RSS Feeds: Making Your Favorite Websites Come to You
If you’ve ever spent any time visiting blogs (including this one), you may have noticed a little button somewhere on the page that looks something like this:
or like this:
On the face of it, they may seem like just another icon cluttering a blog’s layout. But in actuality, they’re links to a whole new way of experiencing the Internet: RSS feeds. And if you’re not using them, you’re missing out on one of the most exciting ways to Internet with the Internet universe. As one blogging colleague once put it to me, “If you don’t have an RSS feed, you’re already dead to me.”
First, a little history. Rewind to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when blogs and online news sites were just becoming all the rage. Typically, when you wanted to know if a site had been updated, you had to visit it. Of course, some sites had email subscription services that would send you information when content got updated, but this was hardly universal. Normally, if you had 20 websites you liked, you had to visit all 20 of them just to find out if anything new had been posted.
Enter RSS, or “Really Simple Syndication.” RSS is a way of publishing a stream, or “feed,” of online content that makes it easier for the public to subscribe to it. Normally it appears on a blog or other website as a link, sometimes using the images I’ve displayed above. When you click on one of these types of links - say the RSS feed for this site - it looks like a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo mixed in with text. It doesn’t seem particularly useful since it’s so hard to read, but that’s because you’re not the target audience of RSS.
So what’s the point if you can’t read it? It’s to help computers understand the type of content coming from a website. In the case of websites like blogs, an rss feed contains all the basic information that you’d normally see on a blog - the title of a blog entry, the text, the author, the date, etc - and displays it in a way that computer software can put to some kind of use.
The most common thing done with RSS feeds is to help people subscribe to website content streams. Let’s go back to that example I mentioned, in which I’ve got 20 favorite websites. It’s not a very good use of my time to keep visiting all of those sites in the hopes of finding new information posted on them. But if all of those sites have an RSS feed, I can use those feeds to pull then content from each site and display them wherever I want. Most people use what’s called a “news reader” to do this, which is a type of software or website that lets you manage the RSS feeds of your favorite websites and read them as a personalized news digest. One example of a news reader is Bloglines, a free website that lets you pull together RSS feeds and read them, all without having to go to each individual website. Yahoo’s My Yahoo service does the same thing, allowing you to mix RSS feeds of your choice with the latest stories from various newswire services.
Software will let you do the same thing. I personally use a tool called Thunderbird, which is a popular open source email browser that also lets you subscribe to RSS feeds. In the same way that I set up email folders for different subjects, people or discussion lists I’m on, I can set up folders for various RSS feeds. It’s just like subscribing to an email list, except that the content you receive is coming off of a website rather than from someone else’s email.
Almost every blog and news site on the Internet today produces an RSS feed. Some even produce multiple feeds based on subjects or keywords. For example, the New York Times produces dozens of topical rss feeds, so you can subscribe to all the latest news related to world affairs, the arts, job listings, even weddings. Blogs also often give you a choice of feeds; my site lets you choose from various types of feeds as well.
But other websites really let you personalize your feeds. Take Google News, which is a directory and search engine of news stories from around the world. When you do a search for a particular term, like education technology, it’ll also generate an rss feed for that term. Once you subscribe to this feed, every time a news website included in Google News mentions the phrase “education technology,” you’ll be notified through your news reader tool. It’s like creating your own personal newswire service for any phrase you can think of.
The same idea works for searching blogs as well. Blog search engines like Technorati allow you to type in a phrase and generate a personalized RSS for it. So when you do a search for “education technology” there, it’ll also let you generate an rss feed of all the latest blog postings from around the world that mention that phrase.
Meanwhile, if it weren’t for RSS feeds, podcasts and video blogs wouldn’t be the hot commodities they are today. Podcasts and video blogs are basically blogs that include audio and video into their blog posts. There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about that idea, since people have been posting audio and video on the Web for years. But RSS changed the dynamic in ways that few people were able to forecast. If you post an audio clip onto an old-fashioned website, people still have to go to that website and subscribe to it. But if your website produces an RSS feed, users now get to subscribe to the audio itself. Using free tools like iTunes and <a href=”http://www.fireant.tv”, you can subscribe to the RSS feeds of podcasts and video blogs, then receive their latest multimedia content directly on your desktop or into your MP3 player. (That’s where the word podcast comes from: iPod+webcast.)
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because once you subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds, you can mix them together and republish them for others to see. For example, the DOPA Watch page I set up a while ago is simply a bunch of relevant RSS feeds from Google News and Technorati mixed together, then reposted using a free tool called FeedDigest. FeedDigest will subscribe to a list of RSS feeds and re-display them mixed together. If you run a website, you simply take the code generated by FeedDigest and drop it into a Web page you’ve created. Then anyone who visits that page will be able to see your collection of RSS feeds on display.
Though Internet geeks and bloggers have been enraptured with RSS for years now, educators are just beginning to explore it as a tool for managing and publishing information. Perhaps the edtech king of RSS is Stephen Downes of Canada, who has been experimenting with cool uses of RSS longer than almost anyone else. Meanwhile, other edtech bloggers use RSS to follow online conversations that mention their work. Using sites like Technorati.com, it’s easy to set up RSS feeds based on searches for keywords like your name, or topics you care about. Then it doesn’t matter if you can only visit a handful of blogs per day; almost any blog in the world that mentions your name or the keywords you care about will eventually appear in your personalized feeds, alerting you to their existence.
How are you using RSS feeds, assuming you are already? I’d be interested in seeing how you’re incorporating into teaching, research and professional development. Is it changing the way you and your students work? Either way, why or why not? -andy
Filed under : Cool Tools