Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Commentary: Sotir: "RSS...It's Magic!"

I'm always fascinated by the many new ways developed to communicate. There are the Blogs and Wikis of course, which are old hat to readers of this site. While not exactly ‘brand new’, many people have not yet heard of RSS, (which stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication), and allows you to be your own Google. And yes, I do realize that words like Blog and Wiki and Google sound more like a script for Star Wars than for an academic environment, but stick with me, kid, and I’ll show you the world as you’ve never seen it before.

Those who know me know that I like, (love, live for) knowledge management. There is just too much data in the world, and not enough time to sort through it all. I live to simplify. Too much data IS a dangerous thing, since its sheer volume threatens its usefulness. Imagine RSS as your personal assistant. You find some interesting Web sites and may even mark them as favorites, so you can go back to them. Of course, the list of favorites grows, but your use of them lessens in time. Yes, they were great sites, but you just don’t have the time to keep reviewing them for new or pertinent information. Enter your RSS personal assistant. By plugging the links to your favorites into an RSS feed reader or aggregator, it delivers frequently changing Web content directly to you. You can get all the new content from favorite sites, or just summaries for you to decide if they are worth a peek. Let the feed readers go out and fetch the new, relevant content for you.

RSS works by setting up keyword searches and then delivering the relevant content directly to you. It works with blogs and Web sites and even e-mail. If you are the owner of a blog or website, and want to get information to a group of people, RSS can let them know that you have a new blog posting. Or perhaps that your conference is coming up, and you want attendees to know what new speakers are on tap. Other Blogs or Web sites, if you choose to open RSS links, can add your information to their sites, furthering the information chain. You always have complete control as to how much email is sent to you. All of those subscriptions to news sites, news groups and other content providers can be channeled into your very own RSS.

Think of RSS as a list maker, and a step beyond marking a site as a 'Favorite' . It takes the sites that you are interested in following, and puts them into a central place. Each of the items will include a title, a short summary, and a link to a URL (such as a Web page or Blog address). Other information, such as the date created and the creator's name may also be included.

So, now of course, you want to know what it takes to reap these amazing benefits.

You need to start with a feed reader. There are Web based readers, e-mail clients and stand-alone applications. I'd suggest starting with a site called Bloglines at: http://www.bloglines.com/ This is a Web based comprehensive site that works great if you have multiple computers, you don’t want to tie up your hard drive by downloading special software and you want to be able to access your reader from any computer, anywhere that is connected to the Web. Their site blurb reads “Bloglines is the most comprehensive, integrated service for searching, subscribing, publishing and sharing news feeds, blogs, and rich Web content. It's free and easy-to-use". There is also a great step by step for using Bloglines located at: http://alex.halavais.net/news/index.php?p=872

Now that you have a feed reader, you need to sign up for feeds that interest you. Go to those sites and look for either an icon with the acronyms RSS, XML or RDF or a site feed address. For example, the syndicated (term used for a site with an RSS feed) address for this Blog is http://wccniuesl.blogspot.com/atom.xml

Just add the RSS feed (XML) to the list of feeds that your aggregator checks. If you are looking for grants, for example, go to the sites which often list grants and see if you can add them to your feed reader. Have a Mac? No problem. There are readers and notifiers that work on PC’s through XP and Mac OS X, and Browsers from Netscape to Explorer to Safari. I've used an XML format called ATOM, which is similar to RSS, as the syndicated feed for this site. RSS is more widely used and supported, but ATOM works best with Blogger sites. This is vaguely reminiscent of the Beta/VHS format wars...

Give it a try. You can keep abreast of new information, news stories, available jobs, or grants. You choose the relevant content. RSS can reduce the amount of email and site subscriptions, and simplify your online life. Now if it would only simplify life offline as well…

Additional sites to explore:
Pubsub: http://www.pubsub.com/
Feedster: http://www.feedster.com/
News Gator: http://www.newsgator.com/home.aspx (this integrates into Microsoft Outlook)