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What makes RSS better than social timelines?

Replied to The Fail Whale Cascade by Luke Harris (

I’m bored of what I call “the timeline era”. Scanning an unending stream of disconnected posts for topics of interest is no longer fun, I prefer deciding what to read based on titles, or topic-based discussion.

I am a huge fan of RSS and have never stopped using it to follow blogs and webcomics. But lately as I’ve read lots of people talking about timelines, a question has been niggling at me: what does make an RSS feed* feel better to use than “the timeline” of social media? They are both streams of information, but I prefer RSS.

*by RSS feed, I mean the stream composed of multiple individual feeds — it is a little confusing that the singular and plural/collective of feed are the same.

Continuing in the vein of exploring what makes a blog a blog, I’m curious why an RSS feed feels better than social media timelines. Are we conflating our like of blogs with a like of RSS, or is there something about RSS feeds inherently that we really do prefer to other timelines?

I think it’s useful to dig into what elements of the experience make a substantive difference, so we can make better design choices with new tools in the future. I’m interested not in the technical details here (yay RSS is open and not owned by a corporation, boo it’s kind of a pain to explain and set up) — I’m interested in how we use the technology, and how we feel about using it.

What’s similar between RSS feeds and social media timelines:

  • Both present posts in a mix of content by assorted authors, each labeled with the author
  • You choose who to follow
  • The author of a post doesn’t know *you* looked at it unless you engage with it
  • Third party clients are (slash have been) available
  • It’s sometimes possible to group people/accounts (folders etc)

What’s different about RSS feeds:

  • The stream ends once you’re out of content
  • Blog posts are often longer than social posts and have a title
  • Conversation is not embedded — comments by people you don’t know are not interspersed with posts from people you follow (though you can often subscribe to a comments feed if you want to read the comments)
  • Social feedback, such as likes and shares, is not visible
  • RSS feeds are (usually) strictly chronological, with no algorithm or recommended posts inserted in the stream
  • Clients allow you to mark posts as read

How do these differences affect how we feel about the feed?

Maybe RSS feeds feel calmer because there are fewer posts to read, and there is a clear end to new content. Is there an expectation that what you read will be longer, with more thought invested in writing them? There could be a different “culture” assumed by the content, with less emphasis on hot takes and less conflict-oriented interaction.

But these feelings are rooted in what you follow: blogs are what bring a slower pace, fewer posts, and longer content. Does RSS still feel better if you use it to follow people on Mastodon, for instance? How does the experience of reading social posts change when it’s delivered by RSS rather than a social media timeline?

Is it how the content’s presented on RSS that’s different, or our mindsets when we’re reading the stream? Social media is oriented around threads, inherently interactive and conversational, while RSS is about taking in information, not as part of a community.

Could one part be that RSS allows hypertext functionality, which makes it feel like part of the web? On social media you have to post full URLs instead of linking text. Social media silos encourage staying inside the silo.*

*Tangential question: does social media encourage an “I’ll consume whatever’s fed to me” consumption mindset for the whole internet, or do people raised in the social media age still collect tabs to read later? If I opened the (mobile) browser of a teenager, would they also have 100+ tabs?

I think the title element that Luke mentions raises a good point: in an RSS feed you don’t actually ‘consume’ the content until you actively select it. Posts display collapsed in the feed (at least in the clients I have used). You can go through your entire RSS feed post by post, but the format of a feed allows you to pick and choose what to read, often based on a title (otherwise an excerpt). If you just scroll without clicking, you won’t actually read anything but titles. Some feeds only publish partial posts, so you have to click through to the website to read the whole thing — another interaction needed that puts you in more control of what you consume.


(Via Rach Smith.)

Also posted on IndieNews

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

9 replies on “What makes RSS better than social timelines?”

Thanks Tracy. I had been struggling to think about why I prefer using Feedly to Twitter and your suggestions of reasons that may lead to the feeling of calmness and being in control really helps. I used to run staff development sessions at our university on using feedreaders, but it seemed like ten years ago everyone just said “No, Twitter’s all I need”. Now if feels like people are questioning the experience of Twitter a bit more, and people might be interested again.

Thanks Peter! I can see why your colleagues may have felt like Twitter was the only thing worth bothering with, with the popularity of Academic and Science Twitter. As people they follow shift to platforms like Mastodon, or start newsletters, or return to blogging, RSS should become more appealing again as their own single place to check in and follow information. Though I wish it hadn’t taken such a ruthless takeover of Twitter to get the public at large to rethink the experience of Twitter and social media, I’m glad that it is sparking reinterest in other options. I wish you success spreading the good word!

🔗 What makes RSS better than social timelinesTracy raises important questions about the possible end of the timeline era:

Does RSS still feel better if you use it to follow people on Mastodon, for instance? How does the experience of reading social posts change when it’s delivered by RSS rather than a social media timeline?

