Four reasons it’s worth paying $5 a month for Feedbin, an RSS reader

/ Commentary

I am a fan of RSS – the glue of the indieweb and a means of keeping notified of lots of content in one place without opening Twitter, Facebook et al.

In order to use RSS you’ll need what’s called a feed reader. Think of this as an email or web app, although you won’t necessarily need an account. My preferred RSS app is NetNewsWire – free, open source MacOS and iOS-only software created by people fully behind the idea of RSS and indieweb.

One downside (or positive, depending on how you look at these things) of NetNewsWire is that you can’t synch your feed list across devices without manually updating the list on each device. Another is that it’s Apple-only (which could also be viewed as a positive – it works really well on a narrow set of phones, tablets and PCs as there’s no porting across OSs).

Enter RSS subscription services. These host your feed in the cloud, where you can either login to a website to start reading, or use an app to subscribe across different machines with no manual imports and exports.

There are a fair few of these services available, most notably Feedly and inoreader, which are “free” – to a point. I’ve used both, and they’re fine. But by far the best I’ve found is Feedbin, which has a very clear pricing policy. It costs $5 a month.

So why use a $5 a month service when you can get more or less the same thing for free?

It costs $5 a month

Straightforward pricing is, I’d argue, a key element of the indieweb. One of the most egregious features of the social media giants’ financial model is that they don’t charge their consumers anything to use their services; instead, you agree to hand over your content and lots of very rich, personal data. You may not be paying, but advertisers will in order to be able to access that data and put ads in front of your eyes. And advertisers aren’t just companies trying to flog you products.

(I’m digressing here, but check out how easy it would be for me to target a low-paid, 45+ year old male audience with conservative political views on Facebook.)

Screenshot the Facebook ads page.

Creating an ad targeting a popular audience.

Facebook and Twitter would be a whole lot more palatable if they simply cost $100/year and sold no ads and shared no data. But then they’d only have a tiny fraction of their current users, and Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t be sitting on a vast fortune.

Your RSS feed list probably has some value to advertisers and bad faith political actors – it may well provide clues as to your consumer preferences, your interests, your job and even your politics.

I can be confident that Feedbin are simply selling me an RSS subscription manager when they charge $5/month. That’s not the case if I use Feedly. While it’s not as extreme as Facebook, Feedly did send emails recommending content no doubt based on the 100 or so feeds I was subscribed to when I used the service – and those recommendations would have been powered by advertisers targeting certain audiences. Annoyingly, in the same way Twitter insists on sorting timelines algorithmically, Feedly messed around with the way it displayed my feed list in an effort to surface “interesting” content that I was apparently more likely to respond to. Feedbin just displays the feeds I’ve subscribed to, in chronological order.

It’s well designed

Feedbin’s user friendliness reflects its transparent financial model. It is also an extremely well designed app – logical, easy to navigate and plain good-looking:

Screenshot of the Feedbin website when you’re logged in.

Feedbin has light and dark modes and uses Inter UI for its typeface.

Screenshot of the Feedbin website settings page.

Simple controls and plenty of whitespace help make Feedbin a pleasure to use.

It’s well engineered

You can get Feedbin apps for Mac and iOS and, as you’d expect having used the website, they work well and look great. It also integrates with NetNewsWire, which is what I’m using on my Macbook.

However, I get the sense that the developers are more interested in taking a web-first approach. This shows in the quality of the website and the fact it’s a proper PWA (progressive web app).

Now, as the brains behind a library self-service system that’s also a PWA, it’s worth noting that I am perhaps biased here. From a developers’ point of view, PWAs are great: you develop just one frontend that’s usable across any device and operating system.

I’d also argue they’re good for users. Once they’re installed, there’s no maintenance – any updates take place on the website, not the device.

Additionally, they look and work the same way across operating systems, so you get a consistent experience whether you’re logging into your website on your Mac or using the PWA on a Moto G6. On the other hand (on Android, at least) they look and behave like native apps.

Screenshot of the Feedbin website settings page.
Screenshot of the Feedbin website settings page.

Feedbin looks like an Android app on the home screen and when you open it.

It has some good extra features

I’d probably cough up $5 a month just for Feedbin’s design and transparency. But it does have a couple of consolidation features that make it even more attractive.

Firstly, you can convert a Twitter list or stream into another of your RSS feeds. Why do this rather than, say, just opening Twitter? Well, one of your motives for going indieweb may well be limiting your time on social media. It also simply feels different: less ephemeral and real time, more – and I hesitate to use this word as I can’t stand the whole “slow” movement – considered. You are in control of when you see a tweet.

Screenshot of my Twitter feed in Feedbin.

One of my tweets in Feedbin. Note that the linked article is also included.

Similarly, you can send email newsletters to Feedbin. I think this is a really powerful feature for those newsletters that don’t offer an RSS option, or just a partial feed. Despite being all the rage, email provides a pretty miserable reading and finding experience compared to RSS, which is designed solely for this purpose.

I think these consolidation features are smart, using the power of RSS’s simplicity to place all your feeds, whether they’re on Twitter, email or RSS, into the single, best place for reading and organising.

Indieweb means paying for things

Feedbin is an excellent service. While Twitter, Facebook and Instagram don’t charge users, you are, of course, handing over a huge amount of personal information whenever you use them. If you’re bothered by that, you’re going to end up handing over more cash for better quality, transparent services.

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