Google is not the enemy … ignorance is

29 January 2008

I’ve made this claim before and I stand by it:
Google is not the enemy … rather, an overbearing friend.

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m a lone wolf crying into the night. A rather dogged media and communications professor in the UK has been attacking Google and Wikipedia, describing them as ‘white bread for young minds’, and claiming that ‘easy access to information has dulled students’ sense of curiosity’.

I have a tendency to take things far too much to heart. So as I read this Times article, I felt like Tara Brabazon’s argument came across as a personal attack. In criticising streamlined access to information, she struck a bayonet through the heart of what it means to be a librarian. Everything we do, either on the Web or through our physical collections, is designed to help patrons gain access to material that might otherwise have been restricted by cost, time, geography, and/or access to PCs. In fact, we exist to facilitate eas(ier) access to information.

Professor Brabazon argues that academics ‘can no longer assume that students arrive at university, knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read.’ My question is this: did they ever? Undergraduates are called ‘freshmen’ in the US for a very good reason — they’re fresh from school, naive, and ill-prepared for the mind broadening and liver damage that comes hand in hand with higher education.

The Professor claims that reliance on the Web in university education has ‘the effect of “flattening expertise”’, as ‘every piece of information … [is] given the same credibility by users.’ I dispute this. If we’re really using social software as much as the proponents tell us, who wouldn’t be able tell the difference between a frivolous MySpace page and a reputable peer-reviewed journal? And if university students can’t tell the difference between scholarly information and a global-edit encyclopaedia, surely both academics and librarians have a responsibility to step in and assist?

Yet Professor Brabazon doesn’t see it this way. Despite her attachment to print material (she believes universities prefer digital formats because they’re a ‘cheap’ option … ’nuff said), Brabazon thinks libraries are ‘in decline’. (I challenge her, and anyone else with this attitude, to visit this building between 12pm and 4am in the lead-up to exams and still retain that viewpoint). Instead of mentorship and advice, Brabazon believes the solution to students’ apparent struggle with authority in their resources is to ban them from using Google and Wikipedia at all in their first year of study. How, I wonder, is she going to police that out of hours?

(‘Wikipedian protestor’, from xkcd.

One of the commentators on The Times article responded to Professor Brabazon’s opinion with this very reasonable argument: ‘If your [sic] at university then you hopefully have a mind so if students decided just to use wikipedia then that is there [sic] fault and I hope it would show up in the marks.’ Unfortunately, as you see, the commentator in question struggles with correct grammar, punctuation, gender agreement and capitalisation, which sadly devalues his argument when speaking out against academic snobbery. He, of course, is not alone. This response is along the same lines but a little more polished.

It’s obvious that this article struck a chord with me, even though I should have been able to laugh it off. Academics are incredibly intelligent people, well beyond the scope of the rest of us, yet some, like Professor Brabazon, clearly lack common sense. And there’s a certain irony, too, not only in the existence of a Luddite ‘media and communications’ professor, but also in the fact that the professor’s negativity alienates a large chunk of her potential audience. Librarians rigorously encourage students to look beyond Google and Wikipedia for valuable resources. Yet the Professor’s unfortunate manner means these normally mild mannered people have taken offence. I hope I speak for other librarians when I say that the solution to this omnipresent problem is not to ban Google, but to make it work for us by repackaging the kind of scholarly content we want our users to find, and letting Google index it. If librarians and academics are dissatisfied with the content provided by Wikipedia, the easiest solution is not to ban it, or to ignore it and whine about students using poor quality resources, but to fix inaccurate information ourselves. All anyone needs is a login.

Oh, and on a final (random) note, if you believe everything you see on current affairs shows (and sadly, too many people do), then you’ll know that all the food we eat is full of growth hormones, which clearly make us smarter. Especially chicken … and white bread.


Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian?

23 January 2008

This might sound like a desperate plea from my dwindling social life, but it’s actually part of a wider professional question: does social software belong in libraries?

