Using RSS like it’s 2008
Looking at my recent blogging hiatus, you wouldn’t be able to tell, but I’m somewhat of an RSS enthusiast and have been reading and listening to content sent to me using RSS without pause during that time. RSS, short for Real Simple Syndication, is a subscriber protocol where clients, called aggregator applications, can periodically ask a centralised server for new content. It was developed first in 1999 but got traction in 2005 and something can be said for the claim that the golden age of blogging was made possible by RSS.
There are aggregator applications that you can install on your PC to collect your desired feeds. Outlook offers this functionality under RSS Subscriptions, so does Thunderbird. But like email, you’d typically want to have your feeds available on all, or most, of your devices, including read/unread information. When I first found out that blogs offered RSS feeds, I started using Google Reader for that purpose. It being a website, I could access it on any device I wanted. When Google Reader stopped in 2013, I installed Tiny Tiny RSS (TTRSS), which did exactly what Google Reader did, except for sending Google Waves. I also briefly looked at Feedly but remembered liking TTRSS better at the time.
RSS is used for more than hypertext, though, because the protocol does not specify what kind of content is spread. One notable example is your podcast feed. When you search for content in your podcast app, it will query online resources that return a link to an RSS feed, which your app will then periodically ask for new audio files and accompanying metadata, such as the episode title, notes and cover picture.
The downside of RSS from the viewpoint of content creators is that there is no reason for readers to visit the originating website. This makes it harder to keep track of users and expose them to ads and (tracking) cookies. This is why many feeds today only contain a summary or even just the title of a post, making the feed more into a notification system than a stream with content.
Apart from these abbreviated RSS feeds, sites nowadays prefer to offer their content as mailing lists. This way, they can control exactly what the reader is exposed to. Substack is a good example. While they offer RSS feeds, these only contain the first half of every post, making them unusable.
These mailing lists, however, do form a solution for the shortened RSS feeds. Online aggregators Feedly and NewsBlur can import emails from mailing lists and present them as regular RSS feeds. Kill the newsletter is an aptly named separate service to do the same thing if you use your own aggregator. TTRSS cannot do that by itself, but I found a nifty little python script called AtoMail that will transform an email that it gets passed into an RSS XML file. To use it, you need a way to automatically intercept the email and pass it to the script. I use procmail, which is unmaintained but also unsurpassed, and with a simple regex I can tell it how to recognise that mail and then what to do with it when found:
:0: * ^From:.*badastronomy@mail\.beehiiv\.com | /usr/bin/python /path/to/atomail.py --title 'Bad Astronomy' --uri='http://path/to/badastronomy.xml' /path/to/feeds/badastronomy.xml
This will create an XML from the body part of any email coming from the email address in line 2 and put the XML at a location on my computer. TTRSS can then subscribe to it and voilà, the mailing list is a fully fledged RSS feed again with complete articles, links and pictures but presented in my chosen font and my chosen lay-out.
In the case of the mailing list of badastronomy above, it even improves the reading experience since the mail is sent in a single small column made to look good on phones, which is unsatisfactory, since it makes the gorgeous astronomy images Phil Plait uses much too small to appreciate. This way I can enjoy them in their full glory while reading the text above and below it.
These mails also do no longer reach my inbox, so I won’t get the content in two places. AtoMail makes it that my email is now for two-way communication again (and bills of course) and interesting articles are in my RSS aggregator.
As it should be.
Post Scriptum: Beehive, who do Bad Astronomy’s newsletter, do provide an RSS feed. However, it doesn’t contain the so-called premium content which I’m paying for.