Toxic social media leading to renaissance in RSS readers

RSS readers have quietly become powerful tools while no-one was watching.
Cam MacMurchy

I’ve been using RSS to get my news and follow my favourite columnists and blogs for as long as I can remember, so I was as gutted as anyone when Google announced it would discontinue the popular Google Reader back in 2013. At the time, Google Reader was dominant in its field, and people had spent years using the service to set up their feeds just so. The closure felt like the end of an era: RSS was dying, and alternatives like Twitter and Facebook were gaining ground as places where people could discover and comment on the news.

When Google Reader was discontinued, a few smaller companies quickly stepped up to pick off RSS consumers who were frantically searching for a new home. One of the most popular at the time – Feedly – was where I and many others ended up, and where I stayed up until just a few weeks ago. Feedly now boasts one of the largest RSS user-bases in the world. I had occasionally sampled some others, like Mr. Reader (also now discontinued), over the years, and everybody seemed to have their favorite despite the fact they nearly all had identical functionality. It looked like innovation in the RSS space was dead; this was as good as it would ever get.

Until recently.

First, a quick lesson for the uninitiated: RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication and is a way for websites to publish their content. Users can subscribe to RSS feeds, much as they subscribe to or follow Twitter users, to get updates anytime that website publishes new content. These feeds can be collected inside a reader, where you can read content from various sites across the web without ever leaving your RSS reader’s interface. It’s super handy, especially for following sites you might not remember to visit regularly or for sites that publish high-quality, can’t-miss content, but not frequently.

In the past few months, there has been a bit of a renaissance in RSS readers. I started seeing more reviews on blogs, more announcements from developers, and more people debating their RSS reader or app of choice. Several reasons could be driving this small recovery in RSS, but I’m betting general disillusionment with social networks is primary among them. When algorithms are increasingly determining what we see, as users we become disempowered; RSS restores the user as the person in control of what they choose to read, and when.

I took the plunge and recently imported my Feedly feeds into Inoreader, which has been described as the reader with the most “pro” tools. After a few weeks of using it, I’ve been suitably impressed.  In fact, Inoreader has far exceeded my admittedly low expectations and made using an RSS reader a much bigger part of my working day. So let’s dig into why I’ve become an Inoreader convert.

Inoreader

I had seen Inoreader mentioned occasionally over the past few months, but it wasn’t until I listened to Federico Viticci discuss it on an episode of the AppStories podcast that I decided to take the plunge.

 Inoreader's Inoreader’s “Aqua” theme is the default, but an almost all-white interface or dark mode are also available.

The reader, at first glance, doesn’t look much different than other RSS readers. Feeds can be put into folders and re-arranged on the left, with content on the right. There are three different themes included, a bright white mode, dark mode, and something Inoreader calls “Aqua”. But there’s a lot more under the hood. I should note that I’m already a paid subscriber, but they offer a free tier along with several paid subscription rates here.

First up is a handy extension that finds RSS feeds within any website that you happen to be viewing. You can save the page itself to Inoreader, which doubles as a bookmarking or read-it-later service or add the RSS feed right from the site you’re viewing.  This works well, especially as websites can often make it difficult to find their feeds. The extension is available for Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.

 The browser extension finds RSS feeds within the page you're viewing, and lets you add them to Inoreader or bookmark the page. The browser extension finds RSS feeds within the page you’re viewing, and lets you add them to Inoreader or bookmark the page.

Inoreader also has a powerful search engine within the site, and can usually find RSS feeds if you simply type in a URL. If no RSS feed is available, there are a few options to try and create a makeshift one, or simply bookmark the page within Inoreader. I haven’t tried either one yet, but I’m told they work as advertised.

 The focus is on the content. The focus is on the content.

You can arrange the feeds just like you can in any other feed reader: change feed names, put them in whatever kind of order you want, or even slot them into folders. It’s all customizable. What I love the most, though, is how the screen darkens and the text is highlighted front-and-centre after you select a story. It’s a distraction-free way to read articles and puts the focus where it should be: the writing.

Perhaps the biggest way Inoreader differentiates itself is through both rules and filters. There is some overlap between these functions, but they are otherwise distinct and intended for different purposes.