I have a Facebook profile. I’ve had it for about 12 months now. It’s a novel idea for me—I didn’t get involved in any of the preceding ventures like Friendster or MySpace—but a friend of mine travelling overseas recommended it … and of course I bowed neatly to peer pressure.

2007 was a big year for Facebook, which began modestly at Harvard University as a means for freshmen to keep track of people they met in classes or dorms. In September 2007, Facebook recorded the third highest hit ranking on the Web, increasing not only in membership but also in user engagement and stealing some of the market share from arch rival MySpace. Facebook actually eclipsed MySpace in the UK, and the startup made steady progress to increase its presence in the rest of Europe in the second half of the year. In the United States, Stanford University began to offer Facebook development classes.

One of my fellow 23 Things bloggers found Facebook a great tool for keeping in touch with old work colleagues and getting to know new ones. I started at Swinburne in November 2006, and while only two of my old colleagues were on Facebook, I agree that it was good to share a little of my personality with my new colleagues to see how well we clicked (if you’ll pardon the pun). However, parading your personal life in front of work colleagues, particularly older and/or supervisory ones, is always going to be fraught with danger. Like Jane suggests, I try to be cautious about how openly I communicate on Facebook for fear of how my silly offhand remarks might be (mis)interpreted.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea for any of us to regard our online presence as though Big Brother (the Orwellian version, not Gretel Killeen … creepy) might be watching us. Dana, who declares that she has had more experience with social software than I, notes that Facebook has the most flexible privacy settings of any on the market. Yet there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case; the Beacon debacle, which attempted to use profile data to generate targeted ads, confirmed this fear. Tom and Dana both delved sensibly into the topic of privacy early on in the 23 Things program, because they recognised the potential for inexperienced users to divulge too much information about themselves when creating online content. But I’d like to take a different tack.

A recent study from the United States indicated that almost 50 percent of the University of Michigan students surveyed would not want to contact a librarian via Facebook or MySpace for help with research. 14 percent believed it was ‘inappropriate’. One respondent even commented that ‘it’d be weird to contact a librarian that way‘. (That gave me a chuckle; it’s not everyone, after all, who would choose to ‘poke’ a librarian—only about 80,000 ‘poke’ at all).

Libraries have always been reluctant to openly market themselves; perhaps part of the students’ resistance is that, as Doug suggests, libraries appearing in Facebook and MySpace look like advertising. It’s certainly true that library services need to be proactive rather than reactive; the literature talks extensively of our collections moving from a ‘just in case’ to a ‘just in time’ model. But the truth is that these new collections, while not taking up space on the shelves, still require planning. Our staff and students might now have instant access to articles from a vast range of journals across a variety of disciplines, but this is no happy accident. Careful managing, budgeting and negotiation goes into providing such a magnificent suite of online serials.

Similarly, involving libraries in the social software phenomenon will also require careful consideration. We can’t just go out lobbying for users to join our spaces; they’ll feel harassed and resentful, like I do when someone tries to sell me something I don’t want to buy. We need our users to come to us willingly. Libraries have enough trouble appealing to the younger generation, without being accused of attempting to spy on their online lives.

Early last year, I attended a seminar with danah boyd, a leading researcher in the use of social software. Many of the attendees were secondary school teachers wondering, after seeing students post potentially compromising material online, how much it was safe or indeed appropriate to engage with their online activities. danah boyd cautiously recommended that concerned teachers build a simple Facebook or MySpace profile, then sit back and wait for students to add them as friends. She emphasised that teachers should definitely not attempt to ‘friend’ students themselves.

In an earlier post, I discussed my belief that mandatory installation of internet filters has the potential to irrevocably damage the bond of trust between parent and child. I acknowledge that parents and teachers have a vital role to play in the nurture of children’s values so I can see why they might be concerned about the ease of access to harmful content on the Web. However, teachers expect to maintain some level of privacy from their students outside school hours (I’ve been told that once you become a parent, there is no such thing as privacy, so I’ve left parents out of this debate), and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to expect the same courtesy. Students have no right to burst into teachers’ private residences uninvited, so surely teachers have no right to invade students’ online spaces outside school hours and attempt to moderate their behaviour?

It is questionable that librarians are obligated to play any role in the moral development of children. I think our role is chiefly to assist in the pursuit of knowledge (regardless of the perceived morality or immorality of that knowledge) and help break down barriers in access to information. We’re straying into dangerous territory if we try to assume any other kind of moral responsibility.

This puts us in a perilous position in online social environments. We look ridiculous if we try to make friends with students on their own terms, but we’re not interested in attacking their right to say and do what they like in their own online spaces. Librarians may want to use Facebook at a social level, but I don’t see why we should feel obligated to use it at a professional level too. By the same token, if I’m asked to struggle with the terrible interfaces of MySpace for the benefit of my users, I’ll do it, but I have no desire to risk having my intellectual property appropriated by posting my innermost thoughts online in a personal context. Librarians in an online social environment flounder somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, and I think we’d be better just to swim away.

Alternatively I suppose we could start to desperately flog the profession as: Become a librarian and get paid to play on Facebook!

(‘No Facebook – Blessington St, St Kilda’, from avlxyz’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

Other links:

  • 13 predictions for Facebook in 2008: read these at the end of the year and see how accurate they were, or whether in fact Facebook made it through the year at all
  • Facebook Easter eggs?  Facebook developers hide little bits of entertainment in their code
  • Building a social networking environment at the library: If you insist on getting involved, you should probably read this
  • Facebook and rapport: Some suggestions on how to involve libraries in social networking without compromising professionalism
  • 360Gadget: a Facebook application that allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds, access your POP mail account, search the web and watch YouTube, all from inside Facebook (assuming you want to spend even more time there)

Drum roll for the blogroll …

23 January 2008

It’s high time I gave you a glimpse into the best of my blogroll.

As I already subscribe to more blogs than I can ever possibly read, I didn’t tempt fate by searching Technorati for any more reading material to stash away for retirement. However, I did run a quick search on ‘librarian’, and unexpectedly found this entry, where a blogger who completed an online political ideology quiz notes the similarity of the words ‘libertarian’ and ‘librarian’. I made a brief comment to the effect of their similarity not only being skin deep, however I wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re too libertarian (refer to my earlier post on censorship).

(‘the library of congress : look something up, or just look up’,
from sandcastlematt’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

I’ve supplied a link to subscribe to each of my most influential blogs via RSS, but I realise that it’s not the solution to everything. Some people prefer to read their RSS as email, while others even want to receive their updates via text message.

If, like me, you think RSS makes your life easier and you shudder when you find a frequently-updated website that isn’t using it, help is at hand. Feedity and Dapper allow you to create an RSS feed from any website’s URL. I’m using Feedity at the moment for one of my webcomics. It works perfectly, but Lifehacker suggests that Dapper has more flexibility and customisation options, so I might give that a go in the future.

International library blogs (or ‘the big ones’)

Information Wants to be Free is written by Meredith Farkas from Norwich University Library in the US. As Dana notes, Meredith is famous for her annual surveys of the library blog world (results from the latest one were published in Library Journal), and for being serious, informative and up-to-date. She is one of a series of what might be described as ‘professional library bloggers’.
Subscribe to Information Wants to be Free via RSS.

iLibrarian never fails to be interesting and accessible. It has a strong focus on the use of social software in libraries, and began the year well with this particularly good post on how to build the reader base of your blog.
Subscribe to iLibrarian via RSS

The LibrarianInBlack is Sarah Houghton-Jan from the Silicon Valley, a self-confessed ‘goth librarian’. She is particularly interested in the role of technology in the future of libraries. The only downside for me is that she’s very prolific (how can that be a bad thing?) so I struggle a bit to keep up with her posts.
Subscribe to LibrarianInBlack via RSS.

Lorcan Dempsey is Vice President and Chief Strategist of OCLC. As an Irish librarian who now lives in the United States, he brings a little variety to a sector dominated by North American librarians (and, of course, women). Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog comfortably marries sensible discussions about new technologies with traditional notions of library scholarship, then peppers it with a healthy dose of good humour.
Subscribe to Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog via RSS.

The Other Librarian is Ryan Deschamps from the Halifax Public Libraries system in Canada. It is not one of the most famous blogs on the scene, but I think it makes an interesting contribution to the genre, including practical advice on how to implement new technologies in public libraries within a limited budget.
Subscribe to The Other Librarian via RSS.

In her post on finding blogs of interest, Dana mentions that we often find new blogs to read through the other blogs we read and enjoy, so I think it’s only fair to mention that I came across Library Revolution through her. Library Revolution is Emily Clasper’s often hilarious take on the realities of working in a library. She is probably most famous for her controversial post on the minimum technological competencies for librarians.
Subscribe to Library Revolution via RSS. is Jessamyn West’s longrunning blog about technology and libraries. She’s something of an icon in library blogging circles, so I’ve included her on the basis of her influence, even though by her own admission she’s not to everyone’s taste. Jessamyn maintains an amazing collection of photos from libraries around the world, including some in Australia.
Subscribe to via RSS.

Librarian Avengers is written by Erica Olsen, a user experience designer for Second Life (but please don’t hold that against her!). It’s a mixture of professional and personal musings in a style that’s witty, clever, and at times outright alarming. I’m a big fan of Erica’s historical lolz.
Subscribe to Librarian Avengers via RSS.

Library 2.0 : An Academic’s Perspective is maintained by Laura B. Cohen from University at Albany, State University of New York. It’s particularly interesting because most of the discussions on Library 2.0 (whatever that actually means … more in a later post) centre around public libraries, including the 23 Things program.
Subscribe to Library 2.0 : An Academic’s Perspective via RSS.

Australian library blogs (a small but interesting pool)

You might think I am just returning a favour, but in fact Dana’s user experience blog is one of my absolute favourites. I hadn’t even heard of usability and human-computer interaction before I started this job, but reading this blog makes me feel like an expert in a field that is absolutely essential to the development of any future library services. I don’t know how we ever got on without it.
Subscribe to Dana’s user experience blog via RSS.

Derek’s ALIA Blog is written by my boss, who also shoulders many other responsibilities, including the mantle of Vice President of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). This blog reminds me of Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog in its explorations of ethics, librarianship and linguistics. The Word of the Day segment is particularly interesting.
Subscribe to Derek’s ALIA Blog via RSS.

Librarians Matter is the work of Kathryn Greenhill from Murdoch University. It’s probably the foremost Australian library blog, with a strong focus on Murdoch’s use of Second Life in teaching and learning.
Subscribe to Librarians Matter via RSS.

As much as it pains me to say it (since Swinburne has its own Library Blog), Your Library@CSU is the best Australian academic library blog on the market. If the mission of a library blog is to communicate successfully with staff and students, and even to boldly attempt to reach a wider audience beyond the university walls, then this blog is astonishingly successful. I can only hope that this is part of the curriculum for Charles Sturt University’s postgraduate library courses. Some excellent features of this blog include highlights of new acquisitions, feedback about the library website, and the ability to tie current research to library collections.
Subscribe to YourLibrary@CSU via RSS.

Purely for amusement

Working in libraries, particularly in a face-to-face role, it’s vital to maintain a sense of humour. This is aided and abetted by a daily dose of webcomic Unshelved, which chronicles the saga of everyday experiences in a library that feels very familiar.
Subscribe to Unshelved via RSS.

If you feel as though the speed at which your library is embracing new technologies is too hectic, then relax and save money on therapy, because two blogs are here to help you. A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette targets the ‘problem children’ of modern libraries, such as unhealthy obsessions with Second Life or Twitter, and sends them up in a biting style that would make Ambrose Bierce proud. Worth reading for the comments from disgruntled librarians alone …
Subscribe to A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette via RSS.

