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This day’s portion

Reading your social media stream in an RSS reader

Tracy Durnell asks:

Does RSS still feel better if you use it to follow people on Mastodon, for instance? How does the experience of reading social posts change when it’s delivered by RSS rather than a social media timeline? What makes RSS better than social timelines?

I’m using (while it’s still allowed) NetNewsWire’s Twitter extension to read my Twitter stream, and for Mastodon. In response to Tracy’s question I can answer it’s better for me but it takes a bit of tinkering and it is a bit odd. It looks like this:

My Twitter stream in an RSS feed.

Tweets appearing in NetNewsWire as another feed.

Why use an RSS feed reader to read your social media stream?

I have two problems with social media. Firstly, once I login, I quickly find myself enacting a twitchy round of repetitive rituals. As there’s no barrier to entry beyond owning an internet connected device and being able to write a sentence, it starts with simply posting a thought, [swipe down] which leads to checking for a reply, [swipe down] which allows me to check for new posts, which leads to retweeting, [swipe down] checking for a reply and posting another thought. If I’m working I may return to writing an email or whatever I should be doing, but within seconds I’ll return to the social media account and [swipe down] start again.

This mixture of work and social media puts in me mind of Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas, as he’s trying to organise a drug deal, keep an eye on the helicopter that’s following his every move while making sure the tomato sauce he’s cooking for dinner is OK.

A pale, Henry Hill with black patches around his eyes driving his car while looking towards the sky through the front windscreen.

Writing an email, retweeting @dril and attending a “no cameras off” Teams call at the same time.

Secondly, because a stream has no beginning or end it’s theoretically possible to scroll forever, experiencing something notionally different every time. As Heraclitis has it Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that I can waste an awful lot of time on social media.

Why RSS feed readers are better for reading your social media stream than apps or the service website

Reading your stream in an RSS reader solves these problems in two basic ways. Firstly, you can’t react to a Mastodon or Twitter post beyond marking it as read or starring it, which of course isn’t the social signal it would normally be. While it is possible to get in the habit of refreshing your feed periodically, it’s not the same as getting sucked into the round of [swipe down] micro-reactions.

Secondly, RSS feed lists are more finite than social media streams. At any point in time there are only a certain number of unread items to read. Other items may appear while you’re working through your feed, but there are no byways to explore, new accounts to follow or conversations to begin. You can more or less complete reading your stream until the next time you open your reader. Done.

How reading your social media stream in an RSS feed reader feels different

Stripped of the buzz of the full stream, or the back and forth of a conversation, social media posts feel more stark in an RSS reader. You can definitely process your feed more quickly. If it sounds more like reading email – or even work – that’s probably right, and it does encourage a similarly brusque approach to anything you wouldn’t deem “important”. Of course, that isn’t necessarily an entirely good thing – one of the benefits you might gain from social media is the sense of a community reacting to its members’ thoughts, however “frivolous” they may seem taken out of context.

Indeed, in the same way that publishing social media reactions to a post on your website without permission seems vaguely devious, there’s something voyeuristic about observing toots and tweets from a distance.

Black and white image of a man in a mac installing surveillancd equipment in someone’s toilt.

Gene Hackman listenin’ in in The Conversation.

Separating the noise from the “real” stuff

So reading your social media stream in an RSS reader solves a set of problems, but as Andrés points out:

I tried reading my social feed (Mastodon) via RSS and it became nosiy, at one point I felt it was getting in the way of the longer form posts I’m used to enjoy on my Feed reader so I went back to the Mastodon Timeline…

This is true. Your social media posts will seem like junk compared to your “proper” blogs, and it soon becomes frustraing dismissing dozens of more or less meaningless tweets or toots just to reach the odd fully formed post.

Setting up your RSS feed reader to read your social media streams

I tweaked my NetNewsWire set up to solve this problem. The aim is to separate your social media feeds from everything else. It might be possible using tags, or some other mechanism:

  • I have NetNewsWire connected to my Feedbin account, which means I can sync my feeds across devices (and RSS apps). However, you can still add a feed “On my Mac“, which means it doesn’t get added to Feedbin and therefore won’t sync across devices. That means no access to Mastodon or Twitter via NetNewsWire on my phone or work laptop.
  • During the day, most of my reading will take place on my phone or on my work Windows laptop using the Feedbin website. I don’t have my own Macbook to hand.
  • Generally, I’ll turn on my own laptop in the evening, or before I begin work in the morning. I can put aside 15-20 minutes to go through my social media feeds and pick out anything of interest, keeping it separate from the rest of my day, and my blog reading.

This is a relatively arcane set up that relies on creating friction simply not to read social media tweets on social media. It’s all a little sad, really, but I’d be loath to lose my Mastodon feed, and I know that if I started using a client or even the excellent Pinafore regularly, I’d soon get sucked back in.

Like Tracy, I’d be interested to see how other people are mediating their social media usage, and how it affects the experience. Leave a comment if you are.