RSS Zero

Jul 14 2014 by Jacob Gube | 5 Comments

Yesterday morning, I did the unimaginable. Something I didn’t think I was ever capable of doing.

I unsubscribed to all my RSS feeds.

An image of a RSS feed with no subscriptions.

For roughly seven years, way back when the now-defunct Google Reader was still cool, I’ve been on a relentless mission to amass, what felt like, the largest collection of RSS feeds in the entire world.

When Google shuttered their feed reader, I didn’t give up, I just moved all my babies into another service. I protected each feed like they were my children, never abandoning them even when times got lean, even when some weren’t publishing content still relevant to me.

And, in under a minute, they were all gone.

I straight-up deleted them all. No backup file that can restore them, or some list in a .txt file.

If you were to ask me now which feeds I subscribed to, I’ll only be able to recall four or five off the top of my head. And therein lies the problem.

Strangely enough, instead of the anxiety attack induced by FoMO that I was expecting, as cliché as this will sound, a sense of relief is what I got.

Why?

We all have our own purpose for RSS, here are mine:

  1. To read about topics that are currently interesting and relevant to me
  2. To keep up with news efficiently, all in one place
  3. To discover fresh ideas and opinions
  4. To habitually follow sites I enjoy
  5. To be inspired in my work as a front-end developer and Web content publisher

None of these have been happening, at least through my feed reader.

For instance, it’s difficult to keep up with relevant news if you have to wade through hundreds of non-essential feed items. Social news sites (e.g. HN and Reddit) and weekly newsletters (like Hacker Newsletter) are more convenient options because the need-to-know stuff generally bubbles up into my purview with little effort.

The discovery of fresh stuff, ideas and opinions won’t happen if my sources are the same sites and content producers – year in, year out.

Also, my tastes have changed over the years. I’ve grown up; I’m interested in new things (AngularJS), and not so much in others (I was still subscribed to Flash/AS blogs).

The signal-to-noise ratio in my feed reader was abysmal, partly because I was still subscribed to feeds I no longer found appealing, and because of the shear quantity of feeds in my collection. And the paltry amount of signal that does come through the wire is rapidly obscured and stifled by the large volume of noise.

I want to love RSS again. And, perhaps more importantly, I want it to be useful again. I still believe in the technology’s value proposition: The ability to read good articles in a quick and unembellished way, with their sources hand-picked by us.

So I’m starting back from zero.

Rules

For this to stick, I’ll need to follow a few guidelines.

Delete everything. No backups.

Whenever I go on RSS Zero mode, which I plan on doing at least once a year, it means indiscriminatingly unsubscribing to all feeds.

The first reboot takes courage and a leap of faith, especially if, like me, you’ve invested so much time and effort assembling your collection of feeds. For me, my seven-year-old list was gone within a minute. Seriously.

Being selective of which feeds stay and which ones go only belabors the process. Trust yourself that if a feed is really worth subscribing to, you’re going to remember it later on. And if you do forget, then let me make the argument that it really wasn’t all that valuable in the first place.

Flat hierarchy

I’m obsessed with organization, to the point that it starts to hinder my productivity sometimes. I had a folder named "minimalism" that had over ten blogs in it, and a folder labeled "decluttering" for sites that provide tips on the subject–information that I never applied to my feed reader.

Categorizing RSS subscriptions, I’ve realized, makes it easy to just hide feeds I’m only mildly (if at all) deriving value from. For instance, I had a category called "archived" for blogs that no longer publish content, in the off-chance that, someday, the site picks back up again. I know right? I have a problem. It’s the digital equivalent of being a hoarder: Putting junk — old newspapers, broken coffee makers, that unsightly sweater mom gave you — up in the attic where we think they’re out of sight, out of mind.

A flat hierarchy shows me all my RSS feeds in one view, making it easy to pinpoint the ones I don’t need any more.

A maximum of five RSS subscriptions in the first week

During the first week of this exercise, I’ll give myself the option to subscribe to up to five feeds. Having this ability helps kickstart the whole thing back into action. This rule is not accumulative.

Only two RSS subscriptions per week after that

After the starter week, I’ll limit the addition of new subscriptions down to just two a week. This rule is also non-cumulative: If I don’t add two subscriptions this week, I’m not going to get to add four the next.

