Infinite Scroll VS Responsibility to Manage

People want things to be easy, and they don’t want to feel obligated. I think this is why RSS has always had relatively low adoption rates, even in the blogging hey day of the mid-2000’s.

Feed readers have worked really hard in the last decade to adopt many of the things that have made social media platforms popular:

  1. Signing up is easy: you only really need an email and a password. There’s no need for a username because you aren’t broadcasting anything, only consuming. Your email is your login. Hell, these days, OAuth is pervasive enough that you can just sign up with your Google account or Apple ID or a myriad of other existing accounts. You don’t need a separate login at all.
  2. Adding content is easy: right after signing up for any feed reader, users are prompted with a search for websites or the option to browse broad categories of topics, which feature particular feeds, to add. This is still a step down from a lot of social media though, which now often start serving up content immediately, without the user needing to even think of anyone to follow.
  3. Algorithms are optional: despite the frequent loud grumbles against achronological feeds, algorithmic feeds must appeal to some broad swath of people, because even feed readers added the option. Chronological is always default though.

Getting your content through a feed reader is almost as convenient as getting it through a social media app, so why is adoption still so low?

Feedly's add feed/source screen
Feedly’s add feed/source screen.

Social Media’s Walled Gardens

One problem is that the walled gardens (or “silos“) of social media make it difficult to access that content from the outside.

If your favourite artist only posts on Twitter, then I guess you have to have Twitter to follow them1. Some feed readers, like Feedly, allow you to add Twitter feeds, but only as a paid feature. Some platforms, like YouTube, do have feeds available, so you can follow your favourite YouTubers via your feed reader, but isn’t obvious at all.

Content creator not having the time or technical knowledge or incentive to set up outside of social media is an unfortunate catch-22, but it’s a lot easier to start using a feed reader than it is to build a website to serve a feed, so I think change has to come from that end first.

Responsibility to Manage

I think the other major obstacle in feed reader and RSS adoption is that people hate “mark all as read,” but they also hate “having to” clear out their readers.

Twitter never tells you (anymore) how many unread tweets you have. Instagram will only tell you that you’ve read “all” the new posts, even if it also just showed you the same post ten times (seriously, why is Instagram’s algorithm so bad?), and you aren’t quite sure you can actually believe it when it says you’ve reached the end.

Feed readers, by contrast, will tell you exactly how many posts are still unread (though I believe Feedly will politely abbreviate to “1000+” after you’ve hit a thousand).

The other thing that tells you exactly how many things you still have to look at is email, and most people hate email for this reason. Getting the unread number down feels like a chore and an obligation. As more stuff rolls in, the number becomes unwieldy and impossible. And you forget — you forget that you actually wanted these things. You forget that it’s art, that it’s comics, that it’s an essay from a writer you like, that it’s amusement and entertainment and news.

And then you go back to social media, because it will never tell you you’re behind. You can always be in the moment. Algorithms keep you from missing the good stuff. Everything else filters to the bottom, and you’ll never know about it, so you’ll never feel bad about missing it. Anyway, you can scroll forever, you consume so much content, so surely you aren’t missing anything important. Artists always retweet at peak hours or whatever, right? So you definitely won’t miss stuff.

Social media takes the pressure off. You don’t have to reach the bottom of the timeline. No one’s keeping track.

434 unread items in my Feedly currently
434 unread is pretty good for me tbh

Feed readers will always let you know, and that’s the crux of it. People don’t want to know.

Nevermind that knowing lets you make informed decisions about what you don’t actually need to read or look at. Unlike with work emails (although this is arguable, tbh), you don’t actually have to read every post or watch every video or even look at every comic page. Feed readers always let you look at your numbers by individual feed, so you can see exactly where all your unread content is coming from. You can decide that you don’t care about certain sources sometimes.

Skim the headlines from that local news feed. If nothing catches your eye, just mark as read! If you don’t even have time to skim and the headlines are piled up from the last two months, mark as read! It’s from two months ago. You can decide that that news probably isn’t relevant anymore.

Are you 30 pages behind on a webcomic? What a joy to have that many pages to read at once! But if you’re not in the mood or don’t have time, you can just treat that unread number as a little treat for later instead of a burden. Those 30 pages are more like 30 pieces of candy in the cupboard than 30 emails from your boss.

Or maybe you’re not into that comic anymore. Remove the feed, then! Make that informed decision. Or make a rule, follow it, and let that set you free: if you haven’t read it in a month, mark as read. (This is Feedly’s default, actually.)

Addendum, May 2022: A friend pointed out that it’s perhaps not great to simply advise people to “care less” or to ignore anxiety regarding unread counts. This is fair enough! It would be great if more feed readers could implement an option that just hides the unread count and if things disappear after 30 days, then that’s that. This seems like a pretty simple solution that is also easy to implement. Get on it, Feedly!

In the meantime, you could implement this yourself if you 1) use Feedly out of a desktop browser and 2) use a CSS tweaker like Stylebot. Just add .LeftnavListRow__count {display: none} as a rule.

Dude reading a newspaper
I don’t miss getting newsprint ink all over my fingers, but it was nice reading physical papers because of the lack of urgency… Don’t you miss lack of urgency? It is fine, actually, to get last week’s news today. Photo: Roman Kraft (Unsplash).

Convenience VS Control, Again

Social media removes the pressure, the burden, and the responsibility of management. It removes the need for decisions. It makes everything easy. Life is hard enough. What’s wrong with easy?

Nothing, of course, until it’s not nothing.

Nothing, until you realise you haven’t seen posts from your favourite artist in a while, and it’s not because they’re inactive. Nothing, until you miss a sale, or a commission slot opening, or something else you were looking forward to, because algorithms. Nothing, until your favourite writer is harassed off the platform. Nothing, until you’re harassed off the platform. And so on.

Feed readers connect you to independent sites, incentivising people to build those independent sites. The Internet shouldn’t only be people posting to small handful of all-powerful platforms, but it’s hard for creators to tough it on their own if their audiences and supporters are only spending time in walled gardens. For as long as creators are financially supported by their audiences, they need to be where their audiences are.

And so, the onus is on the masses to take (back) control of their own experiences.

A feed reader is the daily newspaper delivery to your private cottage. You can read it in whatever order you want. You can toss away the parts you don’t want to read. You don’t have to stop visiting the walled gardens, but in case they ever kick you out, or they burn to the ground, or they’re taken over by a billionaire you don’t like, it’s good to have that paper delivery to keep you connected to things you care about.

1 Nitter is an alternative to Twitter’s frontend and has native RSS support, so that’s an option.

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, webmaster, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention and event vending experience and a lot of opinions.