May 10, 2020

What is RSS and what is Inoreader?

In my opinion, RSS is one of the most amazing web technologies of all time, and I'd like to take a moment here to honor the memory of Aaron Swartz, who when he was just 14 years old helped to create RSS; that was 20 years ago. People throw around the term "visionary" a lot; well, Aaron Swartz was the real thing: The Internet's Own Boy.

What is RSS?

Put simply, RSS is a way to publish the contents of a website in the form of a structured text file. Because of the way the file is structured, it is then possible for that content to be redisplayed in other forms and in other places. If you are curious to see what an RSS file looks like, here is the RSS file for this blog. The contents of the blog change as I add new posts, but the RSS file address stays the same, with new content being added to the feed, and old content being aged off. For example, there are almost 500 posts at this blog, but only the most recent 25 posts appear in the RSS feed.

Blogs regularly have RSS feeds, and so do other kinds of sites. News organizations frequently offer an RSS feed version of their content, for example. There are also other kinds of sites that offer RSS feeds, like the bookmarking service Diigo, the popular education tool Padlet, the annotation platform Hypothesis, and many more.

RSS Aggregators / Feed Readers

One of the most popular uses of RSS is in "RSS aggregators" or "feed readers," which are programs that let you collect RSS feeds in one place so that you can view new blog posts, new news items, etc. in a single interface, much like the way email from many different sources comes to your email inbox.

Once upon a time, there was a great Google-sponsored feed readers called Google Reader. It was an amazing product. But the Google giveth, and the Google taketh away, and in 2013, Google discontinued Google Reader.

Those of us who were hard-core Google Reader users despaired.

Feedly is a popular alternative, and many Google Reader users migrated to Feedly, but Feedly did not have a feature set that was even remotely close to Google Reader. I tried using Feedly, but it just was not working for me.

But then came... Inoreader. You can use Inoreader like Feedly as a feed reader, collecting lots of RSS feeds which you can read, sort, search, etc. But Inoreader does much more than that. Inoreader allows you to mix-and-match RSS feed content into new RSS feeds that you can then export (like the old Yahoo Pipes service if anyone remembers Yahoo Pipes). Inoreader even allows you to export the content of those feeds in HTML formats.

That HTML export service is what allows me to use Inoreader to combine the blogs of my students into a single RSS feed, which I can then display inside Canvas LMS, like this: (that's an open Canvas course, so click on that link and then click on Blogs in the menu). That's all it takes: my students' individual blogs are now a blog network, and I'll have more to say later about other Inoreader features you can use for student blog networking.

I also use Inoreader to create other kinds of RSS feeds too, like the combination of my many different blogs which I display as a live blog stream at my homepage, I have an embarrassing number of blogs; some are active, some are dormant, and this stream automatically shows the latest posts across all my blogs:

So, in the blog posts to follow, I'll document how to use Inoreader both as a personal feed reader and also as a way to run a blog network, exporting the contents of that network into an LMS or other website.

And now, without further ado, I'll move on now to the next post: setting up a free Inoreader account and subscribing to some RSS feeds: Subscribing to RSS with Inoreader.