Feed readers/content aggregators

Upon the efficient consumption and summarizing of news from around the world.

Remember feeds? From when we though the internet would provide us timely, pertinent information from around the world on our topics of interest? When our information streams were not about your aunt’s conspiracy theory memes on a social media feed, but curated lists of expert opinion?

I have been told to do this through Twitter or Facebook, but, seriously… no. Those are systems designed to waste time with stupid distractions in order to benefit someone else. Facebook is informative in the same way that thumb sucking is nourishing. Telling me to use someone’s social website to gain information is like telling me to play poker machines to fix my financial troubles.. Stop that.

Contrarily, I would like to find ways to summarise and condense information to save time for myself. That is what feeds were designed for. New to this game? You know what podcasts are? Podcasts are a type of feed. An audio feed. If I care about news articles and tumblr posts and whatever, not just audio, then I can still use feeds, feeds of text instead of audio. Any website can have a feed. Many do.

Remember when we thought the web would be a useful tool for researching and learning, and that automated research assistants would trawl the web for us? RSS Feeds were often discussed as a piece of that machine.

Little updates dripped from the web, to be sliced, diced, prioritised and analysed by our software to keep us aware of… whatever.

Feeds as useful and time-saving as they are, are not the apotheosis of information retrieval, or were not supposed to be. AFAICT they were always supposed to be a part of a larger infrastructure of automated knowledge classification and discovery and analysis, possibly of community sharing and curating.

This higher level, the analysis, has not eventuated, at least not so that you would bother with it. Most feed readers don’t do much fancy analysis or triage, they just give you a list of new items ordered by date. Services like Pinterest or keen come close, would go gangbusters on feeds, perhaps? Still, whatever. Feed readers work and it is better than browsing to the same page and pressing “refresh” constantly.

Feeds are mourned and missing from many fancy modern blogs. Read Anil Dash on The lost infrastructure of social media. Pace dash_, feeds are very much alive and in my realm, academia, are in something of a golden age. They are available on, for example, Medium, much as that site tries to distance itself from the web of the past.. Anil Dash’s feed, for example, is https://medium.com/feed/@anildash.

(Want more? Sources that I use for this are on my blogroll.)

Feed readers

How to get those feeds? Why, an app, either a web app or an app app like your grandaddy used to use.

There are many:

  • fraidycat is a desktop app or browser extension for Firefox or Chrome.

    I use it to follow people (hundreds) on whatever platform they choose - Twitter, a blog, YouTube, even on a public TiddlyWiki.

    Open source.

  • feedly is the current boss. Targets commercial users, like web “community managers” or marketing types, but it mostly usable despite that (the internal feedback mechanism has the tic that it is constantly asking me if an article is about “leadership” or not) Probably works for humans too. This is how you would subscribe to my site in Feedly

  • newsblur is a quirky little option that I used for a while before the interface annoyed me. The UI defies the last 10 years of user interface conventions, which is confusing, but it works and is cheap (and in fact has an open source app you can self-host). This is how you would subscribe to my site in Newsblur

  • Inoreader seems popular amongst readers of this blog.

  • Feeder is a browser extension/site/app that reads feeds that I have not used but produces a lot of the traffic of this blog.

  • The old reader reads feeds and this includes activity updates for people you follow on social media. Not sure if that is the worst or best of all worlds.

  • feedbin is also a thing.

If you want to get more indy/private or have a distaste for the pre-packaged you can run your own feed reader server. I will run my own server software if the application is compelling enough, but let us consider the costs. Let’s say between backups, security issues, confusing DNS failures etc, that’s 8 hours per year of miscellaneous computer wrangling, best case, and more hours if you have complicated things like running some multi-user enterprisey database to store data. It is hard to imagine that cost being worth it for internet distracting.1

  • selfoss is a PHP/SQLite self-hosted feed reader
  • miniflux is open-source/DIY, but also offers a hosted version for $15/year.
  • stringer looks like a nice little ruby app but needs postgresql. Bloat. ⚠️
  • tinytinyrss is the original “minimalist” RSS reader; it still needs more databases than is sensible.
  • fever is a weird commercial (USD30) application that you host on your own server. It claims to learn your information preferences, which could be cool. But I cannot be arsed installing some database-wanting app with suspiciously antique language requirements (PHP3) that also costs money to try, so I will never know.

Creating feeds from sites that don’t have them

fraidycat does this for Twitter, Instagram, reddit, Reddit, Youtube, SoundCloud and Twitch. So does rssbox for slightly different selection of sites.

Feedity generates feed from sites that don’t understand content aggregators.

More generally, web scraping tools can do this. For example, Scrapy i whose companionn project scrapy-rss converts weird sites into RSS.

  1. Why people insist on running enterprise databases run apps such as this is an ongoing mystery to me. The capacity to scale to many users is nice, I suppose, but by that logic everyone should drive everywhere in a school bus.↩︎