting {USERNAME} for the user's Twitter username.

Another admittedly naive way to find RSS feeds is just guessing: sometimes you can find a feed at /rss.xml or /feed.xml on a site, or by appending .rss to the end of a page's URL, although this is not guaranteed to work at all. And sometimes when it does work you're essentially hitting an undocumented feature of whatever web app you're using.

When in doubt, always do a web search to see if a specific platform/website supports RSS! A lot of social media on the fediverse (sites like Mastodon, etc) have native support for RSS but it's not always well documented.

How can I make an RSS feed for my website?

Want to host your own RSS feed? Ultimately it's just a matter of making an XML file that conforms to the RSS specification. ... Okay that spec is a bit dense if you're a beginner. I highly recommend checking out an RSS tutorial on the web if you've never written one before. It's a bit tricky at first if you're new to web development since RSS's XML syntax is a bit more strict than HTML, but it's easy once you get a hang of it.

If you are writing your own RSS feed, I highly recommend using an RSS validator to make sure that your feed is valid. If you make a mistake in your feed, RSS feed readers might not be able to parse your feed. :(

If writing your own feed sounds scary, there are ways to generate an RSS feed automatically. Some hosts/backends like WordPress, Squarespace, and Wix provide feeds automatically. Also, Neocities provides very basic RSS feeds automatically, although I think the feature needs work since it doesn't provide any descriptions in the feed at all. You can access a Neocities site's RSS feed by locating its profile and clicking the "Share" button. The first option should be RSS/Atom Feed which will link to an RSS feed for that site. For example, you can check out my automatically generated Neocities RSS feed, although I recommend you subscribe to the feeds I made for my site instead.

My Site's RSS Feeds

I maintain a few RSS feeds on this site, one for my homepage's site updates, two more for the blogs I host, and one for shrine updates.

Don't hesitate to copy these links and paste them into your feed reader! Also if you're thinking of using RSS on your site, feel free to study the XML of these and other feeds when building your feed!

One last <item>

Please use RSS if you can. It's a small, kind of nerdy thing, but open technologies like these keep the web free, convenient, and accessible to others. Don't rely on centralized social media feeds to keep track of everything on the web. When you use RSS, you're supporting a free, decentralized, and independent web instead of the modern corporate hellscape a lot of the internet is today.

If you have ever resonated with any form of internet manifesto, or even written one yourself, then RSS is a tool that probably aligns with your interests. It is a rejection of modern social media and the monetized corporate web. It embraces interoperability, open standards, accessiblity, customization, and so much more. Use RSS and take web syndication back from corporate social media!

Implement RSS Now!