Getting Started with RSS

June 2004

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 World.

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 headings.

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 Weblogs Compendium web site.

Or you can use a Web site such as the free Fastbuzz News 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 sources.

There is a great RSS Quickstart Guide on the Lockergnome web site. There's also a good overview article on the SearchEngineWatch 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 directory.

Many of the major sites are getting into RSS in a big way, suggesting that it has arrived. Yahoo News, for example, has several dozen feeds, each covering a different category of news.

CNet 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 useful sites.

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.

E-mail Jim Karpen