Dear RSS, I Love You and I Hate You

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I’ve been thinking lately about the internet’s intrusion into our lives. It craves our attention, calling to us every minute of the day with something new. This unread message and that unread post. Articles and news columns and reviews and reactions and status updates. It all gets a little overwhelming. And it never stops.

I love RSS. I have used it for a very long time to read new articles from websites I like. I found RSS to be convenient, and it allows me to get right to the content and bypass all the junk that on websites now. My feed reader provides one place I can go and catch up on topics I find interesting. Most of the feeds I follow are about space science, IT security and computing technology. I go to my self hosted RSS reader and have a list of 81 sites (I just counted) of potential new content to read.

I hate RSS. Those numbers of unread articles taunt me. It is a never ending cycle of reading all the articles (well, maybe just skimming the headlines of most) to get the count to 0, but the next day there are more. I can’t possibly read all unread articles of all 81 sites every day so some tend to pile up into the hundreds of unreads. But I might want to read those articles on a topic I am somewhat interested in at some point, so the feed subscriptions stays there, always taunting me.

I remember the early days of the internet in the 90s. That is when you would actually need to “browse” the web. There we some search engines (remember Ask Jeeves or AltaVista?), but mostly it was an exploration of following links from one website to another discovering cool content. This is when content was made BY people FOR people. There were web-rings to help you discover similar websites. The total number of websites on a particular topic might actually be low enough that you could find and read them all. Each website was often managed by one person, so updates were at a manageable pace.

Lately I have been disenchanted with the modern web. Tracking, bots, algorithms, invasive corporations, ads, paywalls, bloated code, JavaScript everywhere. Everything tries to get your attention: notifications on your phone, updates to your software, anyone can contact you all hours of the day. And RSS is a manifestation of that, always there with that unread count. Admittedly this is mostly self-inflicted, after all I am the one who added all 81 feeds to my reader. I did this to myself.

But it’s not just RSS. Email obviously has its unread count in the inbox. Instant messaging apps have unread counts for your contacts and groups. The Mastodon web client shows you how many new posts have appeared in your timeline. Web discussion forums are a little better and usually just have a line that says something like “Last Read” in the topic list so you know where to pick up reading from the last time you were there. I think I like this format the best, as I can start reading the latest posts, and quit when I want without feeling pressure to zero out a number.

So where does this leave me with regards to reading my favorite sites without the pressure of RSS unread counts? Well maybe I can just go back to good old browsing again. If I just have a list of bookmarks to my favorite sites, I can choose a site I want to visit and go there. I won’t see how many “new” articles are waiting for me before I go there, I won’t know explicitly which sites I’ve neglected and have hundreds of new articles waiting for me. I will look at my list and choose where to go based on my interests on that day. I get to read what I want to read.

I can see some usefulness still in RSS for feeds which aren’t updated regularly but for which I would want to know have something new. Some personal blogs which post irregularly won’t be a deluge of new content every day. Also maybe update announcements of specific apps which shouldn’t happen too often. I did something similar with Mastodon recently, I purged all non-person accounts or ones I felt were too prolific for me to keep up with daily. Trimming down who I followed to people I care to know made the experience so much better. So perhaps it is a good idea to do the same for my RSS feeds.

But while I remember those days of the pre-corrupted internet, younger people do not. To them what we see now is normal and is not likely to be questioned. Content is no longer king, it is likes and algorithms and giving up your personal information for convenience. In a 24/7 connected world when is there time to disconnect and just be? When are you able to think about what YOU want, not what some algorithm is telling you what you want?