There is a good reason people call Twitter the hell website.
Cynicism, egos, unprovoked hostility, unchecked propaganda, sexism, bigotry, and outright hate—Twitter is as full of it as virtually anywhere online, and worse, it’s unbearably nonstop. The design of the place feels uniquely unhealthy due in large part to its speed and unrelenting stream. Opening up TweetDeck, the Twitter-owned client favored by maniacs like me thanks to its real-time updating feature, can seem like stepping into an oncoming tidal wave and getting swept out to sea. Before too long, you feel exhausted and ready to give up.
Many of us have to be on Twitter due to our jobs, some of us just feel like we have to be. I’m here to offer a few ancient and unsexy alternatives to Twitter as life preservers. We’re doing a nautical theme today, by the way, I hope that’s cool with you. No reason.
In 2019, social media is water in our lungs (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, that’s the last one). With so many of us contemplating deleting our accounts or at least cutting down on that screen time, it’s time to reconsider something that feels lost in this era of algorithm-fueled newsfeeds and timelines: RSS.
RSS is a family of technologies that give you a simple feed from a spot on the web—a news site, a podcast, a blog—into your RSS reader. It’s a timeline of sorts, yes, but it runs at a sane speed, and it stays in your control, unlike Facebook or Twitter’s unknowable whims, and it excludes the vast majority of toxic noise that characterizes so much of social media. Folks, RSS is still good. More than just good, RSS is better in many ways than Twitter.
Invented exactly 20 years ago this month on the back-end of a feverish dot-com boom, RSS (Real Simple Syndication) has persisted as a technology despite Google’s infamous abandonment with the death of Google Reader and Silicon Valley social media companies trying and succeeding to supplant it. In the six years since Google shut down Reader, there have been a million words written about the technology’s rise and apparent fall.
Here’s what’s important: RSS is very much still here. Better yet, RSS can be a healthy alternative when Twitter is making you feel like shit. In 2019, that’s, like, most of the time.
On the surface, Twitter’s main value proposition is that it delivers up-to-the-second news. Let’s just be honest with ourselves: 99 percent of the time, we don’t need up-to-the-second news. Most of us would do much better waiting until someone has had time to process the news and write more than 280 characters to explain in full what’s going on. Ideally, that happens on news websites themselves, which more often than not still offer RSS feeds. Gizmodo, for instance, is putting RSS out into the world at this very moment.
RSS has the advantage of feeling slow without being slow. You can get an article in your RSS reader as soon as it’s been published—and how much faster are you really looking to go? What you don’t get is the flash flood of half-thoughts and hot takes.
Look, I’m not going to pretend I have this abyssal hellscape figured out. I’m not performatively quitting Twitter, this is not a blog about a black-and-white solution requiring you to quit social media and live in a monastery, even though that sounds pretty great. It’s about an alternative to a tool that, after a while, can be a hindrance rather than a help—at least to my sanity. The idea of seeking out the “slow web” has been around for a long time. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get the latest news as it happens. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance, which RSS provides.
It’s an easy process to start. First, choose an RSS reader. My two favorites are Feedly and NewsBlur. I prefer NewsBlur because I like the iOS app more, but Feedly is very popular and good, so give either one a try. They both accomplish the same goal.
Then, find your feeds. I’d start with, at most, 10 news sites to subscribe to. This will give you a feel for how fast you want the feed to move. Too slow? Add more. To fast? Delete a few. I try to narrow things down even further: Instead of subscribing to the New York Times, which publishes dozens of items per day, I subscribe specifically to the Times’ tech section, which means I get a much more curated selection. For whichever site you want to subscribe to, you should be able to copy and paste the URL into your reader and subscribe from there.
If RSS alone doesn’t quite do it for you, there are other tools that make finding online content less soul-sucking.
The first complement to my RSS reader is my Nuzzel account. Like RSS, Nuzzel is years old, and it’s relatively slow. I cannot stress enough: Slow can be good. Nuzzel looks at your Twitter account and surfaces the stories being shared most within the last few hours or days—an easy way to parse through the headlines your follows think are most important without necessarily getting caught in the hair-trigger tweets that can make it a relentless cesspool.
In the same realm of slow tech, there’s a “new” trend that’s actually older than RSS itself: The email newsletter. Everyone and their dad seem to have one these days, and there’s even a New York Times trend piece on the whole phenomenon, which is how you know it’s already old and uncool as hell. Perfect.
An email newsletter avoids most of the pitfalls of Twitter hell while still delivering on many of value points. If you’re on Twitter to dive into a specific world—tech, basketball, national security, make up, whatever—there’s almost certainly a good newsletter for it, whether it’s from a specific publication or a smart individual who wants to write and riff but who probably hates Twitter as much as the rest of us. Get the intelligence and links delivered to your inbox daily and then move on. No getting wiped out by the endless social media riptide. Oh, by the way, we’re back to nautical.
For newsletters, you can do two things. First, your news websites and blogs of choice probably have newsletters that you can sign up for from the home page—which you probably already know thanks to the charming pop-ups that everyone uses because fuck you that’s why. Second, there are two startups behind many of today’s active newsletters: Substack and Revue. Take a look at both sites and see what interests you.
At the end of the day, we’re probably not going to be able to escape social media entirely. I couldn’t even if I wanted to since it’s part of my job, as it may be part of yours. For us poor souls—and those of you who are, for some reason, online all day by choice—know that it’s okay to slow down. You’re not missing anything.