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If you were an active Internet user before 2013, you must have seen RSS. It presents itself in the form of this little icon on the corner of blogs and podcast sites:
To follow a blog, there was no need to create an account and sign in; all you need to do is click on the RSS icon, and from that point on, you will get updates when the blog publishes new articles. RSS was how bloggers got to their readers back then.
RSS tech has been half-dead for many years. Major browsers have dropped support, and RSS readers were discontinued. It is largely replaced by social media’s follow mechanism and recommendation algorithms. If you like someone’s content, follow them. All of your followee’s new content gets sorted by the “algorithm” and presented to you in a feed. Your feed gets more personalized based on your past habits; it can recommend new content that you may also like, something RSS can’t do.
While the new model helps readers to view content in an algorithm-optimized order and discover new content, it sometimes brings challenges and side effects. My social media feed gets over-populated with recommendations, causing me to miss the content that I actually want to read. The recommendation targeted at my preference is skewed, over-exposing me to only one side of the story.
On the writer’s side, social media brings a different set of headaches. You need to republish your content on every popular platform to get to readers. As bloggers in this day and age, you find readers wherever they are, not the other way around. Your main blog website might be the place with the least readership — readers have to remember your site URL and actively come — the bearer to entry is too high.
There are two solutions.
1. Combine blog with email newsletters
Substack’s biggest innovation is to use Email to reach readers. Readers don’t need to create an account on Substack. All they need to do is to supply their Email address, and Substack will send new articles to their inbox. The email mechanism replaced the RSS subscribing and social media following. No algorithm, just simply get your subscribed content delivered to you.
Building a blog from scratch with Email integration is technically challenging and expensive. Email services like MailChimp are not cheap, costing roughly $10 per 1000 subscribers every month. Alternatively, you can self-host Email services using pre-made software like Sendy, which uses Amazon SES to send Emails at lower costs. Both routes require advanced-level technical skills.
2. Revive RSS — JSON Feed
In 2018, Wired published an article named It’s Time for an RSS Revival, citing that RSS gives more control over content compared to algorithms and trackers from social media sites. The call of RSS revival has never stopped since its premature demise and was answered by newer projects like JSON Feed.
I can imagine a day when we admit collectively that we made a mistake of choosing Social Media over RSS, and we rebuild the Internet with personal websites with RSS-like feeds and feed readers. Whether it is long articles or 280 characters quick rants, sound recordings, or videos, we post them on our own personal websites instead of on our Social Media profiles, and they get pushed to RSS feed readers of our subscribers’. The feed readers can display a simple view based on a timeline or incorporate user preferences to display them to our liking. Subscribing to an RSS-like feed is anonymous and solely based on the reader’s willingness to connect. There is no middleman to moderate your feed and decide what you should or should not read, nor can anyone store your data and push unwanted ads. The world will be a better place.
What do you think is the best route to reach readers? Is it Email newsletters or reviving RSS? Or the good old Social Media following? Let me know! I am keen to hear from you.
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