The Digital Reader: RSS Feeds

Monday, October 25, 2010

If Twitter is the water cooler and news ticker of my web routine, then RSS feeds are my magazine subscriptions. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a special web format that publishes the latest updates to a website in a standard format. Instead of checking each site individually to see if there's anything new, you can subscribe to its RSS feed with a news reader program. Then, you can read each new item in one place, much like you would email. I use the web-based Google Reader for reading RSS feeds because I work on multiple computers each day and I can check it from anywhere, but if that's not your style there are dozens of nifty news reader applications and ways to subscribe to feeds in a browser.

I like to group my RSS feeds into a couple general categories based on why I'm reading them: blogs by my friends and family; news about my favorite sports teams; magazines like The Atlantic, Esquire, and Slate; and all the publishing and book sites I read specifically to get ideas for this blog. Since the unread items can pile up if I don't get a chance to check Google Reader for a while, this helps me sort them by priority. I always want to read the updates from my friends. I usually want to know what's going on with my teams, but that news can become dated pretty quickly so it's okay to skip them if it's been too long. Same goes with the newsy magazine sites and the book stuff--I try to stay on top of them, but if I get behind it's alright to click "Mark all as read" and move on.

As of this post I subscribe to 36 feeds, which is fairly low compared to some web geeks. I used to subscribe to more before I started using Twitter, because RSS was the only way you could monitor many sites in one place. But now as I've shifted most of the hard news to Twitter, and as more people replace traditional blogs with Twitter, Facebook, etc, this number feels right. It lets me check in a couple times a day and catch everything. I constantly tinker with my subscriptions, but I think hard about whether a site's content is valuable enough to follow that closely. Depending on how much time and attention span I have, I can scan through items quickly, or take my time and read every single thing. I like to think of it as one level of engagement up from Twitter. Whereas Twitter updates float away and disappear if you  don't see them, an RSS reader will at least hold on to them until you decide to read it or not. The trick to keeping RSS feeds from becoming a chore is not feeling like you have to read every single thing.

That's it: I gather pretty much everything on the web either through Twitter or RSS. But neither of these tools would do much good if I didn't have a way to organize and save all those articles and blog posts to read later. If I had to stop and read a full article every time I found a link I could never keep up. That's where the subject of the next post in this series comes in: the wonderful and life-changing Instapaper.

This is the third post in the Digital Reader Series, about reading in the information age.