Tuesday, 24 June 2008

RSS: Simply Sublime.

I can remember a time, way back in the mists of 2007, when I used to have an HTML page on my computer listing the sites I was interested in, and whenever I had a few minutes free, I'd click through a few of the link and read back through the latest updates. Before that, I used bookmarks, and before that I just remembered a rough list of sites I wanted to check every so-often. All these methods, however drifted into that part of memories reserved for the lunacy of youth when I finally started to use RSS feeds last year sometime.

Initially I only had a few sites on there - the blogs of some friends and family, a couple of webcomics, and (i think) the BBC news feed. But the paucity of links didn't matter at all, as the advantages were immediately obvious - I was transformed from a searcher to a hub. Rather than crawling through an increasing list of sites, hoping to find updates, the updates now came to me. I could read and respond to an item of interest as soon as it appeared, and I was never concerned that I had missed a potentially interesting development.

As well as being an enormous time saver, it helped to expand my web horizons too. Back before I used a feed reader, I rarely read the blogs of people I did not know personally, and part of the reason for this was, I think, that I never felt connected enough to their story. It's difficult to motivate yourself to keep going back to a new blog, hoping for new bits and pieces to read, unless you have a vested interest in the subject matter. With the new posts delivered to you, however, there's no requirement on your part for explicit commitment or frustration. Instead you're alerted to new information as and when it becomes available, and it feels more like you're following a blogger's train of thought, making the whole thing much more rewarding. And this advantage is reflected in the ease of adding a new blog to your reader - with often only one or two clicks, you've got a new stream of information coming in.
In addition, there is no need to give up on old inactive feeds - even after 6 months of silence or so, long after you'd have stopped checking manually, an update can pop up, surprising you and either heralding a new chapter of writing, or just providing an update of the time missed. In either case, it's giving you the opportunity to (without any effort on your part) stay up to date with even the least consistent of bloggers.

While inactive feeds are allowed to remain, not all feeds remain indefinitely. Feeds that update too frequently without having a great enough density of posts I'm interested in will get the boot, along with any new feed that doesn't particularly impress me within five or ten posts. The only feed that escapes the former rule is Ask Metafilter, who's 50 updates a day or so are just short and potentially-interesting enough to warrant it being kept. Boing Boing, w00t and the BBC news feed have all perished through being too active and not relevant enough. In general, though, I've kept the vast majority of the feeds I've started reading.

Since I moved to RSS, I've gone from following six or seven sites to more like seventy. Not all of them are updated particularly often, and I don't read everything on the ones that are, but I never miss anything of interest to me (how many things in life can you say that about?), and I see things I might not otherwise have read, opening the possibility of picking up new interests/knowledge.

One thing I have found, however, is that a number of my friends that I might have anticipated would use them don't, and this surprises me, given how incredibly useful I find them. So, am I preaching to the converted, do you all use rss feed readers already, and if not is there any particular reason why you don't?


immedia reaction said...

I keep meaning to try to set one up... and not getting round to it. I think I'm worried it'll be massively technical and I'll fail horribly...

TheTelf said...

It really isn't technical at all. It's as simple as it could possibly be and will take you like 5 minutes. Try it! What's the worst that could happen?

immedia reaction said...

The end of the universe?

TheTelf said...

It was more of a rhetorical question, as well you knew. And even given the facetiousness of your answer, I disagree with it.

Now go set up a feed reader.

immedia reaction said...

I didn't know, it wasn't that obviously rhetorical.. );

And when I do set up a feed reader, a universe will end.. the one in which I didn't set up a feed reader. I will have closed off that future by such an action.

TheTelf said...

Only if you believe in the sanctity of this universe over the plurality of the multiverse. There could quite easily be an alternate universe out there in which you did set one up.

And in that one you're just that little bit happier.