Freedom from algorithmic news feed requires just two steps:
- Content creators need to put their content on a site they can fully control, rather than on restrictive social media platforms. These sites should generate an appropriate web feed (e.g. RSS) allowing for open syndication.
- Audiences, fans, and followers need to embrace neutral, third-party aggregators (e.g. feed readers) that can pull from those independently controlled sources and put everything together in a feed controlled by only its specific user.
Both of these steps are easier said than done, and there’s a bit of catch-22 involved. But the second step is actually easier than the first because it’s cheaper (even free!), and some existing sites and platforms are compatible with feed readers, so users don’t necessarily need to wait for their favourite creators to self-host first.
Which feed reader should you use?
I’ll make it easy for you: use Feedly.
They’re not sponsoring me or anything, but now there’s no decision paralysis excuse.
There are lots of other options, and if you have the time and inclination to poke around and explore, I encourage it! One benefit of being a tool instead of a platform is that anyone can make a new one, and there’s plenty of healthy competition. Web syndication is also a deep technical rabbit hole if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’m recommending Feedly primarily because, to be honest, it’s the only reader I’ve really used since Google Reader’s demise in 2013. I choose it at the time because they made it extra easy to import everything from ye ol’ sinking ship. Feedly gets the job done well enough for me, so I think it’s as good a starting place as any. I mostly use it in my browser, but it has both an iOS and Android app, so you can access your feeds wherever you’d like.
Most of the rest of this is Feedly web app-centric, but I’m sure you can extrapolate the important bits to your reader of choice.
How does a feed reader work?
A web feed, like RSS, basically just logs website updates in a standardised format.
A feed reader, or aggregator, regularly checks its assigned feeds and loads the logged updates. As a user adds feeds to their reader, they’re basically curating their own personal newspaper, with support for videos and music as well as text and image content because this is the future, dangit.
Modern feed readers allow users a myriad of organisational options, such as the ability to sort feeds into categories and subcategories, to assign tags or labels, and to save articles for later. Users can combine everything in their reader into one big news feed, or they can browse by category, which makes things much easier to navigate, in my opinion. Feedly allows feeds to be sorted chronologically, reverse chronologically, or even algorithmically if you really want.
Feedly has taken plenty of cues from popular social platforms and introduced things like boards you can save updates/articles to and mute filters (a paid feature). I personally just use the free version of Feedly and don’t utilise many features, but hey, options. It’s always good to have more options than you need than fewer options than you want.
What can you add to your feed reader right now?
Unsurprisingly, as regularly syndicated content that usually aren’t hosted (solely) on social media platforms, webcomics are a great place to start grabbing feeds.
All webcomics built on WordPress (usually using Comicpress, Webcomic, or Comiceasel as a plugin) have an RSS feed by default. All non-comic WordPress sites have an RSS feed for the blog, if there is one.
Feedly can usually figure out what you’re looking for if you type in the name of a website or comic directly into its Add Content dialogue. But if not, you’ll need to find the direct URL of the RSS feed, which is why it’s always great when sites specifically let you know there’s a feed.
WordPress sites, even if they don’t mention the RSS feed, usually have the feed under
website.com/feed I often try this with non-WP sites or sites of unknown structure, just to see. It seems to work about 60% of the time, haha. For example, Jetpens has an RSS icon buried in their site footer, but their feed URL is
jetpens.com/blog/feed, which is easy enough to guess.
Usually clicking on or loading an RSS link in your browser will give you the file contents or prompt you to download the RSS XML file, but you can just grab and paste that URL into Feedly.
Every Tumblr blog has an RSS feed available.
I know Tumblr isn’t the cool place to be anymore, but if you have artists you like who still use Tumblr, you can still follow them while abandoning Tumblr yourself. Add Content>Type in the Tumblr URL you want to follow>bam, add, done.
