Answer to a news junkie’s prayers Web feeds offer an easy way to keep up with the news, reports Bobbie Johnson
Monday November 1, 2004
It’s been setting geeky hearts aflutter for some time now, but syndication is finally starting to take hold on the internet. Net technologies called RSS and Atom, or to give them the more user-friendly and generic tag of “web feeds”, take the hassle out of keeping up with the news. Once you’ve taken the plunge, you’ll never want to go back.
How does it work?
Reading web feeds is a bit like watching the headlines on the evening news. Essentially, you ask a program to check your favourite websites every so often, looking for the things that have changed since you last popped by, and then present the new stories to you. That means you don’t have to waste your time by trekking through sites to find out what the new developments are, or find yourself reading an interesting story only to realise you read it before – but somebody’s changed the headline.
You surf around, and if you find a website or page that you like, look out for a little icon reading “Web feed” or “RSS” or “XML” or “Atom” – you’ll find one on, say, Guardian Unlimited’s football news. Click on the icon, and paste the address of the resultant page (normally filled with computer gibberish) into your feed reading software. And … well, that’s it. From now on, with the click of a mouse, your feed reader checks for fresh headlines and then delivers them to you in a jiffy.
Your feed reader picks out all the stories that have arrived since you last checked in and presents you with a summary of them, along with a link to the original.
Bong! England storm to victory in the World Cup final! Bong! Frank Lampard seals victory with hat-trick! Bong! Brazilian coach resigns after “total footballing humiliation”!
OK, so your feed reader won’t tell you what you want to hear – but it will tell you what you need. In fact, most programs let you customise which headlines are presented to you, and how they’ll look on your desktop. For example you could browse all the latest reports, or you could choose to look at all the stories you haven’t read before. Or perhaps you just want to look at the top stories. It’s like the paper boy suddenly worked out that you only read the most interesting bits of the newspaper and decided to save you ploughing through the rest.
Why should you be interested?
Web feeds sound great in principle – but then again, so did that triple-extra-hot vindaloo pizza last night. Sometimes judgment can be clouded, and after all, barely a week goes by without some new technology being heralded as the greatest thing since sliced white. These days fancy dan techno-gadgets come and go in the blink of an eye, and sceptical readers are probably wondering why web feeds important – or even useful – to them.
First of all, web feeds can save you an awful lot of time. If, like any self-respecting news junkie with an internet connection, you’ve spent countless hours refreshing a web page waiting for latest news update, then this takes out the hard work. Now all you need to do is log on to your feed reader and it can present you the stories that have arrived since you last looked. No hanging around.
Web feeds can also be extremely useful if you’re on a dial-up connection; your reader program checks sites for you, saving you the hassle of loading up heavy pages and spending countless moments watching that egg timer flip over and over.
And of course, it’s not just news that you can run through RSS. Many weblogs have feeds that you can subscribe to, and if you’re addicted to reading them, it makes light work of the chore of doing the rounds by simplifying the whole business of keeping track of dozens of different sites. You can get recipes, cartoons and all kinds of material delivered through feeds.
Once you’ve got a wide selection of sites drawn together and displayed with the freshest content at the top of the pile, keeping track of multiple sources becomes easy.
Web feeds hand power to you, the surfer, rather than to the producers of websites. Instead of you going to them, they come to you. Feeds let you narrow down the particular bits of a site you want to see, and they help bring the things you’re interested in to your attention. Essentially, they help you customise your web experience by building your own personalised website by syndicating the content from all your favourite places.
Is there anything else?
Right now web feeds are relatively simple stuff. This is by no means the crest of the wave – it’s probably more accurate to say that we’re still splashing around in the shallow waters by the shore. But all across the planet, hordes of feverish technologists are bashing away in attempts to try and come up with new ways to use web feeds. And if the apocryphal bunch of monkeys with typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare, you can bet that a gang of geeks with computers can come up with something.
Now where do I look?
If this has got you excited, then you should go and get yourself some feed reading software. PC users could have a look at FeedDemon, while Mac users might like a gander at NetNewsWire. You might also like to have a look at Amphetadesk, which can be used on PCs, Macs or Linux machines.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to – or can’t – install a news reading program onto your computer, you might want to have a look at websites like BlogLines, which allow you to do the same thing through a web-based interface.
Those are just some of the most popular programs: take a look at this Wikipedia page and you’ll see that there are plenty of other readers out there. Go try them, and see if it changes the way you use the web.