Friday, March 9, 2007

RSS - Three letters that are (sort of) changing everything

There is a lot of information out there and still just 24 hours in a day, so how do you keep track of it all? One of the more productive features of the Internet is a new-ish technology called RSS.

RSS stands for “really simple syndication” (and a few other things, but let’s keep this simple). It allows you to subscribe to a web site and have that web site tell you when it’s been updated. So, instead of having to check all of the sites you like every day, you can have them notify you of updates.

Almost every blog and news site now has some sort of RSS feed for it. If you’re using Safari or Firefox as your web browser, you may see a little RSS icon in the URL window - clicking on that will set up your subscription. If you don’t see that, look around the page and you’ll probably see a button for it.

Once you’ve found a site you want to subscribe to, you need a way to keep track of it. Safari and Firefox each have built-in RSS readers. In Safari, for instance, if you click on an RSS link, it’ll add it to your Bookmarks. Anytime there’s an update to the feed, you’ll see a number appear in paranthesis next to the name of the bookmark - that number tells you how many unread items there are. (As a tip, create a folder for RSS feeds, then put that in the Bookmark Bar - the space between the URL window and the site content window. With a quick look, you can see if you have unread items.)

Firefox works in a similar manner. The latest version of Internet Explorer (finally) supports RSS, as well.

The next option is to find a dedicated RSS reader program, something that works outside of your browser. As a Mac guy, I used NetNewsWire Lite for the last year or so and was pretty happy with it. It was simple, has a clean interface, and allows me to easily group different categories of RSS feeds together. For instance, in a folder named “News” were the mainstream news sites I checked often - The New York Times,,, the Boston Globe, etc. In another folder named “Photo - Tech” were feeds from sites that had good technology news related to photography.

You can leave everything in one lump, but breaking it down into folders worked better for me. And there are lots of RSS readers out there, for Mac and Windows, so you may play with one and decide it’s not quite right and try another. Some are free (one of my favorite parts about NetNewsWire Lite), others may have a small fee associated with them.

Using your browser or a dedicated reader is fine if you’re always on one computer. But I wander around - I have two machines at home (although, admittedly, I only really use one), another in my office and then I spend a decent chunk of time in my photojournalism lab. I could plug the RSS feeds in to all of those machines, but then adding one feed means going to four or more machines. There has to be a better way.

At a recent conference at the Poynter Institute, Andrew DeVigal of the New York Times told me about - one of several online RSS readers. Think about this - you aggregate all of your feeds into a web page and you can check your feeds from anywhere you have Internet access. isn’t the only online reader, of course - has been around for a while and is very popular and Google has their own reader, too. Andrew seemed like a pretty smart guy, so I went with his recommendation and have been very happy.

After creating an account (so only you can see your stuff), allows you to start adding feeds and modules. I have a Gmail account, and I can set NetVibes to show me the subject headings of new emails as they come in. Clicking on the headlines lets me read them there on the page. You can do the same with Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL and some other email programs, too.

You can add weather and stock info, just about anything you want. But the cool part about, for me, is the ability to set up tabs for different categories. Just like I broke up my feeds in NetNewsWire Lite by category, lets me do the same thing. So, across the top of the page when I load it are buttons for Home (where I have my Gmail and weather sections), Photojournalism, Photo - Tech, News, etc. Into each of these areas I drop relevant feeds that I want to track. And, as with the browser-based readers, I get a number next to each tab that tells me how many unread feeds there are.

The interface is pretty slick, too. Mine is set up with three columns into which I can move the different feed “blocks” around. The more important ones (to me) I move to the top and the lesser ones I slide down the page. And all of that can be done on the fly.

Start playing - there’s a lot of info out there, and RSS feeds are a quick way to keep track of it all.

No comments: