The Joy of RSS, or an Explanation I Have Been Putting off Far too Long.

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

I started to write up a post about the organization for Jenn’s first day at the computer lab, that is the day helping students learn to blog and read blogs, but in the end I realized I can’t go any further without getting into RSS, and how it is going to play a critical role in what Jenn’s class is going to do. So for those who are familiar with RSS you can skip all the way to the end of this post and read the section about RSS and Flock. But for those who are not read on . . .

RSS: The Key to Reading the Internet . . .at least for now.

If you haven’t tried RSS don’t be worried you are not alone. I have read that upwards of 95% of those who use the web have no idea what RSS is, or the related concept “feeds.” I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to explain RSS to people who are not familiar with it, and this is the best explanation I have come up with (if you have a better one let me know):

Imagine that you could get a newspaper delivered to your house that was made of all of the pieces you wanted. For example, you could say, “I want the sports section from the Chicago Tribune, the educational section from the NYTimes, the world news from BBC, the opinion pieces from my local newspaper. That’s it nothing else, you wouldn’t have to read through all of the stuff you didn’t want in other sections of those papers. This newspaper would come with just the sections from whatever media you wanted. Now imagine that you could get that newspaper anytime you wanted, let’s say at 9:00am you want your own individual newspaper, and at 3:00pm you decide again you would like to see what has changed, so you order a copy of just the new stuff, only the things that have become available between 9:00am and 3:00pm. Okay now imagine that in this individual specially designed newspaper you are not limited to newspapers per se, but any available digitally written material. So not only can I have all of those above news ”parts“ but I can also say that in my individual newspaper I also want entries from my friends blog, a cooking site that features new recipes, and updates on any new developments in my particular field (let’s say the Chronicle of Higher Ed). This is what RSS allows you to do. (Not to mention so many other swanky tricks.)

Navigating the web can seem like a sea on endless information, it is impossible to keep up on all of the changes that take place. It is simply not efficient (or productive) to have a list of web sites and click thru them to see what has changed. You might miss something important, you might forget to check a site (when was the last time you checked your friends site that he updates every once in a while?). With RSS you get this ”newspaper“ delivered to you with all of the changes to these web-pages since last you looked. Depending on how you count I read about 100 web sites a day using this technique. Now this doesn’t mean that I read all of the articles on all of these web sites all of the time. What it does mean is I have a way to look through all of these web sites quickly to see if anything has changed that I want to read. Seriously while many people without RSS will spend half an hour checking their usual 5-10 websites and reading new/interesting information, I check all of these 100 and read only the articles that are important to me. And what is more, I don’t have to worry about remembering which web sites to check, it is all delivered to me.

A brief Technical-not so Technical-explanation of how this works.

Most web sites (especially those that change often like news sites), and nearly all blogs (in fact if you have a blog chances are that it has these feeds even if you don’t know about it), have ”feeds“ associated with them, the process of putting these feeds together is called syndication . . .but whatever. . .The point is that these websites ”put-out“ these feeds every time the site changes, and all you have to do is have a program that collects them and presents them to you. The program grabs the feeds you want, ignores the ones you don’t, and presents it all to you in a way you can easily navigate.

How do you get ”fed.“

First you need a program that is designed to read these feeds. There are lots out there and I am not going to cover them all, I will just mention a few here (some are free some are not): RSS Owl (PC and Mac), Feed Demon (PC), Vienna (Mac), NewsFire (Mac), Blogbridge (PC and Mac), NetNewsWire (Mac) . . .and so many others (those who use others feel free to add into the comment section). You can use a web based reader, that is yahoo and bloglines mimic this feature, but you really need a program built to handle RSS. This is what mine looks like, notice the three panels.


The one on the left is all of the sites I subscribe to, the one on the top is all of the updates from the website that is currently selected (in this case, and the one at the bottom is the text of the update currently selected in the top panel (”Great Jobs“). Also notice the number at the top (3544) this is how many updates I have yet to look at. Any time you want to see if new things have been put on sites you just click ”refresh“ and the program updates. It also keeps track of which ones I have read, or I can mark ones for later reading. (Okay, I lied this is not my NetNewsWire it is the one from News Gator, I don’t subscribe to Money Magazine-but this is a good example, even if there are 3544 yet to be read items, which is way more than I ever get.)