Previous RSS subscriptions are banned for the first month

To force myself to look for new sources of information and ideas, in the next 30 days, I’ve made it a rule not to subscribe to any of my old RSS feeds.

If I want to read content on my favorite sites, I’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: Typing their domain name in the browser and pressing Enter.

At the end of the month, I’ll review my browsing history to determine which sites I end up regularly visiting, and I’ll subscribe to their RSS feeds whenever I have subscription allotments available.

Regularly review and update RSS subscriptions

Every now and then, I’ll make a conscious effort to evaluate (and be more critical of) my current subscriptions. I’ll unsubscribe to the one I no longer want to read from. This is so we don’t find ourselves in the same situation that prompted the process in the first place. I feel monthly, or even quarterly, seems like the appropriate interval for this activity.

These guidelines will make us more discerning of our information sources, favoring quality and current relevance over quantity.

RSS Zero every year

I’ll be wiping my feed reader clean at least once a year. Saying this out loud makes it seem crazy. It seems unproductive — like building a house and tearing it down every year — but doing this puts us in the situation where we’re compelled to find fresh sources of content. In my line of work, complacency — being set in my ways — is very deadly.

You may just want to zero-out your feed reader whenever you feel overwhelmed. That could be in six months, or seven years. Trust your instincts.

Moving Forward

These are the things I expect to occur in the aftermath of this activity:

  • The discovery of new sources of content and fresh ideas
  • The ability to read relevant content in a timely and efficient way
  • It will make RSS, as a tool, useful and essential again

Under the right circumstances, there’s still a great deal of value in really simple syndication. But, sometimes, to move forward with something, we just need a minute to start back from zero.

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About the Author

Jacob Gube is the founder of Six Revisions. He’s a front-end web developer by profession. If you’d like to connect with him, head on over to the contact page or follow him on Twitter: @sixrevisions.

5 Comments

DampeS8N

July 14th, 2014

You realize that I and probably hundreds of others only reached this because it popped up in our RSS, right?

You mentioned the real solution. I cull irrelevant and silly RSS feeds. If a feed clogs my reader with crap? I unsub. If a feed starts sending off pointless articles, I unsub. If a feed ends up being advertising in disguise of content, I unsub.

You know which one is next? It is one that has only escaped my deletion because it updates once every 3-5 days. Its last several posts include inane things like: 70 Line Icons, An Introduction to PHP’s DateInterval Class, A Generic HTML5 Template, trivial CSS, dubious JS tutorials, an article singing the virtues of the easily faked (but surprisingly meaningless anyway) trust seals and RSS Zero.

I don’t understand what’s happened to this blog, Jacob.

I’m not saying RSS is the only option, but you’ve basically asked all your RSS subscribers to unsub from you and replace that subscription with nothing at all. Not even to drop RSS as a tool, just to perform a purge because reasons.

B. Moore

July 14th, 2014

You never curated your rss after you subscribed… you kept adding and adding and adding didn’t you?

Can’t be afraid to delete.

E Wagner

July 15th, 2014

Good idea for a housecleaning, and you’re still advocating the use of RSS. I don’t get the anti-RSS movement. Heck, if it wasn’t for my RSS feeds I’d never even know there was an anti-RSS movement. (I love seeing in my RSS feeds that someone did a site redesign, and I can’t recall what the old site looked like since I never visited it.)

“If I want to read content on my favorite sites, I’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: Typing their domain name in the browser and pressing Enter.” Where do you keep track of these sites? I kind of use my RSS feeds as a cloud based bookmarking service.

Ximizu

July 16th, 2014

Totally agree with this post! I have so many feeds I don’t read anymore (no time) or that are not updated…I’ll do the RSS Zero mode tonight!

Jacob Gube

July 16th, 2014

@E Wagner: Thanks for taking the time to read the entire post. I don’t get the hate about RSS either. It’s a great tool for people who love to consume content.

Keeping track of sites: I just use Chrome’s bookmarking tool. It’s simple, seamlessly integrated with my preferred browser, and it gets the job done. You can sync it so that your bookmarks are accessible through all your devices. I visit a ton of sites (it’s kind of part of the job) but if you asked me about my personal favorite sites, it’ll be under 10 sites (and I can name them off the top of my head).

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