Syndication feeds (RSS) and social media can be complementary

May 17, 2020

Every so often I read an earnest plea to increase the use of 'RSS', by which the authors mean syndication feeds of all formats (RSS, Atom, and even JSON Feed). Some times, as in this appeal (via), it's accompanied by a plea to move away from getting things to read through social media (like Twitter) and aggregators (like I'm a long term user and fan of syndication feeds, but while I'm all in favour of more use of them, I feel that abandoning social media and aggregators is swinging the pendulum a bit too far. In practice, I find that social media and aggregators are a complement to my feed reading.

(From now on I'm just going to talk about 'social media' and lump aggregators in with them, so I don't have to type as much.)

The first thing I get through social media is discovering new feeds that I want to subscribe to. There's no real good substitute for this, especially for things that are outside my usual areas of general reading (where I might discover new blogs through cross links from existing ones I read or Internet searches). For instance, this excellent blog looking at the history of battle in popular culture was a serendipitous discovery through a link shared on social media.

The second and more important thing I get through social media is surfacing the occasional interesting to me content from places where I don't and wouldn't read regularly. If I'm only interested in one out of ten or fifty or a hundred articles in a feed, I'm never going to add it to my feed reader; it simply has too much 'noise' (from my perspective) to even skim regularly. Instead, I get to rely on some combination of people I follow on normal social media and the views of people expressed through aggregator sites to surface interesting reading. I read quite a lot of articles this way, many more than I would if I stuck only to what I had delivered through feeds I was willing to follow.

(Aggregator sites don't have to involve multiple people; see Ted Unangst's Inks.)

So, for me subscribing to syndication feeds is for things have a high enough hit rate that I want to read their content regularly, while social media is a way to find some of the hits in a sea of things that I would not read regularly. These roles are complementary. I don't want to rely on social media to tell me about things I'm always going to want to read, and I don't want to pick through a large flood of feed entries to find occasional interesting bits. I suspect that I'm not alone in this pattern.

A corollary of this is that social media is likely good for people with syndication feeds even in a (hypothetical) world with lots of syndication feed usage. Your articles appearing on Twitter and on both draws in new regular readers and shares especially interesting content with people who would at best only read you occasionally.

Written on 17 May 2020.
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Last modified: Sun May 17 21:42:56 2020
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