I’ve been using the internet almost since its public inception. I remember the mid-1990′s when my junior high buddies and I would telnet into sites around the world. Later we all clamoured for Unix shell accounts so we could use the primitive text-based Lynx web browser and TinTin++ for online gaming. The next phase in the internet occurred in the late ’90s when the Mosaic web brower was unleashed upon the world, and graphics, the occasional video, and audio-streaming were finally incorporated into the average person’s internet experience.
Unfortunately, this is where the evolution of most people’s internet experience stops. They use their web browser, typically Internet Explorer or Firefox, to check various sites that come to mind. People spend hours checking the same sites each day. You probably know the sports fan that loads ESPN.com fifteen times a day or the newshound that visits CNN an equal amount of times.
Aside from simply avoiding compulsive behavior, there is a better way to surf the internet. The solution is called Really Simple Syndication (RSS), and I would have to say that this is the most under-used feature of the internet. RSS is a form of distribution that allows information about website updates to be pumped directly to you, instead of you having to constantly check the website.
Websites that contain RSS typically have an orange icon with a dot and several lines or they say ‘RSS” in the footer (like this one). Other terms that you might see that indicate an RSS feed are Atom, XML, XUL, or just the word “feed.” Web programmers have come up with many different ways that you can use these feeds.
Ways to Access RSS Feeds
1. In the bookmarks section of your web browser
If you use a modern web browser such as Firefox, Internet Explorer 7, or Safari, you can use RSS feeds as a live bookmarks. Unlike a normal bookmark that just lists the name of the website, a live bookmark will have an expandable portion that lists the content of the website. Instead of having to constantly visit a site to check for updates, you can simply scroll through your bookmarks to notice any new headlines.
On this page, I’ve made it easy to try it out. Click the orange icon at the top of the article. When prompted, click subscribe. You now have your first live bookmark!
2. In Google Reader
Google Reader is a powerful application that allows you to scan dozens of websites at one time. Just get an account (it’s super easy if you already use Gmail or Blogger), and click the “Add Subscription” buttom in the top left corner. You don’t even have to know the feed name. Simply type the name of the website and Google Reader will find it for you.
If you spend even five minutes using it, you’ll see that there are all kinds of ways that you can share websites with your friends. If everyone used Google reader, you’d no longer get those “Hey, Look at this Awesome Website” e-mails.
3. In Microsoft Outlook
Microsoft Outlook 2007 and above has built-in RSS feed integration. To start subscribing, simply do a right click on the RSS folder and follow the prompts to subscribe to your favorite websites. Now checking websites will be as easy as checking e-mail. You’ll no longer be compelled to keep clicking reload on your favorite sites. You can also set it up to reformat your favorite websites to look like e-mail. In a workplace situation, this has obvious benefits.
4. In iTunes, Apple Safari RSS, and Many Others
I don’t use these applications, but there are many other applications that allow easy access to RSS. Mac users should know that there are many, many options for them. iTunes is probably the most commonly installed on desktops. Imagine, reading cullenhartley.com in the same application that you use to download your favorite pop music. What a panacea!
5. In Specialty Applications
There are specialty websites like NewsGator and single-function programs like FeedDemon to access RSS feeds. I personally think these solutions are cumbersome and not well-integrated into most people’s computing workflow. If you are already using them, that’s great. But if you are that involved in RSS and you made it to the end of the article, it is minor miracle.