Do you sometimes find that there is so much information out there on the wilds of the internet that it becomes difficult to sort through and find the things that are actually really useful and genuinely interesting? When you are pushed for time, the last thing you want to do is trawl through loads of websites to find stories that are either of general interest, or specifically of interest to your field of work or study. This is where Really Simple Syndication (RSS) comes in handy (note: there is some debate over what RSS actually stands for, but I’m sticking with this version).
RSS is one of those things that may seem really complicated at first, but is actually really simple (I guess the ‘Simple’ in RSS should give the game away!). It basically acts as an online subscription tool that enables you to subscribe to websites as you would subscribe to a magazine or newspaper (only without the paper and the monthly direct debit!). Once you have subscribed to a website (more on this later!), you will receive updates as soon as a new article/page is published to the website you are subscribed to.
There are a number of tools that you can use to subscribe to RSS feeds. One of the most popular tools for subscribing is Feedly. Feedly is a really great, simple RSS reader that makes it really easy to organise all your subscriptions and manage the information overload. As well as clear and simple web interface, there are also apps for smartphones and tablets (Android and iOS), all of which are customisable and easy to use (hence its popularity).
RSS readers normally require you to sign-up for the service (sometimes with your Google, Facebook or Twitter accounts depending on the individual tool), but they are mainly free to use once you have a login (although there may be premium features that will cost extra). In terms of subscribing to a website, it couldn’t be easier. Simply copy the URL for any website displaying the RSS icon, paste it in the relevant place on your reader and the application will pretty much do the rest. Most readers also enable you to organise content into folders, pulling together websites of a similar theme. So, for example, I have various feeds covering everything from internet/technology news to library news to current affairs to psychology all in separate folders so I can quickly scan my feeds by theme without having to trawl through every subscribed feed.
For smartphones, there are also tools such as Reeder for iOS, which is another great RSS tool that is clear and very simple to use. You can connect it to your Feedly account (or one of the many other RSS applications available) and check your feeds on the go via your iOS device. Personally speaking, I tend to go with Feedly as my reader of choice on both my desktop and my tablet with Reeder on my iOS device. But there are plenty of other popular tools out there that are well worth investigating (eg Bloglovin, Feed Wrangler, Feedr for Android etc). As with everything else, every tool has its own pros and cons, it’s about finding which one is best for you.
As well as making it easier to manage your feeds, both Feedly and Reeder connect to your social media networks so that, at a touch of a button (can you still say “touch of a button” in the age of touchscreen?) you can quickly and easily share the articles you’ve read with your online network. RSS readers can also be connected to a range of other tools that enable a variety of wonderful tricks (like auto-tweeting from your Twitter account or various bookmarking tools), but they are probably for another post…
Whilst I am a big advocate for RSS readers, they are not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people prefer to take a serendipitous approach to finding content online. This is particularly the case if they are on Twitter where you can stumble across interesting articles provided, of course, you follow the ‘right’ people. This kind of approach is fine if you are pretty relaxed about reading the latest content and aren’t too bothered about always being up-to-date with the latest news and commentary. However, if you have a keen interest in a number of areas, or are researching a particular area, RSS readers might be a better option than simply leaving it to chance. Again, it’s about what works best for you.
Another set of tools that are becoming increasingly popular are curation tools such as Flipboard (see my previous post) or Scoop.it. Both of these tools essentially rely on other people curating interesting content. It’s basically like relying on someone else to trawl the internet on your behalf and pull together all the most interesting content for you. Of course it’s not as comprehensive as an RSS reader, but then RSS readers can also pull in a lot of content, some of which may not be of interest (even if you subscribe to a magazine or newspaper, there are still sections you won’t read after all). In some respects, these kinds of curation tools are a half-way house between an RSS reader application and using something like Twitter as your main information feed. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a good alternative option (gratuitous plug: do follow my curated magazines if you are on Flipboard…and if you are not on Flipboard, it doesn’t matter, you can still read them!).
Do you use an RSS reader? If so, which one? And if you don’t use one now, are you going to start using one after reading this post? Or do you think RSS feeds are no longer necessary? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts!