Improving RSS Subscription Workflows with SubToMe

I love that WordPress has some built-in functionality within WordPress.com and many themes to allow one to easily build and display a social media menu on a website. Frequently these are displayed in headers, footers, or even sidebars of websites.  I have one in the footer of my website that looks like this:

Screencapture of my social links for email, RSS, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.

The RSS icon and links are automatically generated for me by simply putting in any RSS feed that has a /feed/ path in its URL. 

While this is great, clicking on the RSS icon link goes to a page with a hodgepodge of markup, content, and meta data and typically requires multiple additional steps and prior advanced knowledge of what those steps should be to do something useful with that link/page. In other words the UI around this (and far too many other RSS icons) is atrocious, unwelcoming, and generally incomprehensible to the general public. (Remember those long and elaborate pages newspapers and magazines had to define RSS and how to use it? It’s a HUGE amount of cognitive load compared to social media following UI in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. which just works™.) 

Fortunately Julien Genestoux and friends have created an elegant solution in SubToMe, described as a Universal Follow button, that is open, non-intrusive, protects privacy, and works with virtually any feed reader. It uses some JavaScript to create a pop-up that encourages users to use any of various popular feed readers (or the one of their choice). The UI flow for this is far superior and useful for the casual web-user and has the potential to help along the renaissance of feed readers and consumption of web content in a way that allows readers more control over their reading than social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that mandate their own proprietary reading algorithms.

While one can embed SubToMe directly into a website (I do this with a Follow button in my site’s top right sidebar, for example) or using Julien and MatthiasWordPress plugin, I suspect it would be far easier if some of this functionality were built directly into WordPress core in some way. Or alternately, is there an easy way to put data into one of the common fields (or wrap it) in these social links menus, so that when a user clicks on the relatively ubiquitous RSS icon in those social links menus, that it triggers a SubToMe-like subscription workflow? 

I would suspect that WordPress.com might try something like this and naturally recommend their own beautiful reader, which was relatively recently redesigned by Jan Cavan Boulas et al., using a bit of functionality which SubToMe kindly provides.

I think that the simplification of this RSS reader subscription workflow would go a LONG way toward making it more successful and usable. It could also provide massive influence on increasing the use of feed readers in general and the WordPress Reader in particular.

I do note that there is a form of follow functionality built into WordPress.com-based websites, but that’s locked into the .com platform or needs a plugin for self-hosted sites. It also only benefits the WordPress.com reader rather than other readers in the space. Some of the issue here is to fix the NASCAR problem of needing dozens of plugin solutions and widgets to have what amounts to the same functionality on each platform in existence. I think it’s far more important for the open web to be able to do these sorts of simple functionalities in a more standardized way to give users more freedom, flexibility and choice. The standardization makes it easier for competition in a market economy to gradually improve this sort of user interface over time.

If someone did undertake some development in this area, I’d give bonus development points on this for:

  • Is there a way to do this without JavaScript to get around the js;dr potentiality?
  • Is there a way for this to find not only the common main and comments feeds for posts, but also for the affiliated /category/feed/ and /tag/feed/ taxonomy feeds on posts to allow for subscriptions to niche areas of websites that cover multiple broad topics? I know David Shanske has done some work on feed discovery in WordPress recently for the Yarns Microsub Server that may be useful here.
  • Is there a way to talk major browsers into adding this into their products?

I wonder if Jeffrey Paul, Jeremy Felt, Matthias Pfefferle, Jeffrey Zeldman or others may have some ideas about broader implementation and execution of something like this for improved UI in these areas? 

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

13 thoughts on “Improving RSS Subscription Workflows with SubToMe”

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