I tried reading my social feed (Mastodon) via RSS and it became nosiy, at one point I felt it was getting in the way of the longer form posts I’m used to enjoy on my Feed reader so I went back to the Mastodon Timeline. I’d say it’s the mindset but also the Reader itself. Together made the “scrolling process” more natural but it’s too technical to use or mass adoption.

Tracy Durnell asks:

Does RSS still feel better if you use it to follow people on Mastodon, for instance? How does the experience of reading social posts change when it’s delivered by RSS rather than a social media timeline? What makes RSS better than social timelines?

I’m using (while it’s still allowed) NetNewsWire’s Twitter extension to read my Twitter stream, and for Mastodon. In response to Tracy’s question I can answer it’s better for me but it takes a bit of tinkering and it is a bit odd. It looks like this:

Tweets appearing in NetNewsWire as another feed.

Why use an RSS feed reader to read your social media stream?

I have two problems with social media. Firstly, once I login, I quickly find myself enacting a twitchy round of repetitive rituals. As there’s no barrier to entry beyond owning an internet connected device and being able to write a sentence, it starts with simply posting a thought, [swipe down] which leads to checking for a reply, [swipe down] which allows me to check for new posts, which leads to retweeting, [swipe down] checking for a reply and posting another thought. If I’m working I may return to writing an email or whatever I should be doing, but within seconds I’ll return to the social media account and [swipe down] start again.

This mixture of work and social media puts in me mind of Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas, as he’s trying to organise a drug deal, keep an eye on the helicopter that’s following his every move while making sure the tomato sauce he’s cooking for dinner is OK.

Writing an email, retweeting @dril and attending a “no cameras off” Teams call at the same time.

Secondly, because a stream has no beginning or end it’s theoretically possible to scroll forever, experiencing something notionally different every time. As Heraclitis has it Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that I can waste an awful lot of time on social media.

Why RSS feed readers are better for reading your social media stream than apps or the service website

Reading your stream in an RSS reader solves these problems in two basic ways. Firstly, you can’t react to a Mastodon or Twitter post beyond marking it as read or starring it, which of course isn’t the social signal it would normally be. While it is possible to get in the habit of refreshing your feed periodically, it’s not the same as getting sucked into the round of [swipe down] micro-reactions.

Secondly, RSS feed lists are more finite than social media streams. At any point in time there are only a certain number of unread items to read. Other items may appear while you’re working through your feed, but there are no byways to explore, new accounts to follow or conversations to begin. You can more or less complete reading your stream until the next time you open your reader. Done.

How reading your social media stream in an RSS feed reader feels different

Stripped of the buzz of the full stream, or the back and forth of a conversation, social media posts feel more stark in an RSS reader. You can definitely process your feed more quickly. If it sounds more like reading email – or even work – that’s probably right, and it does encourage a similarly brusque approach to anything you wouldn’t deem “important”. Of course, that isn’t necessarily an entirely good thing – one of the benefits you might gain from social media is the sense of a community reacting to its members’ thoughts, however “frivolous” they may seem taken out of context.

Indeed, in the same way that publishing social media reactions to a post on your website without permission seems vaguely devious, there’s something voyeuristic about observing toots and tweets from a distance.

Gene Hackman listenin’ in in The Conversation.

Separating the noise from the “real” stuff

So reading your social media stream in an RSS reader solves a set of problems, but as Andrés points out:

I tried reading my social feed (Mastodon) via RSS and it became nosiy, at one point I felt it was getting in the way of the longer form posts I’m used to enjoy on my Feed reader so I went back to the Mastodon Timeline…

This is true. Your social media posts will seem like junk compared to your “proper” blogs, and it soon becomes frustraing dismissing dozens of more or less meaningless tweets or toots just to reach the odd fully formed post.

Setting up your RSS feed reader to read your social media streams

I tweaked my NetNewsWire set up to solve this problem. The aim is to separate your social media feeds from everything else. It might be possible using tags, or some other mechanism:

I have NetNewsWire connected to my Feedbin account, which means I can sync my feeds across devices (and RSS apps). However, you can still add a feed “On my Mac“, which means it doesn’t get added to Feedbin and therefore won’t sync across devices. That means no access to Mastodon or Twitter via NetNewsWire on my phone or work laptop.
During the day, most of my reading will take place on my phone or on my work Windows laptop using the Feedbin website. I don’t have my own Macbook to hand.
Generally, I’ll turn on my own laptop in the evening, or before I begin work in the morning. I can put aside 15-20 minutes to go through my social media feeds and pick out anything of interest, keeping it separate from the rest of my day, and my blog reading.

This is a relatively arcane set up that relies on creating friction simply not to read social media tweets on social media. It’s all a little sad, really, but I’d be loath to lose my Mastodon feed, and I know that if I started using a client or even the excellent Pinafore regularly, I’d soon get sucked back in.

Like Tracy, I’d be interested to see how other people are mediating their social media usage, and how it affects the experience. Leave a comment if you are.

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