Keeping Up Online: an Intro to RSS

Imagine a person who’s interested in several discrete topics–say, for example, parenting, academe (and, within academe, an area of specialization, teaching with technology, and methodological questions), books, Apple-related news, and productivity. Such a person could easily have 5-10 favorite websites in each of these different areas. The classic way to keep up with those sites is, well, to visit them every n amount of time (day, week, whatever). All of a sudden, you’re regularly visiting at least 50-70 sites, just to keep up with things you already know you like.

There is, in fact, a simpler way to keep up. What if you opened one application or browser window, and every time one of your favorite sites updated, you found out? What if, in that same application, you could also set up things like automatic searches, so that any time news about your current research obsession was published, you found out? You could also track your packages, see new pictures in your Flickr groups, see Twitter friends–basically, anything that updates would tell you in one spot, rather than force you to go out to lots of different websites.

That’s the premise of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). (Technical disclaimer: There are different formats for syndication. The two most important are RSS and Atom. They make no difference, or next to none, for someone who’s new to the concept. Here are two helpful overviews of the formats: one, two.) A website that supports syndication publishes something called a “feed”; that feed can either be collected by a program called a feedreader or news aggregator, or it can be combined (“mashed up”) with another feed. (One tool for mashing up feeds in this way is Yahoo! Pipes, which Julie will write about next week.

In what follows, I’ll introduce you to some resources to help you get started, and discuss some best practices for managing your feeds.


The clever folks at Common Craft have made a video introducing RSS. (Lest you think they are all work and no play, they also explain how to survive a zombie attack.)

The main thing you need to recognize is the orange “>RSS symbol. If you look at the address bar in your browser right now, you should see this symbol. (In Firefox, it’s probably blue, which means that it’s built-in RSS reading function recognizes the feed. (Here’s how it looks in my browser.)

Any time you see that symbol on a website or other service, it means that you can get a feed. (NB: Even if a website doesn’t provide a feed, you can “scrape” the page and make one. See William J. Turkel’s explanation of how to do this.) Almost all blogs and news sources provide such feeds. (Non-blog RSS feeds that I use daily include: Google News, Flickr, PBWorks (formerly PBWiki), and Delicious. The online calendar I use, 30boxes, grabs an RSS feed of events at my university, and automagically displays them. There’s no limit to the kinds of services that can syndicate their data in this way.)

Ok, once you start to recognize feeds on the web, what do you do with them? You need a type of software called a feed reader or news aggregator. There are options:

  • Modern web browsers, such as Firefox, Opera, and Safari all support RSS feeds right in the browser. Although the implementations vary slightly, the basic premise is the same: “Subscribe” to the feed (in Firefox, this is in the “Bookmarks” menu–or just click on the RSS icon!), and the browser will gather all subsequent updates to the page. Pros: Simple! Cons: Tied to a particular browser. (Syncing is sometimes possible.) I find it harder to scan feeds quickly and still glean useful information.
  • There are plenty of web-based feedreaders: Bloglines might be the most well-known, or it was before Google Reader. Netvibes is the one Michael Wesch uses in the famous YouTube video about Web 2.0. Pros: Access your feeds from anywhere with a browser! Cons: Can be slower than dedicated clients. Reliability can be a problem.
  • Client-based readers: A dedicated application for reading your feeds. I’ve used NetNewsWire for a while, because it’s the most Mac-awesome one. (I’m currently rethinking this a bit, as they will be using Google Reader to provide syncing). Advantages: Usually fast. Gets you out of the web browser. I’ve found NetNewsWire the best way to quickly catch up on lots of feeds. Cons: Syncing multiple versions can be a problem. Yet another app.

Outlook supports RSS feeds, and you can even use Facebook as one, I believe.

There’s not One True Way to read feeds–try a few, and find one that you’re comfortable with, and that fits the way you work. (For example, if all you have is a laptop you take everywhere, syncing probably isn’t a concern. If you want to read on your iPhone, then a dedicated iPhone app probably matters to you.)

Best Practices

What’s terrific about blogs/news and feeds is also their horror: They. Update. So. Often. It doesn’t just seem like there’s always more to read–there really is always more! That’s why you’re moving to a feedreader in the first place: to find ways to get the latest-and-greatest, but without having to hunt around for hours. (This post actually began with a request on Twitter for a post about how to organize RSS feeds). Some thoughts:

  • The important thing about feedreaders is figuring out how many “unread” posts you can live with. If it bothers you that you have 1500 unread posts, then you need to find ways to “mark all as read,” or subscribe to fewer blogs, or to quit your job and become a full-time, ad-supported blogger like Jason Kottke or John Gruber.
  • The second most important thing is to be pretty ruthless about focusing on headlines and lead paragraphs. It’s also worth deleting the feeds of things you don’t read. (My favorite features of NetNewsWire are the reporting tools “Dinosaurs,” which shows feeds that aren’t updated, and “Attention,” which shows what blogs you click through to the most.)
  • I organize feeds into folders according to topic, which for me is a proxy for “tasks.” All the blogs in my poetry folder, for example, are sources for my weekly posts at Bookslut. Parenting folder = GeekDad. Then there are the various academic topics I’m interested in. I also have folders called Humor, Politics, and “General Feeds,” which are timewasters. (Not that politics is a waste of time! The point is that I don’t post about politics, teach about politics, and the like, so when I read them, it’s as a break.) In some of my folders, I’m looking explicitly for post topics, and once I’ve found what I like, the rest get marked as read. Others, though, get read more carefully.
  • Other people prioritize sites by how useful they find them, or how much they like them. And so, for example, some people have folders of blogs they read every day, blogs they read every week, blogs they read occasionally, and so forth. These users are really good at tolerating different levels of unread counts–the fact that my “occasional” folder has 3000 unread posts doesn’t matter, because I only browse through those feeds as a change-of-pace.
  • A new tool is Fever, which, as I understand it, orders your unread items by how much *other* people are talking about them. So, if a particular post is generating a lot of conversation, you’ll know to read it. (Or, in the alternative, you can unearth gems that more people should know.) It seems pretty awesome, but you do need to have your own web server and to be able to install it. (Which, now you do, thanks to Julie!)

How do you, wise Prof. Hacker readers, manage or organize your RSS feeds?

Image by flickr user Chesi – Fotos CC / CC Licensed

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