Really Simple, eh?

November 10, 2008

rss2I was born a digital native, but I’m still “Old School” in some ways.  For the longest time, I hated to teach students web design software, instead showing them HTML.  I think it had to do with teaching something proprietary versus teaching something standard.  I’m over those days now, and I teach students to blog and to create wikis if they want to get their content out there on the Internet.  I’ve also come around to another new technology called RSS.

For those who don’t know, it stands for Really Simple Syndication.  RSS allows the computer to bring the contents of a website or a blog to you rather than you going to it.  RSS has changed the way I consume Internet content.

I used to bookmark things that I found interesting and return to those resources periodically to check for updates.  Maybe you do that now.  Possibly you’ve graduated to social bookmarking tools like Delicious.  Still, going to sites to check for content can be a waste of time if there’s nothing new to see.  Instead, make that content come to you.

Whenever you’re on a website, look for indicators that you can subscribe.  Do you see the RSS logo pictured above?  Do you see links called “Feed,” “Atom,” “RSS,” or “Subscribe”?  These are indicators that an RSS feed is present.  Some browsers even automatically detect the presence of feeds and turn on an RSS icon for you.  A feed is just a compacted, machine-readable version of the content you’re already consuming.  If you click on a feed, you may either see a bunch of code (like HTML, but uglier), you could see some snippits of the page content, or you could see a gaggle of buttons all with different logos on them.  Either way, you’ve found a feed!

I’ll tell you what to do with that feed further down…  Just chill out.

Feeds, as I mentioned, are machine-readable.  They’re not very palatable to humans.  You will need a tool to consume the feed.  This is called a reader or an aggregator.  I use Google Reader because it’s a web-based tool that follows me wherever I go.  Some people prefer to use programs they’ve downloaded and installed (but I don’t).

Once you have your feed address, find the place to click in your reader to “subscribe.”  Yes, “subscribe” usually means “pay,” but in RSS terms it only means “sign me up to receive content from this source in the future.”  Once you’ve clicked the subscribe button, paste the feed address into the appropriate box and hit subscribe!

Once your aggregator chews on the new feed for a minute, you should see the content from that source appear in the reader.  Voila!  You’ve subscribed to a feed.  In the future, just load your feed reader up and see what new content has been posted on that site.  If you see something you want to see in its original glory, click the title of the posting.  That usually opens the original in situ.

If you’re not crazy about this feed reader stuff, you can also use a new tool that HP is developing called Tabbloid.  You go to their site, paste in a few feed addresses that you would like to read, put in your email address, select a time of day, and poof!  It emails you a PDF file on command which contains the content from the feeds you provided.  If you’re a paper person, you can even print those things out.  It’s sort of like your own custom magazine once a day.

Using RSS and a feed reader has given me the ability to consume much more material than I previously could.  It gives me the chance to speed through lots of content and then stop when I see something that I care about and spend more time on it.  Give RSS a try!

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