Last but not least, the Annoyed Librarian , who really belongs in a class of her own. AL thankfully remains anonymous; she’s bitter and twisted and she wouldn’t get away without a law suit if the establishment knew who she was. AL is indiscriminate in her attacks; she rubs everyone up the wrong way. She’s like the kid in class who was brave enough to say everything that you thought but were too afraid to let out. A great antidote to the mass hysteria about ‘twopointopia’.
Subscribe to Annoyed Librarian via RSS.

Research : the only time I don’t advocate contempt for authority

21 January 2008

I had a look at Technorati today. Technorati is a search engine designed to search and rank blog posts, and it works by analysing ‘outgoing’ and ‘incoming’ links, or the links that bloggers make to other blogs, videos and webpages. I found the ‘authority’ ranking system very interesting. It measures how often a single blogger (Person A) has been linked to by other bloggers (Persons B through Z), and since it only records one hit for Person A for each referring blog, rather than multiple hits from the same blog (eg Person B’s blog), it seems to be very accurate.

Given that I work in an area of librarianship that concentrates solely on the culture of scholarly publishing, the notion of ‘authority’ resonates strongly with me. When we help students find the right kinds of resources for their assignments, rather than relying on tenuous Google searches and Wikipedia, we are teaching them about authority.

To researchers, publishing in an authoritative journal or book could make or break their careers. Being able to say that they have published in the most prestigious journals in their discipline (eg The Lancet for medical researchers, and Nature for scientists) could mean the difference between consideration for a fellowship or research project, or spending five more years in the laboratory working as someone else’s dogsbody. Yet it’s not only the name of the journal in which a researcher publishes that indicates the quality of the research output. A crucial factor in a work being considered authoritative is the notion of academic peer review.

There has been much interesting discussion across a variety of disciplines on the idea of blogs as scholarly literature. Walt Crawford opened the discussion in the library sphere by asking not whether library blogs are scholarly, but whether in fact it matters, since they represent ‘the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today’. He acknowledges that we’ve ‘grown to rely on liblogs [sic] as … [our] primary sources for contemporary library issues over the last two or three years.’

Sure, blogs are not a form of scholarly publication. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start a blog (I did), which is of course why academics sneer at them as a method of dissemination. They generally frown upon user-generated content, because it attacks the very heart of their existence. In the past, only academics published their thoughts, opinions and discoveries. Now everyone can do it, surely the notion of publication is devalued, even defiled?

Yet the mere existence of a service like Technorati indicates the fact that bloggers can, and do, rate their peers according to the quality of their work. The only question is, what sort of content is being rated?

Library blogs may not be a traditional method of scholarly publication, but if the most useful, interesting and important discussions between library professionals around the world are happening on blogs, then library blogs are undeniably a significant form of scholarly communication in our profession. The problem here is not with content, but with definition. Scholarly publication refers to any traditional method of research dissemination, such as journal articles, conference papers and books. The definition of scholarly communication, on the other hand, stretches beyond the limitations of traditional print publication to take into account new forms of Web-based publication, such as open access repositories.

Lorcan Dempsey (ironically) suggests that we may need to redefine our notion of ‘grey literature’ (traditionally newspapers, magazines and ephemeral, non-scholarly material) to take into account the overwhelming presence of ‘brightly colo[u]red and shining’ library blogs, and the comparatively low standard of ‘dull’, ‘dreary’, published library research.

Some of this debate might have gone a little too far. For example, a draft list of new metrics for scholarly authority to help us assess the scholarly status of blog posts includes comparing the:

‘[t]ypes of tags assigned to it, the terms used, the authority of the taggers, [and] the authority of the tagging system.’

The whole value of ‘tagging’ as a concept is that it’s not governed by a controlled vocabulary–indeed, it shouldn’t be governed at all. And even if we take on board some of the other arguments proposed for measuring the quality of a blog post, such as the affiliation of the author or the percentage of the document that has been quoted elsewhere, individual bloggers will be disadvantaged by the inherent biases of the Web.

