Diving Into RSS

This post is designed for those that have decided RSS is something to look into, but aren't sure where to start. I'll outline a couple of steps to get you started, some recommendations about various feed readers and who might find them useful, along with some usability tips.

Get a Feed Reader

I'll address potential reader demographics in turn. This is not intended as a survey of available software. Rather, these are my picks after using more than a dozen RSS readers over the years. My prime pick, Google Reader, is no longer with us, but two worthy successors takes its place if you're looking for professionally hosted web-based readers.


If you're reading across multiple devices (computers, phone, tablet), a web-based reader is almost mandatory, because RSS readers are stateful: they store which articles have already been fetched as well as which articles you have read. Even if you're only reading on your laptop, web-based are the easiest to set up and maintain, while also providing the best user experience.

For the Casual User

The best options that are hosted professionally are Feedly or The Old Reader. Both sprang from the ashes during the Great Google Reader Exodus of 2013. I would love to pick only one of these, but both are truly excellent. Both sites allow you to create an account very easily using your Google account.

I find that The Old Reader is the most exciting, because it builds a social network out of RSS, something I've wanted to see happen for years now.

Feedly has mobile apps for Android and iOS, as well as their flagship web interface. If you're using The Old Reader, it has a whole page of native app options for the mobile platforms and beyond.

For the Web-Savvy

If you run your own website and are comfortable deploying your own web app, there's always an advantage to running your own server. You have more control over your data, when you upgrade and whether or not you want to shut the service down.

The superb, open-source TT-RSS is the best-in-class for such users, and I've been using it for more than a year. It has an open-source Android app, and there is extensive third-party support for it as well.

The power of the open-source nature of the project and high community involvement is easy to appreciate if you browse through TT-RSS's plugins page.

If you're not into running your own servers, hosting providers like Bitnami offer a TT-RSS based stack that you can deploy easily.

For the Offline Afficionado

If you strongly believe that using a webpage to aggregate web pages doesn't work for you, there are several offline options.

The best, in my opinion, are the Firefox-based readers. They work across platforms as extensions to Firefox. They each have their own style, but by far the best is Brief, which provides the essential river-of-news experience that makes RSS so powerful.

On OS X, there are a few paid options, but the reader I used 'back in the day' on OS X, Vienna, is open-source and still alive and kicking.

On Linux, the best reader is still Liferea. I used it for a few weeks some years back, but moved to web-based readers because of their overall superiority.

For the Emacs Hacker

If you can't bring yourself to ever leave Emacs for anything, check out Elfeed. It's amazing, and the engineering behind the database is very interesting given the limitations imposed by Emacs.

Get Feeds

OK, so you've got a feed reader. But how do you find feeds? Most browsers have removed their built-in mechanism to identify pages with RSS. Fortunately, good browsers are easy to extend.

If you're using Firefox (you should!), then the extension RSS Icon in Awesomebar will add the RSS icon back to the URL bar, giving you one-click access to RSS subscription. If you're using Google Chrome or Chromium, get the RSS Subscription Extension, which provides almost identical functionality.

Once you add these extensions, you should come back to this site, and you'll immediately notice that it has an RSS feed because there is an orange RSS icon in the URL bar.

Integration With Your Browser

When you click on that orange icon to subscribe to a feed, your browser will bring up a preview page of the feed, and then ask you which program to use to read the feed.

The simplest approach at this point is to simply press Ctrl-l, Ctrl-c to select the URL and copy it (Cmd-l, Cmd-c on OS X) and then paste it into your feed reader's 'Add Feed' box.

A more sophisticated approach is to let your browser know what reader you're using, so it can add it with one click. If you're using Feedly, there is an extension for both Firefox and Chrome.

TT-RSS has a has a whole topic on integrating with Firefox.

If you're using Chrome or Chromium, the drop-down on the subscription page provides you the option to manage your feed readers, allowing you to provide a endpoint to call with the feed URL to subscribe.

Pro Usage Tips

Each of these probably deserves a (short) article of its own, but here are some tips I've picked up in 10 years of daily RSS reading:

  • Move through a combined view that aggregates all your feeds in reverse-chronological order. This is called the river-of-news. Don't visit feeds one-by-one, because you'll forget to visit the less frequently updated feeds. Use the river-of-news.
  • Use the keyboard to move through, visit and star articles. In most good readers, you can press '?' to get a quick help screen. Don't use the mouse.
  • Star/bookmark/favorite items that you might want to come back to later. RSS is good for reading, but is also a good database of noteworthy content.

Good luck, and stay tuned for more RSS articles soon.

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