If you follow a lot of people, you can skip manually adding each Tumblog and grab your Tumblr OPML file (a standard format for lists of subscriptions) from
https://www.tumblr.com/following.opml while you’re logged in. You can then import that file directly into Feedly either when you sign up, or later via Account>Organize Sources>Import OPML. (There’s also a teeny icon next to “Feeds” that gets you to Organize Sources.)
The import process may take a while since Feedly will check each follow to ensure it can read its feed, so you may see follows queued for a bit. But when it’s finished, you can get all your Tumblr content on Feedly without looking at your terrible, unorganised, infinite scroll Tumblr dashboard ever again!
(And if you’re an artist still using Tumblr, please. Please, for the love of all things good, leave this option (Edit theme>Advanced options>Truncate RSS feed) disabled.)
Feedly supports adding Twitter feeds (which aren’t RSS format), though this is now a paid feature where it wasn’t before. This doesn’t bother me much since most of my Twitter feeds are full of trivial things that move very quickly and aren’t really worth aggregating, but it may be worth considering if you follow news-only accounts or accounts that tweet relatively infrequently.
What if there’s no feed available?
Unfortunately, many platforms specifically do not have a feed because they want you to only read content through their website or app, which are typically ad-supported. Lookin’ at you, GoComics. Facebook and Instagram also specifically do not have externally-available feeds, since their ads are built into their internal feeds. And of course, there are also plenty of sites that just aren’t set up for feeds, whether because of the technical ability of its owner, ignorance, or indifference.
This is an age-old problem, but since RSS is old, there have been a variety of workarounds and stopgaps over the years.
For webcomics, fans often take it upon themselves to generate their own feeds for content which don’t have native feeds. For example, ComicsRSS.com syndicates most comics from GoComics. Some comics like Sinfest have had a myriad of fan-generated RSS feeds over the years because for whatever reason, the source won’t just provide its own dang feed. (Or rather, for Sinfest specifically, its official feed has been broken since 2014. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
For social platforms and other websites without a native feed, many services like FetchRSS and RSS.app will generate one for you. Personally, I’ve not run into that many websites I want to follow that don’t have a feed, so I’ve not used any of these services and can’t vouch for them, but the options are there if you want to try. Googling “web to RSS” or “RSS for [website]” always nets a bunch of results.
Using your feed reader
One of the things that may take getting used to is the fact that some content will display in full in your reader — full blog articles, a readable image from a webcomic — while other feeds only allow for a linked title and description to be loaded into readers, and users must click through see the content on the source website.
This can make going through updates a little disjointed, but this is also what keeps control with the content creators, who can choose what parts of their content they allow to be consumed via a third-party (the reader). In some cases (like Tumblr RSS truncation), they may not be aware and you can try sending a note about it. In most other cases, it’s an ad-revenue thing. Feedly’s mobile app opens source URLs within the app though, similar to how Twitter and Discord’s apps behave, so it’s really not that different in the end.
No one came out of the gate using their most addictive social media platform daily. Habits form over time, so get into the habit of using your reader!
Set Feedly as your home page. Put the app icon on your homescreen. When you’re browsing around a site clicking on things that you didn’t actually follow but were judged to be relevant to you because algorithms, realise that you can probably add a feed for your specific follows to your reader. If you don’t have enough content in your reader to keep you interested, add more! There are so many cool webcomics these days. I’ve literally never used the Explore/Discover section of Feedly, but there’s stuff there too if you want it.
And if you’ve got too many sources and it’s overwhelming, break them down into more categories and read by category, or just hit that ever reliable “mark as read.” Not having infinite scroll, universally combined, algorithmic feeds means that you’ll see exactly how many updates you’ve got unread. This is the power of not missing any updates returned to you! But you had no obligation to “catch up” with your Twitter feed even when it was chronological, and you don’t need to read every single thing in your feed reader now, either.
(By default, Feedly only shows you the last 30 days worth of updates from all feeds anyway, though you can browse through updates older than that if you want.)
You’re the one in control here, so do whatever you want. Be free!