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

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=”http://www.toothpastefordinner.com/”><img alt=”toothpaste for dinner” src=”http://www.toothpastefordinner.com/010808/your-genome.gif&#8221; width=”650″ height=”427″ border=0></a>
<a href=”http://www.toothpastefordinner.com”>toothpastefordinner.com</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.

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

  1. tony says:

    We were at the VALA conference in November 1993 and in Tony Barry’s presentation he put a URL up on the screen. We’d never seen one before, but I wrote it down and when we got back we had to figure how to look at it.

    In April 1994 we put up a library web page. I was with Ian Douglas, our then systems librarian, when we FTPd the file across to the web server. We were so excited when it worked.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. libodyssey says:

    You should have seen me the first time I ever posted a comment on a blog! (Long before I had my own vanity publication …) I kept refreshing the screen to make sure it was still there.
    Shocking.

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