Sometimes people ask me how I keep up with so many blogs, websites, and general news. My secret (other than being easily distracted) is my trusty RSS reader. Using an RSS reader and some simple information management skills, you can easily skim dozens of blogs each day.
What is RSS?
RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” It’s a way for websites to “syndicate” their content for use by other websites and software, just like a syndicated newspaper column can be published in hundreds of newspapers at the same time. At minimum, the RSS feed will contain the title of the new article and a brief summary, but many websites will make the full text, images, mp3 or PDF attachments, etc., of their articles available through RSS. For these websites, you can read their entire content without ever visiting their website. The RSS content is called the website’s RSS feed.
Why is RSS better than just visiting the website?
RSS feeds are better because of time and attention.
Time: Rather than you clicking through each of your favorite bookmarks and waiting for each page to load, your RSS reader (see below) will collect all of the latest content automatically from your favorite websites. Instead of checking a few dozen websites, you’ll only have to check one (or none at all, if you use a desktop RSS reader). Further, many popular websites change their content daily, even hourly, which means that you’ll need to check back regularly to make sure you don’t miss something. Your RSS reader, in contrast, will save all of a website’s content, so that you can read it at your leisure, on your schedule.
Attention: With all of your favorite content in one place, you can organize it based on your reading preferences, collect it into folders, skim the headlines and skip the articles you don’t care about, or even subscribe to specialty RSS feeds based on your interests. For example, love David Brooks but hate the NY Times? Subscribe to the NY Times’ feed for David Brooks’ columns, and get only the content you want to read.
How do I read a site’s RSS feed?
You need an RSS reader, sometimes called an “aggregator.” There are dozens of web-based and desktop-based readers available, usually for free. Once you add an RSS feed to your reader (this is called “subscribing”), your reader will collect the feed’s content on a regular basis and save it until you’re ready to read it.
Some of the more popular web-based readers include Google Reader, My Yahoo, Bloglines, and Netvibes. I prefer desktop software personally, and use NetNewsWire. A long list of RSS readers can be found at Wikipedia.
How can you find a website’s RSS feed?
Many web browsers make it easy to determine if a website has an RSS feed by putting a small icon in the address bar.
In Safari, the RSS icon looks like this:
In Firefox, the RSS icon looks like this:
Many websites will also provide links to their RSS feeds. For example, on my website, I have the following in my sidebar:
Depending on your RSS reader, you might be able to add the RSS feed to your subscriptions just by clicking on the RSS feed link or the RSS symbol in your browser. Or you might have to copy-and-paste the link into your RSS reader.
Are there downsides to using RSS feeds?
Yes. It’s easy to add more and more RSS feeds, until you feel even more overwhelmed than ever before. You’ll want to purge your RSS feeds periodically to eliminate any that you just aren’t reading. Some readers will track which feeds you tend to read and which you tend to skip.
It’s also easy to surround yourself with news and bloggers that simply reinforce your own perspective and biases. Maybe you see this as a benefit, not a problem, but I try to make sure that I hear view points that I disagree with, too. So I still visit general news sites like the NY Times or CNN, and even subscribe to a few RSS feeds of writers with whom I usually disagree.
If you try all this and fall in love with RSS feeds, try creating your own custom RSS feeds with Yahoo Pipes.