Technorati rankings are certainly not immune to these problems. Technorati currently indexes over 100 million blogs, but bloggers need to sign up for an account if they want their data harvested. I ran a quick vanity search on ‘libodyssey‘, not expecting to find anything (since I’m not signed up), but in fact I did, and it led me to this:

Libodyssey: A new blog written by one of my fellow 23 things travellers.  This blog has few posts, but is one of the most engagingly written blogs (of any genre) that I read.

When a fellow blogger, whose work really is authoritative, gives me such a charming review, it really encourages me to get a wriggle on and write some more posts. Thanks, Dana!

Update: Those following this discussion may be interested in this Chronicle of Higher Education article.
Further update: I just discovered an international conference devoted to research into changes in grey literature. The mind boggles.

How libraries are using RSS

21 January 2008

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a lousy blogger. Surely blogging is meant to be about frequent updating of content in a short, sharp conversational style? My posts are more like essays. Maybe I should stick to scholarly literature, although of course that actually has word limits …

Despite the length of my previous post on RSS, I still have something to say about the topic. As this post from the Official Google Reader Blog points out, there are feeds for almost everything, including weather, fashion, and social networking. The news you receive from Facebook about your friends’ activities uses RSS; if you click on the little RSS button (normally orange, this time blue), you can subscribe to friends’ updates in your feed reader.

That’s of course if you want to lose even more time …

Those of you who work at Swinburne Library with me might remember the presentation that Dana and I gave at the staff development day last year. We talked about using technology to reform library collections, and yes, I’m the one who couldn’t work out where the port was for my flash drive … embarrassing.

Although the newly-named Online Services and Strategies Unit hasn’t started a Facebook group for lovers of online research repositories yet (ok, ever), we do find that there are a number of ways we can integrate Web 2.0 functions into our work to make our lives easier. So I thought I’d give an insight into how we use RSS to help with Swinburne Research Bank.

Part of our workflow for creating content for the repository involves running regular searches on bibliographic databases such as Scopus, Web of Knowledge, EBSCOhost and Informit. Most of these services allow users to save a search string, for example ‘Swinburne AND University’, provided they have registered user accounts. Scopus allows this saved information to be converted to an RSS feed. I can then subscribe to that feed, and be alerted every time a publication is added to the database that contains both the words ‘Swinburne’ and ‘University’. I imagine that the liaison librarians do something similar within their own disciplines.

The University of South Australia Library thinks this is such a good idea that they have made these RSS feeds easily accessible to their users. They also provide a subscription link for library users to easily discover new additions to the collection. I think this is a great way to communicate with library users, both staff and students. Bond University‘s research repository, ePublications@bond, provides a similar service to alert staff and students when new papers are added to the collection. These are just some of the ways that Australian university librarians are beginning to use RSS to make their users’ (and sometimes their own) lives easier.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that feeds can get out of control. I don’t know how it happened, but I now have so many unread items (well over 1000) that Google Reader is starting to … well … devour them.

(‘2 PM @ San Francisco Zoo = Big Cats Feeding Time!’, from Minuk’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

Poor bunny.

Update: Those following this discussion might be interested in this post from iLibrarian on creative uses for RSS feeds.

Sleeping and snoring in libraries

18 January 2008

I saw a quote today:

‘Learning sleeps and snores in libraries, but wisdom is everywhere, wide awake, on tiptoe.’ (Josh Billings)

Who hasn’t seen this at least once in their lives:

(‘Library visitor’, from umjanedoan’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

We’ll need to work hard to dispel the myth that libraries are dead. Can we turn this on its head? Let’s try ‘libraries are coming to our users at their point of need, rather than expecting them to come to us, and that’s why wisdom is everywhere’.

Any comments?

Feeding time, or why I won’t bother you for weeks

18 January 2008

I wanted to start this post with a quote of unknown origin:

Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach that person to use the Internet and they won’t bother you for weeks’ (QuoteWorld).

