Started with RSS
Sometime around the year 1826 Isaac Thompson
bought a book. No big thing, right? Except that
books back then were a lot more expensive, costing
a good share of a week's wages--equivalent to at
least $500 today.
And all the more remarkable given that Mr.
Thompson had a large family, was impoverished, and
in the last decade of his life.
What book was so important to him? Compend of
History from the Earliest Times; Comprehending a
General View of the Present State of the
Mr. Thompson must have had a passionate need to
have that book, indicative of an essential quality
of human nature: humans value knowledge. The
cultural transmission of knowledge, via oral
traditions, writing, print, and electronic media,
has been essential to our survival. And with each
new technology, we dramatically increase the amount
of information available to a person.
Today anyone with a computer (a low-end model
costing less than Mr. Thompson's book) has access
to billions of web pages.
The net result? Egads, too much information.
It's like food: for thousands of years we struggled
to get enough and died when we couldn't. Today we
die from obesity, from having too much.
Many Internet users drowning in a sea of
information are turning to RSS to help them manage
their access to web sites. If you're accustomed to
checking specific web sites daily to find news
updates on a particular topic, RSS can save you a
lot of time.
People can't seem to agree on what "RSS" stands
for, but most commonly it's said to be "Really
Simple Syndication." Basically, it's a way of
quickly and conveniently collecting in one place
the headlines and news summaries from many
different Web sites. If one of the headlines
catches your interest, then you can click a link to
read the full item on the Web.
Let's say you daily check a number of sites such
as Yahoo News, ESPN sports headlines, Mac Central
computer news, Rolling Stone's movie
reviews, and more. Rather than visit each site to
see the latest headlines, you can simply add these
sites to your RSS "aggregator" and quickly read the
headlines there. (Note that only Web sites
featuring RSS "feeds" can be "aggregated." Often
there's a small orange RSS icon alerting of the
availability of an RSS feed.)
An aggregator, also called an RSS reader, is a
software program that lets you subscribe to RSS
feeds. The free one that I use on my Mac, NetNewsWire
Lite, in many ways resembles e-mail software,
with folders along the left, subject headings on
the right, and text in a pane below the
In fact, one of the popular ways of reading RSS
feeds is to use NewsGator,
which simply runs in Outlook and delivers the news
to Outlook folders.
You can find a short list of some of the top
aggregators on the Blogspace
web site. A much more comprehensive list of both
free and commercial aggregators is available on the
Compendium web site.
Or you can use a Web site such as the free
as an aggregator. Rocketinfo
also now offers a free Web-based Rocket RSS Reader
that lets you access their RocketNews search engine
and pull current headlines from over 10,000
There is a great RSS Quickstart Guide on the
web site. There's also a good overview article on
web site that tells what RSS is, has an annotated
listing of aggregators, and also lists RSS
directories and search engines that help you find
feeds on topics of interest to you.
I've only used a few such directories, but the
one I like best so far is CompleteRSS.
Often your aggregator itself will also have a
Many of the major sites are getting into RSS in
a big way, suggesting that it has arrived.
for example, has several dozen feeds, each covering
a different category of news.
has a fairly substantial directory of dozens of its
own RSS feeds, from reviews and downloads to
shopping and games.
I've come across many lists of the top 100 RSS
feeds, all of them varying substantially. Salon's
seemed to be a good guide to some of the more
RSS aggregators may soon become an indispensable
part of the Internet, just like e-mail and the Web,
perhaps cherished today in the same way Mr.
Thompson cherished his book.
© 2004 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.