Really Useful Syndication

In a world where all of us suffer from information overload to some extent, the ability to pick and choose the articles that we find interesting and have them delivered directly to us surely has to be a useful service. That’s what RSS does. RSS is a wonderful thing, but I know many people who still don’t use it.

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a means of subscribing to a webpage, or a blog, or blog comments, or a podcast, or a series of news articles – pretty much anything really – and then every time something on that site changes, a piece of software called a feedreader collects and collates all those changes into one place. You subscribe to whatever you like. It’s a little like designing your very own personal newspaper that contains only the articles that interest you.

If you think about it a bit like an old style message board or web forum where you have new messages delivered to you via email, RSS is a similar idea. Under these old style systems, you become a member of those forums or discussions that interest you, and as new messages get posted they are sent to you via email. RSS is a similar concept, except the stuff that gets fed to you can come from virtually any source, and the software that delivers it is not your email, but a feedreader. (Some newer email and browser apps now have the feedreader function built right in so you can track everything from one convenient place. It makes a lot of sense.) RSS is the technology which let’s you track your favourite blogs and its also what enables iTunes to keep track of your subscribed podcasts. RSS is way cool.

I can’t imagine manually checking every blog or podcast that interests me just to see if it has been updated. For a start, there are just way too many of them. It would annoy and frustrate me browsing through some long list of sites that I need to check each day, only to find that many have not actually changed since I last looked. Obviously, if it hasn’t changed, I don’t need to check it. Equally, it would become tedious having to individually look through each one that has been updated in order to find out whether there is anything there that grabs my attention. I simply don’t have time for that.

When I did a classroom blogging project last year I used RSS to create a feed for every student in my class. Each time one of them posted anything, I would know instantly. I think it used to surprise them just how quickly I would know whenever any of them would post something to their blog. Quite literally, they would write something and normally within a minute or so I would say, “hey, nice post!” I’m sure it made them feel more accountable. They knew I read everything they wrote. Everything. Without RSS there is no way I could have stayed on top of it like that.

Until recently, my feedreader of choice has been Vienna. Light, simple and free, Vienna does a great job of managing feeds for all sorts of things from blogs to wikis to podcasts to photostreams. It has some very nice, very Mac-like features, such as Smart Folders, which make it super easy to track the stuff I care about. At the moment my Vienna is tracking about 80 or so blogs that I follow regularly.

Since I switched to Flock as my favourite browser, I’ve also become quite enamoured with the browser’s built in RSS reader. I really like the layout of the news pages and the way it manages the presentation of each feed. Updated feeds appear in bold, with a number in brackets indicating the number of new posts, and the main reading page presents a neat intro paragraph for each article which you can click on to expand or mark as read. Of course, the layout is very customisable, so you can view it however suits you. It’s very cool and hints that EPIC may be closer than we think…

There are a bunch of other feedreaders that are supposed to be quite good. NetNewsWire has a good reputation, although it’s not free. Apple’s own web browser, Safari, does a pretty fair job of managing RSS feeds although I don’t think I’d use it for managing a large number of subscriptions. I’m not too certain what to recommend on the Windows platform, but I’m quite sure a quick Google search will turn up something useful.  And of course, if you want to really be a cool Web 2.0 dude, you can use one of the excellent web based ones like Bloglines or Google Reader.

Area there any downsides of RSS feeds? There are two that strike me…

One… even with RSS doing all the hard work of tracking your favourite blogs you can still get an overwhelming amount of stuff coming to you each day. I know people that subscribe to hundreds of feeds and you can be back in information overload territory again pretty quickly if you’re not careful, but at least you’re overloading on information of your own choice. Of course, you don’t have to actually read every single article that comes into your feed, just as you don’t have to read every single article in the Sunday newspaper (remember those?) Just read what grabs your attention. Browse. Skim. It’s ok. Don’t feel guilty.

Two… you only subscribe to the feeds that interest you. While that is supposed to be seen as a positive, you can also easily fall into the trap of only following stories about which you have a current interest and therefore exclude yourself from other stories that you may be interested in, only you just don’t know it yet. You don’t know what you don’t know, as they say. Classic example… last weekend I knew all about the iPhone launch and new Skype features for the Mac, but never knew a bomb went off in London. Gotta be careful you don’t subscribe yourself into a very small niche sometimes…

But if you’re a teacher, there are some excellent Educational Blogs out there that are well worth a look… read some Warlick, Richardson, Fisch and Fryer. Get some Aussie input from Pearce, Bruce and O’Connell. Round it out with a bit of Peters and Cofino. (You’re already reading mine, so hey, thanks!)

So there you go… RSS Feeds. Have at them! It you aren’t an RSS kinda guy or gal, give it a try… you might just like it.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 Really Useful Syndication by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.