The need for feeds

I feel the need. The need for feeds.
— No pilot, ever

What’s a feed?

Feeds have been around almost as long as web pages, but their use has waxed and waned over the years. At various times they’ve been incredibly popular or treated like a vestigial remnant of the dot-com boom [1]. With web pages became busier and more complex, feeds became a way to read the text without having to put up with extraneous elements like ads, popups, Flash content, and so on. For nearly the same reasons, feeds have their detractors who suggest they deprive readers of the rich experiences available on websites.

My personal interest in feeds has also waxed and waned over the years, though not because I yearn for ads or a rich website experience. Occasionally, I’ve seen feeds stop updating because websites cut them off, forcing the readers to visit the websites and watch the ads that accompany them. Sometimes there have been problems with feed readers being discontinued [2]. Over the past year or so, I’ve been trying to get back into them. Not because of advertising (thanks to NoScript and uBlock Origin), but because of a desire for distraction free reading.

This post is the first of a small series and is mainly intended as a basic introduction to feeds. Subsequent posts over the next couple of weeks will have a comparison of some feed reading software, and making the most out of feeds as a content creator.

The Feed Wars

Fortunately, the charging one has been solved now that we've all standardized on mini-USB. Or is it micro-USB? Shit.
xkcd: Standards

In the beginning was the World Wide Web, and it was good. Then websites started running ads, which caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then came the mid-1990s, and many strove to read web content in other ways, but were lost. Many gurus preached the gospel of syndication, but they did not agree and began offering proprietary solutions and competing standards.

In 1999, an early version of RSS became standardized. RSS is based on XML, which was popular in the early web, as it’s a sister language to HTML, which was used to create websites. In 2003, RSS eventually settled at version 2.0, and development froze after its creators assigned the copyright to Harvard, which subsequently copyrighted it. This bothered a lot of people who thought the idea of copyrighting a standard and freezing its development to be antithetical to the whole idea of standards. They felt standards should evolve as needed, and should be run under the auspices of an international standards body, like the W3C or the IETF.

The distracted boyfriend meme: XML is annoyed her developer boyfriend is looking at JSON.
XML is annoyed her developer boyfriend is looking at JSON.
As a result, 2003 also saw the creation of what became Atom. Atom is another XML-formatted file used for syndicating web content, but it is a formal standard of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). For all the hubbub, Atom is also fairly stagnant now, as it was last updated in October 2007. Neither standard has much of an advantage over the other, though if we we’re being parochial, we could say that Atom is an open standard, while RSS is proprietary.

Over the past decade or so, developers have started using JSON in places where they would have used XML in the 1990s or early 2000s. As such, it’s no surprise that a JSON alternative to RSS and Atom is being developed [3], though it’s popularity is tiny compared to RSS and Atom.

Feed Readers

Some of the earliest feed readers were web browsers and email clients, but as the popularity of feeds waned, their developers gradually removed that functionality. Now, however, it’s possible to get feed readers that are browser plugins or standalone desktop programs. Next week, I plan on comparing a few feed readers and going a bit more in depth into them, but this week I want to cover some of the basic features that most of them have.

A screenshot of the Feedbro RSS reader showing the RSS feed for my main blog at gottahavacuppamocha.com. This RSS feed contains images for each post.
The Feedbro plugin for Firefox.

The most basic feature is the ability to subscribe to a feed, and to see the headlines in the feed that was subscribed to. Some feed readers will download the full text of a post, but it’s also common for them to just display headlines, or headlines and a snippet. Some will also display images or other media.

The nice thing about syndication is that whenever the website is updated, so is the feed, and when the feed is updated, the feed reader lets you know there’s something new to read. Like an email client that tells how many unread emails there are, most feed readers display the number of items that are still unread. If a person subscribes to a lot of feeds, and doesn’t go into the feed reader every day, the number can become very large very quickly. Luckily, feed readers also have an option to mark them all as read.

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of feed reading software, but haven’t settled on which one is best. A few of them are really great, but none of them have all the features I want. Next week, I’ll compare the Feedbro plugin for Firefox, as well as the FeedReader and Fluent Reader standalone programs. Each of them has some killer features, but each also has some annoyances that I could do without.

Summary

Feeds are a way to view website content without visiting the website. Most websites have feeds available, but not all. Feeds are mainly used for textual data, but can also be used with audio, video, or a combination of media types. RSS and Atom are the most common formats for feeds, but others exist as well. Feeds are viewed using feed readers, which can be standalone programs, or as a feature or plugin of a web browser or email client.

References

1 “Dot-Com Bubble.” 2021. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dot-com_bubble&oldid=1029527208.
2 “Feed Reader Replacements for Firefox.” n.d. Mozilla. Accessed July 16, 2021. https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/feed-reader-replacements-firefox.
3 Reece, Manton, and Brent Simmons. n.d. “JSON Feed.” Blog. JSON Feed. Accessed July 30, 2021. https://jsonfeed.org/.

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