Blogs have transformed the way people communicate in these early days of the 21st century. At their very essence, they are really nothing more than web pages where writers post their thoughts, albeit generally with much less pain than managing a normal site (and sometimes with a lot less thought). What makes blogs special is the fact that readers can directly interact with the writer (and other readers) by posting comments on each opinionated diatribe.
But that’s only half the story. What makes most blogs unique is their specialization in niche topics. Given the number of blogs out there, there are bound to be a few that pique your interests, but once you find them what can you do to keep up? One solution is to set aside some time each week to go through your bookmarks to see if any sites have been updated. While that works, it’s a bit of a pain. You have to remember which posts on which site were the last ones you read, and if you have more then a half-dozen sites linked, that’s a lot of clicking.
Enter RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, the second major technological innovation that blogs have brought to the world of communications. By subscribing to a blog’s “feed” using an “aggregator” you can keep track of all the blogs you are interested in, all from one organized place. In fact, this even works for podcasts and many news sites as well, including the New York Times.
If you haven’t played with an aggregator, there’s no reason not to try. If you have a Mac, Safari comes with an RSS aggregator built in. So does IE7 on PC’s. If you prefer a web-based version, you can try Google Reader or Bloglines. There are a bunch of options out there. In fact, technically even iTunes is an RSS aggregator, as it can be used to subscribe to audio and video podcast feeds.
So how should you get started? Really all you need to do is choose a program to use and then choose a couple feeds from sites you like. Try that out and as you find new blogs to subscribe to, add them to your list.
I didn’t really pay much attention to podcasts until I started playing with iTunes. When I discovered I could easily search for podcasts and subscribe to them using it’s intuitive interface, I started regularly listening (and then watching) several feeds. It was months before I started importing my music collection into the program, which is what most people use iTunes for.
I had a similar experience subscribing to blogs. One day I decided to subscribe to the NY Times Technology and Education feeds to keep abreast of stories in those sections. As it turns out, the web site only lists about a dozen recent stories on each section’s main page, but the RSS feed contains several week’s worth. So just by subscribing to the RSS feed I could save myself a lot of time looking for stories, and I didn’t have to check the page every day. Not only that, but by subscribing only to the feeds from the sections of the paper I actually read, I could avoid all the chafe I didn’t care about (like fashion or, say, world news).
Over time I continued to add additional news feeds to my collection, and then I branched out into blogs that covered other areas like mapping, programming, data visualization, home renovation and even Disneyanna. I now have over 40 feeds collected into 7 categories that I can easily check on all from one place. In fact, Safari tells me right on my toolbar how many new posts I have in each category.
In the end, subscribing to RSS feeds has greatly simplified my life and has allowed me to stay current in many different fields when I do happen to find those few free moments in a week.
In a way, it’s really like creating your own magazine. Some blogs are short, some long. Some record world events, others provide commentary and analysis. It’s up to you to create the collection that suits your interests.
And that’s what the internet is all about.
- Choose an RSS aggregator
- Subscribe to 3 RSS feeds
- Let everyone know which program you tried and the 3 feeds you subscribed to in the comments below.