Reading RSS in 2020

Nominally, this blogpost is part of my good friend [tj]'s effort to get us all blogging more by making us write four blog posts in june. Please ignore the fact I'm starting on the 27th June, and check out some of the other people also blogging in June.


Taking part in [tj]'s "Blog More in June" initiative, I figured it'd be thematically appropriate to start by talking about how I read blog posts. Or rather, how I used to read blog posts, and how I'm trying to re-capture that today.

Then

Way back in October 2005, Google engineer Chris Wetherell (the man who built the Retweet) launched a new experimental project through Google Labs. It was called "Google Reader", and the concept was simple; take the traditional RSS reader's email inbox-like view of of your RSS subscriptions, and put it in the browser. 2005 Google was much different to the Google we know 15 years later, and the simple, uncomplicated view of your blog subscriptions combined with the synchronisation of "read" items between your computers and 2005-era mobile devices made it an instant hit.

I discovered Google Reader in 2010 - initially trying to keep up with a few blogs I read religiously, and a number of webcomics. It was excellent - one URL and I got all the things I cared about with fuss, distractions or adverts.

Like all of their best products, Google killed Reader in 2013, in a misguided effort to funnel users into a completely different product, Google+. You may have heard of it.

When Reader shut down, I spent a few years drifting between Feedbin, Feed Wrangler and Feedly, all tools which purported to be Google Reader replacements, but over the years these services either shut down, sold out to advert providers, or sold out to advert providers and then shut down. It seemed that with or without the backing of Google's bottomless money-pit, hosted RSS Feed readers weren't meant to be.

Now

Cut to 2020, and I find myself with a growing bookmarks folder of friends with interesting blogs, and no real way to find out if there's new content beyond remembering they exist and manually going down the list of bookmarks. This was a lot of friction, and has led to many of my friends blogs remaining mostly unread, save for the occasional article they post in IRC.

Enter FreshRSS. FreshRSS is an RSS aggregator, like Google Reader, that you can host yourself. The project started in 2013, seemingly as a direct replacement for Google Reader, but it only recently entered my radar.

FreshRSS is pretty great on it's own - it's a classic PHP application, you just drop it in a folder, point your webserver at it, configure a MySQL (or in my case, MariaDB) database and you're away. It didn't take particularly long to set up the subscriptions to all my friends' blogs, and the UI is very reminiscent of Google Reader.

There is one important caveat that will confuse you the first time you add a couple of feeds, however: Items are sorted in the order they're fetched, instead of by the date in the RSS item. This will mean that every time you add a feed, you end up with a big block of items from that feed in the middle of your "Main Stream", which is what FreshRSS calls its default view. This is a feature - if you're interested why this happens, it's discussed on the FreshRSS issue tracker at quite some length.

The best thing about FreshRSS, however, is the support for both the old Google Reader API and the newer Fever API - this means I can point some native RSS reader applications at my FreshRSS server and have an excellent, distraction- free reading experience. My favourite RSS reader at the moment is Reeder. It's £10 on MacOS and £5 on iOS, and it's well worth it.

So, here we are. I can sit in bed with my iPad and have interesting content from my friends funneled straight to my face, just like I used to do back in 2012 with my 2012 iPad. That's awesome.

Thank you for joining me in what turned out to be a longer and more rambly blogpost than I expected! If anything doesn't make sense, please reach out by email: alfie @ this domain! Finally, again, please go check out the other folk also taking part in [tj]'s "Blog More in June" effort, linked at the top of this article.

The soundtrack to this blog post is The Chemical Brothers' 2002 Album Come with us. A classic of early 2000s dance music.