For librarians, researchers, business people, students, teachers and gamers alike, the Web is a gift from God. (Well, OK, Tim Berners-Lee—and he’s a very humble man who would despise my comparison!) Australians first saw the Web in 1994; I remember huddling around a computer in the school library watching in awe for half an hour as we loaded a single page. It was magnificent.

We’ve come a long way since then. But the truth is, as much as we love the Web, it’s just another time guzzler. At a personal level, I have enough trouble keeping up with friends and family; at a professional level, the constraints of time are even worse. I’m so far behind in my library journal reading I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up now. And since so much of the literature on our profession, from Lorcan Dempsey to Jessamyn West, is presented in new media, it’s even more critical than ever that I keep up with my blog subscriptions.

A feed reader (aka ‘aggregator’) makes this task a lot easier. In fact, I’ve been using Google Reader for nearly a year now, and I honestly don’t know what I did without it. At last count, I had 110 library-related blog subscriptions, 13 technology blogs and 23 leisure blogs. As soon as everyone signed up for 23 Things, I added their blogs to my subscription base, so now I have … well, over 200.

So, what’s a feed reader?
For that matter, what are feeds?

Right back in the early stages of the 23 Things program here at Swinburne, the blogger known as Trees from the Wood asked a very sensible question: What’s the use of blogs? My response was that, in isolation, they probably aren’t very useful at all. Who has time to keep returning to a webpage just to see if it has been updated?

In the early days of blogging, there wasn’t a solution to this problem. But now we have RSS.

RSS is (yet another) acronym with a disputed meaning. It originally stood for ‘RDF site summary’, which makes technical sense, but most people now maintain in a Web 2.0 context that it stands for ‘really simple syndication’. There are a few others who consider the middle S stands for ‘sexy’. I don’t want to make judgements on what kind of people they might be.

Whatever it’s called, RSS has the potential to make our lives easier, and that defines it as a great web technology. Without getting too technical, here’s a quick rundown on how blogs are converted to the text that appears in your feed reader.

Blogs, like most simple webpages, are encoded in hypertext markup language, better known as HTML. HTML developed as a way to present text in a web browser that would define both its appearance and its structure. Every early webpage was written like this:

<a href=””><img alt=”toothpaste for dinner” src=”; width=”650″ height=”427″ border=0></a>
<a href=””></a&gt;

HTML is very logical; the basic concept is that what you start, you have to finish, in this case using opening and closing tags. Most blogging software doesn’t require you to know how to markup your text; you just type your content and the software automatically converts it to a colourful HTML page. The problem with HTML is that it’s ambitious, but not powerful enough to achieve everything we need from the Web. Extensible markup language (XML) is one of the general-purpose languages we can use to make HTML work better for us. XML is less concerned with presentation than HTML; it’s a perfect language for libraries, since it’s more concerned with content than with style.

RSS uses XML to pick the eyes out of HTML.

The news headlines that appear on sites like Yahoo use RSS to strip away the formatting in their HTML, and just present the core content. It does the same to blog posts, providing a snippet of the full post to help you make up your mind whether you’d like to continue reading. In short, if blogs were scholarly literature, we would call RSS an abstracting service.

To make the most of RSS, you need a feed reader. For sheer ease and the ability to integrate with other services, I recommend Google Reader, since it’s Web-based and you can log on anywhere to read your feeds. However, many people prefer desktop feed readers, in which case I’ve seen RSS Bandit come highly recommended.

Whenever you see this sign on a blog to which you’d like to subscribe, click it:

(‘Really, REALLY BIG RSS feed button’, from photopia/HiMY SYeD’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

You’ll be asked where you’d like to feed the content, so choose your feeder and then you’ll be cooking with gas. My only advice is not to subscribe to Digg, as recommended in Task 10, because it’s rubbish. I did, and I regretted it. Two days in, my aggregator was filled with over 200 stupid videos, the content of which was hardly age-appropriate and frequently NSFW, which hardly suits the purpose of this program. If you want something a bit silly but also geared to technology, try BoingBoing.