I recently discovered the magical and somewhat retro world of RSS feeds. Remember that little orange "wifi" icon that used to live next to blog titles? Yes, that's what we're talking about. Very 00s.
I'm here to tell you why RSS is still useful today, particularly for a developer in the everchanging tech world.
RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication" (or "RDF Site Summary". Aren't acronyms fun?).
Put simply, it's a way for websites to allow users to subscribe to their content, most commonly used in blogs.
RSS has fallen out of vogue in the past 10 years with the rise of social media. but I believe it can still be a very useful tool, particularly in the dev world.
As developers, particularly if you're a newbie, there is so much to learn and to keep on top of. How do we orchestrate the journey of those streams of information from disparate websites and into our brains?
That's where RSS feed apps come in. RSS feed apps can help you keep up to date with tech blogs, release notes, video tutorials series, and even email-only newsletters.
There are plenty of apps available out there, each with their pros and cons. I've been checking out two of the most popular, which are:
They look a bit like this:
I have blocked any ads for posting here, but I usually allow them to help support the developers.
- Search for a topic you want to read about and follow any feeds that look interesting.
- Alternatively, enter a URL for a website you want to follow, or use your chosen app's browser extension (if available) to add sites to your feed when you visit them.
- The feed will appear in your feeds list and you'll be able to start browsing through a list of previous posts from that website straight away.
- Over time, you'll see new content from your feeds coming through, like an email inbox.
And that's it!
Well, that's not it it. There is plenty more you can do with these apps, such as setting up rules for highlighting specific content, sharing reading lists with teams, and much much more.
But to start with, just by following a few feeds, you can now easily stay up-to-date with React's release notes, or your favourite tech guru's blog, or a YouTube tutorial series you've been following. All in one place!
It's best to just go out and try a few and find out what you prefer. However, here are a few initial thoughts on the two RSS feed apps I've been trying out:
- Friendly, helpful UI with plenty of useful action buttons like "save for later" and "mark as read".
- Pretty design. Looks like a magazine.
- Intuitive search UI for finding new feeds.
- Design is more functional and compact.
- Has some really nice features, like "send to device".
- Seems to be able to retrieve images for articles more easily than Feedly.
- Can subscribe to email newsletter subscriptions, without all the inconvenience of them entering your actual email inbox!
There are plenty of other apps available, these are just the two I've spent most time with, and arguably the most popular. They're both great, and I am continuing to trial and compare them.
A great feature some of these apps have is that they are able to subscribe to web page content updates that don't actually have their own RSS feed. So you're not always relying on websites providing an RSS feed in the first place. (I know that Inoreader can do this; I'm not sure whether Feedly can yet.)
Now, often RSS feed apps won't be able to retrieve the website's full content, and will encourage you to visit the website itself instead. To me, that's fine. The app is serving the purpose of notifying me about new content, which is the prime purpose of using an RSS feed app.
But reading content without the usual guff and bulk that websites often come with can be really helpful. Furthermore, having a place outside of your browser tabs to safely store a list of reading materials for later is invaluable. This is why I use a reading app alongside an RSS feed app.
Browsers like Firefox and Opera come with a built-in reading mode. You can even turn on Chrome's experimental reading list feature (go to chrome://flags and search "reading list"). But for ease of use, I like to use Pocket.
Pocket is a really handy application for easily saving website content to read later. The reading view simplifies content, allowing you to focus on text and images. It's like reading an eBook on a Kindle.
A popular alternative to Pocket is Instapaper, although I haven't had the pleasure of trying it out yet. I'm sure there are plenty others too.
RSS feeder apps do generally come with their own reading mode features, but they don't always work perfectly. In any case, I find it helpful to separate out a few articles I actually want to read into my reading app, and let my RSS feed app just deal with offering new content to me.
On that point, and going back to RSS, I would advise against following too many feeds to start with.
It may be tempting to click "follow" on as many feeds as possible. I did that at first, but this was instantly overwhelming and unhelpful. So many unread articles!
Instead, be selective. Think YAGNI ("You Aren't Gonna Need It"). Or perhaps YARNI ("You Aren't Gonna Read It").
I suggest following a few feeds you're genuinely interested in following, and building up gradually.
Similarly, don't add every single article you see to Pocket. Find some you're actually going to read, then make sure you read them before adding too many more. Remember: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
RSS feed apps are a useful tool for any developer. They're not the be all and end all, and you will likely want to utilise Twitter (bleugh!) if you're serious about staying up-to-date with all the goings-on in the tech world. But using these tools can certainly help automate your knowledge-absorbing process.
Do you use an RSS reader or a reading app? What are your favourite apps to use, and why? Are there any other methods of learning and keeping up-to-date that you find helpful? Comment below!
Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any of the apps mentioned in this article, they're just a few I've been trying out or have heard of.
Also: this is my first proper blog post! Any constructive feedback is much appreciated.