I defy the world and go back to RSS

Bryan Alexander
6 min readJul 10, 2017

It may be perverse, but in this age of Facebook (now 2 billion strong) I’ve decided to rededicate myself to RSS reading. That’s right: old school, Web 2.0 style.

Why?

A big reason is that Facebook’s front page is so, so massively unreliable. Despite having huge numbers of people that are my friends, clients, and contacts, it’s just not a good reading and writing service. Facebook’s black box algorithm(s) may or may not present a given’s user’s post for reasons generally inscrutable. I’ve missed friends’ updates about new jobs, divorces, and deaths because the Zuckerbergmachine deems them unworthy of inclusion in my personalized river of news. In turn, I have little sense of who will see my posts, so it’s hard to get responses and very hard to pitch my writing for an intended audience.

Together, this makes the FB experience sketchy at best, and an ethical/communications nightmare at worst. To improve our use of it — just to make Facebook’s core functions work at all — we have to turn to DIY experiments and research that remind me of Cold War Kremlinology. We try out posts on different topics, at different times of day, using variable formats to see who will view them and respond. We track Facebook research that parallels SEO advice.

In contrast, Twitter is a bit better, but not by too much. They’re running their own feed management software to some unknown degree. Moreover, while I can use Twitter to find some good content hosted elsewhere (blog posts, articles, podcasts, videos, etc.) I still keep missing items un-tweeted, or at least un-tweeted by people I follow (and yes, I maintain a bevy of lists and keyword/hashtag searches). So Twitter is also a flawed filter.

What else can I use to conduct research into the swiftly developing worlds of technology and education? Some individual platforms let me follow content there or via email alerts (for example: WordPress, Medium, Tumblr), but using them fragments my experience of the web and becomes unmanageable as the number of platforms grows.

Maybe we should reach back for an older technology. People claim that RSS readers are history. It’s also popular to proclaim that blogs are dead. I defy them all.

As of now I’m back to the sweet, open goodness of RSS* reading. For the rest of this post I’ll show you what I mean by describing my current setup.

In 2013 Google Reader died, and I and millions of others went on a quest for a successor. For my primary research needs I settled on the Digg Reader, and haven’t budged since. It’s free, reliable, cleanly designed, easy to use. Their CTO helped me out when the software ran into a snag. I run it on several laptops. On my phone I make do with Feedly, which is pretty but not too serious.

Here’s what my feed setup looks like as of this week. The list of feed categories, organized into folders, occupies the left (grey-ish) column. Output from one of those folders, Futures and Futurists, runs down the left two-thirds of the screen:

Let me break this down.

One strength of RSS is the way it lets users arrange feeds into whatever sequence makes sense to them. I like clumping feeds into categories, then arranging those folders into an order that works for my day.

Starting off that order are feeds directly based on my work (see screenshot above). There’s a folder with output from my various blogs, so I can see what impression I’ve leaving, along with keyword searches for myself and my work.

Then there are folders for clients, broken down into different groups. This way I can follow the progress of schools, organizations, governments, libraries, museums, and individuals I’ve helped and/or are currently working with. As you can see from their placement in my workflow, they are a leading priority. Some are represented here by organizational feeds, such as the Ithaka S&R blog. Others appear through individual faculty members, librarians, or technologists.

Following that are feeds from Future Trends Forum guests. That growing community is vital to my work, and I learn a great deal from these fine people. Right after them come a set of futurists and other folks writing about the future (see compressed image up above): again, central to my work.

Following that first group of folders (each containing a group of RSS feeds) comes another swarm. This one is my main politics, economics, and environmental scan. My readers know these huge trends play a major role in shaping both education and technology.

This begins with a survey of world news, from sources with a minimum of bias. The Memeorandum trawl is a major force within this folder — and since that’s an aggregator, its results save me some time. There are also several feeds for local (Vermont) politics, like the excellent web-based Vt Digger.

Then follow feed groups for economics, for environmental news, and for a loose category upon which I’ve slapped the label “information warfare” (some of which is actually about info ops, but also includes linked observations on culture and geopolitics). Along with those folders are two dedicated to bias from the left and right. Bloggers there instruct me on what the respective ideologies (and their branches: libertarian, feminist, socialist, etc.) are thinking, and also point me to news articles I might have otherwise missed.

I learn best when starting with a big picture, then drilling down into small units and more finely grained details, so this top-level section fits that mental stance.

A third folder group follows, structured upon other dimensions of my research agenda. Several trends and megatrends from FTTE get their folders here. We begin with a daily reads list, which includes major publications (ex: Inside Higher Ed), several crucial bloggers (ex: Stephen Downes’ OLDaily), and several friends whose words mean a great deal to me both personally and professionally (ex: Alan Levine, Brian Lamb).

Next we get folders on higher education, libraries, technology, search, Google (because so important *and* so sprawling), and gaming (a rich and special interest). Then two folders (because of so many blogs) on ed tech; one on MOOCs; one on gaming in education.

Following this third big section is a fourth one for fun and culture. That has folders on Gothic literature, comedy, science fiction, books, friends with whom I do not have a professional connect, food, and music. I’ll leave off a graphic for now, because they lead away from my research focus.

So that’s around 40 folders, and maybe 400 feeds. Naturally I’ve curated these over time, and continue to add and subtract as we progress.

Does this giant pile and apparatus save me time? Yes. Instead of leaping from platform to platform, I just inhabit the Digg. I don’t have to worry if Facebook has hidden someone’s latest, or if a story escaped people I follow on Twitter.

Yes, this is a lot of reading… but I’m a researcher and writer, and need this range of inputs. We can’t do futures work without diversity and variety of sources. Moreover, some repetition occurs across multiple feeds, which is itself useful. I can look for different perspectives on the same story, while noting rising interest in a development as something potentially noteworthy as well.

There’s a politics here. RSS reading is based on the open web, and I continue to fight for that, even in an age of rising silos and walled gardens. Less clearly is a theme of conversation through connections, which is increasingly vital to me. I love being able to arrange feeds across filter bubbles, and to see ideas move across boundaries.

I still use Twitter for professional reasons. For whatever reason I can’t get professional discussions rolling on Facebook, but do manage to stir up good conversations on politics (!!), culture, and animals.

Is anyone else still using RSS? Am I bonkers to do so? Should I do a post like this about my Twitter setup?

(If I have time I’ll write about the foolishness of proclaiming blogs to be dead.)

*I wonder if I need to define RSS in 2017. How many people will confuse the technological standard with this group?

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, educator. Author of the FTTE report, UNIVERSITIES ON FIRE, and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.