A simpler way to keep up with the dynamic web

One of the biggest shifts in the movement from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 is reversal of the information-seeking process. In 1.0, people sought information. But more and more in 2.0, information finds people.

One of the best examples of a technology enabling this shift is something called RSS (really simple syndication). RSS icons can now be found all over the web. Based on interactions I’ve had with Web users at all levels, I find that RSS is still a concept only a small percentage of Web users understand. If you want to know the technical details and history of RSS, I’ll refer you to Wikipedia. I’m going to focus on how RSS can benefit you and really simplify how you experience the Web 2.0 era.

First, let me describe the problems that RSS can solve.

You’ve undoubtedly felt overwhelmed at some point with the number of websites you have to check regularly. In 1.0, the concept of “bookmarking” was used to keep up with websites. If you found a site that you wanted to visit later, you probably saved it as a bookmark or “favorite” depending on the terminology used by your web browser. This worked okay in the static world of Web 1.0 when the content of web sites changed infrequently.

But on today’s Web, content changes constantly. Blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn newsfeeds, and even mainstream news sites add content continuously. Trying to manually check all of these sites using the conventional “bookmarking” approach just doesn’t cut it. You’ll inevitability miss things, but worse, you’ll waste time trying to manually check all these sites one at a time by clicking through your bookmarks folder (which may not even be in sync across the multiple computers you use to access the Web).

RSS solves these problems by giving you a way to “subscribe” to content that you’re interested in. In other words, RSS delivers information to you.

In essence, an RSS “feed” is a news stream. Once you subscribe to a site’s RSS feed, you receive updates anytime content is added. In some cases, you receive all the content (full text, photos, video, etc.). In other cases, you receive a summary with a link to the full post or article.

You’ve probably already noticed the presence of RSS feeds all over the Web even if you didn’t know what they were. Virtually all blogs, including this one, have an RSS icon somewhere on the page. On a blog, the RSS feed icon or link typically appears somewhere on the “sidebar,” which on this blog is located on the right side of the page. Sometimes RSS icons also appear at the very top or very bottom of blog pages. I would encourage you to get in the habit of looking for RSS links on any site that you visit on a regular basis; they’re probably there. You can even get an RSS link for a custom Twitter search!

If you click on an RSS link, what happens depends on your browser, but in most cases you’re taken to a page that gives you several options for “subscribing” to the feed.

There are many applications designed to manage RSS feeds, but one of the most popular–and my personal favorite–is Google Reader. Things I like about Google Reader are:

  • It’s free
  • Being web-based, it’s available anywhere I have an Internet connection
  • The mobile web version works nicely, and there are also several good mobile apps that support and enhance Google Reader
  • Sharing content is easy

Google Reader makes the process of subscribing to RSS feeds easy too. After you click on an RSS feed link or icon, you’re usually given a Google Reader option on the subsequent page. Even if you aren’t, you can simply copy the blog’s URL into the “Add” field at the upper left corner of your Google Reader page, and Google Reader will determine the link for the RSS feed and save it.

I like to think of Google Reader as an “inbox” dedicated to the news I’m interested in receiving. Like an email inbox, it begins filling up with content as soon as you subscribe to your first feed, but unlike an email inbox, none of the content obligates you to respond. If you want to read an item in an RSS feed, you can; if you don’t, you can blissfully ignore it. Additionally, by keeping these “one-way” notifications out of your email inbox, you get a clearer picture of which emails are truly important.

Google Reader also makes it easy to organize your feeds. You can put feeds in folders or tag them. Suppose you follow 10 different corporate insurance blogs. You could put all of them in an “Insurance” folder. Once you do this, you can simply browse your entire Insurance folder to see all of the new posts listed by date. You may be able to browse the new content from those 10 sites in just a few seconds–far faster than if you visited them individually. A few examples of the tags I use: Technology, Financial News, Actuarial, Family and Friends, Sports, and Local News. You can create any tags you want, or none at all. You can even put multiple tags on a single feed.

Google Reader also makes sharing information a cinch. It provides options for posting links to all of the major social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. You can activate as many or as few of these as you like using Google Reader’s settings. You can also “send” content directly into most popular blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress as a draft for a future post.

In my mind, the greatest benefit of using a service like Google Reader to keep up with the dynamic Web is that it allows you to check information on your own terms. When you’re ready to check it, it’s just waiting for you. It lets you efficiently browse a significant amount of content much faster than the traditional way of visiting sites one by one. This frees up your time to do other things and also makes it less likely that you miss something important.

I’ll share more RSS tips and tricks in the future. Please share your own in the comments.

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