What’s RSS? And Why Should You Care?

Consider this a friendly little poke — a wee bit of encouragement for the vast majority of folks who aren’t using RSS to get with the program.

What Is RSS?

It can stand for Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Syndication, depending on which source you check. (Wikipedia attributes Really Simple Syndication to RSS 2.0, and Rich Site Syndication to RSS 0.91; a third — RDF, or Resource Description Framework, Site Summary is attributed to RSS 1.0.)

That doesn’t explain what it is, though. So, to envision the concept, imagine a system of tubes that run from every website that has regularly updated and newly published content that you’re interested in following, to a single point of output (that would be your RSS reader, or aggregator). These tubes then “suck” the essence of each post out of those blogs and other sites, and channel it all to your reader.

The result: all the new posts of your favorite blogs on one page. Instead of you going to all those sites, they basically come to you.

If you’re having trouble envisioning this, take a look at the following screenshot. This is my Bloglines feeds page. (Bloglines is my feed reader; there are lots of others and we’ll look at them in the next post.)

Bloglines Screenshot
On the left you see the list of blogs whose feeds I’ve subscribed to using Bloglines. On the right you see the text of the new entries on the selected blog.

Why Is It All That And a Bag of Chips?

To get what all the fuss is about, let’s think about how we used to get the new stuff from all of our favorite blogs and news sites. (And if you’re reading this in preparation of adopting RSS yourself, then it’s how you do it presently, I’d gather.)

The Olden Days of Web Browsing

You sit down at your computer with a cup of coffee or your beverage of choice. You fire up your browser, and you hit the web. Maybe you use a links bar in your toolbar at the top of the browser window. Maybe you use bookmarks, or your history in the little drop-down menu in your address bar.

However you do it, you start navigating to all your favorite sites. You hit this blog first, of course, ’cause you are obviously a lawyer of breeding and discernment. “What’s Sherrie written lately?” you ask yourself, and voila! — the posts that were published since the last time you visited The Tramadol Diaries will be at the top of your screen.

Fully armed with your daily recommended allowance of TTD goodness, you head off to your other favorite blogs. And you ask yourself, “What has this fabulous blogger written lately?” and you pull up that blogger’s site. And you read the last few posts that were published since your prior visit. And so on. Lather. Rinse. Repeat ad nauseam.

The New, Improved, and MUCH Faster Method, Courtesy RSS

But now, take a moment to envision the following. You sit down at your computer with a cup of coffee or your beverage of choice. You fire up your browser and you hit the web.

There, the similarities end, my friend. Because instead of navigating to this blog, then that blog, then the other blog, then the news sites A through F — now, you hit one site, and one site only: your reader.

Let’s say you’ve subscribed to Bloglines. You go to www.bloglines.com/myblogs, and you see your several feeds on the left side of the window. Each blog that has a new post (i.e., published or updated since the last time you visited Bloglines) will be bolded in the list on the left. You simply click on the blog’s name in the left column, and presto, the new posts show up on the right.

When you’re done with that blog, you hit the next one in the list, and so on down the list.

Can you imagine how much time that’s going to save you — just that very simple first step alone?

But wait! There’s so much more to RSS …

Playlists/Groups

Let’s say you are, like yours truly, a person of fabulously diverse interests and pursuits. You’ve got 350 blogs in the feeds list but they’re all over the map. You’ve got technical blogs, blogs for moms, blogs for writers, blogs for parents, news blogs, personal development blogs, blogs just for Mac users, blogs for bloggers, even!

You can go beyond the simple alphabetical listing in Bloglines with Playlists. They work just like the groupings of the same name do in iTunes. They pull the feeds from various blogs and sort them into groups of your choosing. They don’t move the feeds (just as iTunes doesn’t move your songs, and you can have one song in more than one playlist); they simply provide for a convenient and highly customizable way to organize your feeds according to interests, subjects, or whatever criteria you want.

So, let’s say instead of hitting the feeds list, you are looking to help a friend who wants to switch to Macs in her business. “Hey,” you think, “I subscribe to a boatload of Mac blogs. I should look at those blogs and their recent posts for her …”

Instead of searching through your alphabetized list of blogs for any with the word “Apple” or “Mac” in the title, you go to your pre-sorted Mac Blogs playlist and browse them all — and no others.

Think about how this concept might help you implement GTD concepts with that work management system’s emphasis on “contexts.” You’ve set aside an hour to improve your writing skills, say. Pull up your Writing Blogs list.

How Do The Feeds Get to the Reader?

The essential beauty of RSS technology for the very busy lawyer lies in its reversal of this formula: you going out to all your favorite sites. It takes that formula and turns it around to: all your favorite sites come in to you.

How does that happen? Through the act of subscribing to blogs. Much like subscribing to magazines — except free — this is the process by which your reader gets the order to grab the feed from a specified blog.

Where can I get a feed reader?

The Basics of RSS Readers

RSS readers abound, which means you’ve got lots of options. It also means it can be hard to make a final decision. The beauty is it doesn’t really matter: you’ve got plenty of freebies to choose from, so you don’t need to be concerned about wasting money. If you don’t like the one you choose, just try another.

Bloglines
http://www.bloglines.com

I use Bloglines because I like the playlist and other features that make organizing my feeds into groups and categories easy.

You can show old posts in a given time period for each feed; you can also organize clippings from posts you want to keep. It’s free and web-based.

Google Reader
http://www.google.com/reader/view/

One of the more popular readers, Google Reader is web-based and free. At the site above, a short video explains its use.

My Yahoo
http://my.yahoo.com

Google Home Page
http://www.google.com/ig?hl=en

My Yahoo, like Google personalized home page, creates a customized version of the home page with those feeds that the reader/user selects all on the same page. Like most Yahoo! & Google products, they’re easy to use, web-based and free.

NewsGator
http://www.newsgator.com

NewsGator has several solutions for various platforms: Mac, Windows, web-based, and mobile. The online version is free; read more on the various options here.

SharpReader
http://www.sharpreader.net/

Still in beta (apparently for a long time now), SharpReader was developed for/by an individual developer for apparently personal use, but has some impressive features.

Probably not for the casual user; requires Windows (sorry Mac users) and the .NET framework; freeware, but donations accepted.

Other Readers

For more information and more in-depth reviews of RSS readers, I recommend About.com’s Guide to Email, which includes an RSS Reader Guide.

OPML Export

Make sure your reader has the ability to import and export OPML files. This is how you’ll export your feed list and import it into a new reader, should you decide to give another reader a try in the future. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck entering each feed by hand (or visiting each site one by one to click on the feed icon, which would be equally time-consuming).

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