I am a huge fan of the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL and have long wanted an RSS feed from the hometown newspaper that focuses on Canucks news. Unfortunately, the newspaper, known as The Province, has a single RSS feed that pumps out all stories written by journalists; not just across all sports, but also local politics, crime, etc. I haven’t lived in Vancouver for over a decade and stories of local traffic accidents aren’t that relevant to me; I just want the Canucks news. So I set up a filter:

 Nice and simple... Canucks news only, thanks! Nice and simple… Canucks news only, thanks!

You can see the potential here: you can filter through titles, authors, whether the item has photos or videos, the URL and more. You can also use the “any” or “and” provisions to whittle down the content to exactly what you’re looking for. By using the example above, I’ve created a feed from The Province that only contains articles with the word “Canucks” in the content. A win for me (and not necessarily the Canucks, who struggle with those).

Another option is to set up a rule. Rules are triggered by something of your choosing, such as a new item in the feed, a photo or video, a certain author being published, or something like that. Once triggered, the rule can do something with that item, such as save it, bookmark it, apply tags, star it, email it to someone, trigger a push notification or send it to a cloud service like Dropbox, Google Drive, Pocket or Instapaper.

 Setting up a rule to publish articles from an RSS feed into a specific folder in Instapaper... automatically. Setting up a rule to publish articles from an RSS feed into a specific folder in Instapaper… automatically.

I absolutely adore this function; there are certain times in my day when I have a few minutes to read, and ideally, the most high-quality content should be queued up and ready. The reality is I’m often opening news apps or RSS feeds and glancing through the content to find something interesting to read, with varying degrees of success. By using Inoreader rules, I’m able to send long-form articles from writers I respect directly into a custom folder in Instapaper completely automatically, where it’s ready the next time I pick up my iPad.

In 2016 I began using tags more widely across my workflows to keep track of files and folders, emails, photos, and other kinds of documents, and Inoreader allows you to tag incoming content. I haven’t worked out precisely how I’ll use tags – if at all – but for the moment I’m using them to identify specific authors I want to follow. For example, I can follow the Vox RSS feed but create a rule to tag any articles written by Ezra Klein with the “Ezra Klein” tag. That way if I’m just interested in what he’s written, I can tap the “Ezra Klein” tag and see his most recent output. I’ve just begun setting this up and am slowly adding more writers.

 Options that sit above your subscriptions in Inoreader. Options that sit above your subscriptions in Inoreader.

You can also see in the image above that Inoreader lets you plug in your Instapaper and Pocket feeds, so you can keep tabs on all of your reading material. You can also, with the paid version, follow Twitter feeds. So if there are particular Twitter users who you don’t want to miss, you can include them within Inoreader and it will display their most recent Tweets. The good news? Filters and rules apply here too, so you can remove anything you don’t want to see or take action automatically on specific content.

There are many other power features within Inoreader, so I can’t cover them all. But before wrapping up, I want to mention that Inoreader can also create custom RSS feeds. For instance, you can select two (or more) RSS feeds and Inoreader can create a new feed containing all of that content; or it could create a new feed based on rules or filtered content. There is almost no limit on how you can manipulate RSS feeds.

Finally, there is a social component to Inoreader that is optional and I haven’t explored much yet. Each user has a “channel” in which they can share stories, similar to Twitter. I don’t have any contacts on Inoreader yet and think Twitter is still the most valuable place to share content, but I have an open mind about it and will see how this develops over time.

If you’re interested in re-joining the world of RSS, or setting up an account for the first time, now is a fantastic time to begin. Services like Feedly, Inoreader, NewsBlur and FeedWrangler have all sharpened their competitiveness and are beginning to offer new, more powerful features.

While Inoreader has serviceable apps for iPhone, iPad and Android, there is some serious innovation happening in the third-party RSS apps space that is making feeds even more convenient. I’m going through some of them now (hint hint: Fiery Feeds 2, Unread and Lire) and will post my thoughts later.

What RSS reader do you use?

 The ever-popular Inoreader dark theme. The ever-popular Inoreader dark theme.

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