Wednesday, August 12, 2009

RSS Feeds

I'm always surprised, as I was again this weekend, when an otherwise web-savvy friend doesn't know about RSS feeds. I've been using them for more than five years to keep track of things on the web, and when a computer problem recently derailed them for a few days, I felt like I'd been blinded. (Okay, it was a bit of a vacation, too.) So here's my advertisement for RSS (which stands for something that is less important than the initials, like DNA).

I track over 200 feeds, including various blogs, local and national news sites, science magazines, news release sites, university labs, scientific journals, economics sites, and a couple just for fun. For me the key advantages over visiting the web page are first that it looks for new items automatically, but equally important that I don't have to read anything twice (with a few exceptions). Just as in an email program, items that haven't yet been viewed are bold, so it's easy to see what's new. The presentation also gives an easy drill-down capability, progressing from a headline, to a description, to a complete web page, which is a very efficient way to browse through items that are not all equally interesting.

I use the free aggregator FeedDemon, although there are others, and many browsers have RSS capability built in. FeedReader lets you organize feeds in folders, which I find useful because it helps me to predict how much time it's going to take by grouping similar sites. Sites like CNN that have lightweight news items can be scanned quickly, for example, whereas if you're going to take the trouble to look at a journal table contents you'd better be ready to spend some time. If I'm in a hurry, I flag items like journal articles or longer stories to return to when I have the time to spend.

If you monitor any web sites on a regular basis, you owe it to yourself to them with RSS. Download a reader or use a browser, and when you give it the URL for a site, it will most likely auto-discover the feed. You won't look back.

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