How to Take Back Control of What You Read on the Internet
Social-media algorithms show us what they want us to see, not what we want to see. But there is an alternative.
The social-media web is built on a lie. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter enticed countless users to join with the promise that they could see everything their friends or favorite celebrities posted in one convenient location.
Over time, though, the sites were carefully calibrated to filter what users saw—regardless of their stated preferences—in order to manipulate their attention and keep them on the platform. Algorithmic timelines quietly replaced chronological ones, until our social-media feeds no longer took direction from us, but rather directed us where they wanted us to go.
Lately, this deception has become more transparent. Last month, Elon Musk reportedly had his engineers alter Twitter’s algorithm so that it fed his own tweets to the platform’s users, whether they followed him or not. (Musk denies having done so.) This might seem to say more about Musk’s vanity than about social media in its entirety. But in his typically crass way, Musk was just making obvious what was always the case for his industry. Meta did the same when it launched Meta Verified, a subscription service that promised it would provide paying users with “increased visibility and reach.”
These developments underscore a stark reality: As long as we rely on social-media sites to curate what we read, we allow them to control what we read, and their interests are not our interests. Fortunately, there already exists a long-standing alternative that provides users with what social media does not deliver: RSS.
Introducing a quarter-century-old technology as if it were novel might seem a little strange. But despite the syndication format’s cult following, most internet users have never heard of it. That’s unfortunate, because RSS provides everyday internet users with an easy way to organize all of their online-content consumption—news media, blogs, YouTube channels, even search results for favorite terms—in one place, curated by the user, not an algorithm. The answer to our relatively recent social-media woes has been sitting there all along.
But though RSS is remarkably useful, it can be daunting to the uninitiated, and it lacks the slick marketing and cultural footprint of the social-media giants. So I thought I’d offer a simple guide for anyone who wants to take back control of their online experience.
Get an RSS reader.
At its core, RSS is an underlying internet protocol that keeps track of the content published on a given website. To access this material, you need an RSS reader, which turns these feeds into a format you can peruse on your computer or phone. I have used Feedly for many years, and find it extremely easy to manage: Just pop in a link to a website or social-media page, and the service will automatically grab its RSS feed, if there is one, and add its content. Non-paying users get up to 100 feeds, while paying users have no limits. Several other excellent RSS readers—such as Inoreader and NewsBlur—have similar arrangements. And my friends with Apple devices rave about NetNewsWire, which is completely free. These apps work in your browser and on your phone, so your reading is always synced and available wherever you are.
Fill your reader with subscriptions to things you like to read.
This is the fun part. Do you want The Atlantic’s latest stories? There’s a feed for that. Would you rather just follow a specific section? There are feeds for those too. Want to get more specialized? There are even unique feeds for every individual Atlantic writer (such as myself). Do you enjoy Substack newsletters, but are afraid that they will overload your inbox? Each of them has an RSS feed, so now you can offload their editions to your RSS reader instead and enjoy them alongside everything else you read. You can do the same with your favorite web comics, such as xkcd.
Many sites publicly link to their RSS feeds on their pages, but you don’t actually have to hunt for them. Just copy the URL of any page into your reader—e.g., “TheAtlantic.com”—and the reader you have chosen should be able to find any RSS feeds connected to it. What’s more, if a page doesn’t have a feed, many of today’s readers can build one for you. And if your RSS reader doesn’t have that functionality, you can use an app such as Fetch RSS, RSS.app, or FiveFilters (free but more technical) to create a custom feed yourself, and then just add it to your reader.
Subscribe to social-media feeds you don’t want to miss—and you’ll never miss them.
Unlike the algorithmic timelines of the social-media giants, RSS readers don’t suppress content based on what they think will and won’t arrest your attention. This means you will receive every single post of every single social feed you subscribe to, in whatever order it was posted, and you can scroll through and select whichever items you’d like to explore. For instance, each YouTube channel has its own feed, so with RSS, you can always find each video an artist posts. The same is true for Reddit pages, if there are subreddits you want to keep track of. And although it’s not as seamless, building feeds for Instagram and TikTok accounts is easy as well. Twitter and Facebook don’t always play nice with RSS, but many of today’s readers can grab content from them too.
Get fancy and follow things you can’t on social media.
Many years back, as part of my day job covering the Middle East, I met an aspiring right-wing politician and thought he might be going places. So I set up an RSS feed for all YouTube-video search results that included his name, which enabled me to follow his rise. This meant I was ready when, in 2021, Naftali Bennett briefly dethroned Benjamin Netanyahu and became the prime minister of Israel. But search-result feeds like these can be useful for everyone, not just political junkies. For example, I have one for every YouTube appearance of The High Kings, my favorite Irish folk band, which means that my RSS reader catches every live performance of theirs that gets uploaded, including new songs before they’re recorded in studio.
Services such as RSS.app can take any YouTube search query and turn it into a personalized feed for your reader. Google’s own Google Alerts can do the same for any internet search term. One trick I recommend: Put any multi-word search term in quotation marks (as in, “vegan birthday cake”), which restricts the search results to exact mentions of that phrase; otherwise, you’ll get results in your feed that only partially match your query.
The internet has introduced many problems into our ever more chaotic digital lives, but in the case of RSS, it has also provided a solution. The question is whether enough users are willing to implement it.
In 2013, Google shut down its celebrated RSS client, Google Reader, citing a decline in RSS usage. Today, millions of people still use RSS readers, but many times more use social-media sites and don’t even know that RSS exists. This imbalance means that media outlets and other content providers have greater incentive to invest in social-media infrastructure rather than RSS support, leading some to drop the latter entirely. But though the internet’s creative output deserves our attention, social-media companies do not. When the primary way we read online is filtered through the algorithms of capricious corporations that can change what we see on a whim, both writers and readers suffer. RSS is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.