Once you have a reader, you just need to subscribe. If you have ever noticed the following three symbols on a website and had no idea what they do, this is what they are for:Feed.png XML.gif RSS.gif or sometimes you see just the words, ”RSS“,”Atom“ or ”Subscribe.“ In fact if you go to the homepage of this site and look to the column on the right under the listing for ”RSS“ you will see three links that allow you to subscribe in different ways to academHacK. Different programs handle subscribing differently, but most make it easy.

Seriously, if you have not tried this out do it, download one of these readers. (Actually download one of the paid readers as they give you a free trial and they usually come with tutorials for beginners.) I do not overstate the point when I say RSS is the most significant web development in information processing/communication in the last few years (I know RSS has been around longer, but it has only lately become widely used). Forget Web 2.0, wikis etc., this is the one that is of the most use to the average person who just wants to read about things.

Why Flock?

So by now many of you have figured out that for Jenn’s class the students are going to need an RSS reader. (In the terms of the above metaphor there is going to be a newspaper for each class designed with the students blogs that everyone in the class will get). This way they can get the feeds from each others web sites. As I talked about earlier this solves a lot of problems that are often talked about in regards to classroom blogging. Specifically students will know that there written information is going out to at least the other 20 students in the class, that is that they are not just writing on a blog that is only read by the professor. (I know nothing guarantees that the other students will read the feeds, but at least they are getting them.) RSS also makes it easy to read the 20 students in the class, you can quickly scan to see which writings interest you, and make it markedly easier for Jenn to see what the students write, she won’t have to visit all of their sites to see when and if they have been updated. In a later post I will cover the particular ”how-tos“ that got used to set up all the students (making sure everyone gets subscribed etc.), for now I just want to give an overview of the process.

One of the problems with RSS is getting subscribed to web sites that have feeds. Many make it easy, just clicking on a link, but some not so easy. Flock makes it super simple regardless. Basically just clicking in the menu bar. If you see theFeed.png in the url of the web site it has a feed to which you can subscribe. Look at how Flock sees academhack.


This way students can add feeds to their RSS collection (again specify what goes in their newspaper), but should keep all of the students in the class in their feed collection.

It could have been a problem to teach students how to use an RSS reader, not to mention to find one that would work on all of the various computers students will have, Mac or PC, their own or library. But Flock solves all of this, it is a web browser, like Firefox or Internet Explorer, that allows you to open a special window that is all of your RSS feeds. Look at the image below.


This is how flock displays RSS (notice it is much different than my above example). In my experience Flock is not as high-powered as an RSS reader designed specifically for that purpose, but is more than adequate enough for handling classroom blogging (3544 feeds might be a bit much, 20-100, no worries). Plus it is easy to read. Under mysubscriptions you can see the 12 feeds I have loaded in here, these are all from Jenn’s class. To get this view you click on the newspaper icon just about invite a friend. To the right you can see six of the new posts from those students, if you scrolled down you could see all of the rest. (Many are labeled Hello World, which is the default post for WordPress.) Notice how you can select to read excerpts from the feed, headlines, or the whole post. Plus it indicates which ones you haven’t read. Now if a student sees a post he or she want to read, all she has to do is click on the link while holding down the control key (command key on Mac) and that particular web site will open in a new tab for reading. In this case if you look below where it says ”invite a friend“ you can see the first tab I have open is the subscriptions and just to the right is a tab labeled ”hello world-jerry lee”. If you are not familiar with tab browsing don’t worry I will also cover this later. But for now this gives you an idea of how students will be reading each other blogs, and joining the conversation on the web, hopefully in a way that teaches them how to manage all of the digital information, and to become “better” readers and writers.

You can see video demonstrations of this at Flock

If you want to learn more about the technical side of this check out RSS at Wikipedia.