My use of RSS

For some time now I’ve been wanting to evangelise on the benefits of using rss (or really simple syndication) to control the tide of information coming at us as we resemble more and more terminal ants on the keyboard of life.

For the past three years rss has been proclaimed as the tool to usher in the new era of the web. But it hasn’t really caught on. Most people think its geeky, too complicated and/or that it leads to information overload (ie more information overload). However …

There are hundreds of places where you can find information on rss, tutorials on how to use it, and tools to help you benefit from it. The library has a good one. There’s a great video that explains rss in plain terms. Even the Daily Mail has a help page on rss. Despite this, not many people seem to be convinced. But I am, and maybe outlining some of the ways I use rss feeds every day may de-mystify the tool and persuade more people to explore its potential.

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The little icon to the left of the address bar in our own blog is the indication that it has its own rss feed.

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This means that I can subscribe to it. The way I subscribe is to use Google Reader which is simply a tool that allows me to gather all my feeds together in one place and read them. Here’s a short video on how to use it.

But why do I use it?

1. Tracking student blogs

Most blogs now have rss feeds which makes it much easier to keep up with new posts. As a supervisor of undergraduate independent study projects I ask all my supervisees to keep a blog which I subscribe to (here’s an example). They use the blog as a reflective diary recording thoughts on their reading, how they are generating and analysing data, and how they are feeling about the process of engaging in a research project. Rather than constantly visiting all these blogs to see what has been added, my reader tells me everytime there has been an update.

2. Tracking a course wiki.

One of my units (Level 2 Communicating Culture) uses a wiki to encourage collaborative learning. Students use it to write field notes and drafts, and I use it to post course content. We all subscribe to the rss feed and find out immediately what has been updated.

3. Tracking latest articles

I’ve tried lists of favourites, bookmarks, and email alerts, all of which left me (still) floundering in a sea of ever-mounting confusion. Tracking journals and even keywords across journals is easy with rss. Wherever you see rss you can subscribe to the feed. Here’s the rss feeds page to Cambridge Journals.

4. Finding out the latest news

No, I don’t buy a daily newspaper. Cost + content just don’t add up any more. What I do do though is subscribe to various news feeds from, amongst others, the Guardian, the BBC, New York Times as well as magazines such as the Economist, The New Statesman, and the Times Higher. The subscriptions change. I try different publications and if I find I’m reading them regularly, I’ll keep them. If not, I unsubscribe. And of course I don’t read everything. I scan – which is easy to do in the reader. Most members of staff at mmu probably rely on the email digest to keep them up to date with mmu news. But mmu is now expanding its rss feeds. MMU News, MMUBS, The Learning and Teaching Unit, and The Institute of Culture, Gender all now have rss feeds.

5. RSS isn’t limited to tracking blogs and news to your feed reader. Almost any type of content can be subscribed to if it has an rss feed. So, I subscribe to:

  • a friend’s photographs on Flickr (the photo sharing site) so I’m notified every time he adds a photo
  • music podcasts from the BBC (a podcast is audio content that you can subscribe to)
  • auctions on ebay so I can monitor prices/bids on guitars I can’t afford to buy!
  • a feed of myself! Sometimes called vanity feeds, and no I don’t actually have one, but the idea is to monitor everything that is said about you. Darren Rowse writes about why you might want to do this and in the context of product marketing, I can see the advantages. Marketing at MMU are probably doing this.

So there are some of the ways in which I use rss feeds in my day to day information flow. And it’s still a wave, but not quite yet a tsunami!

[And WebCT Vista? Although you can set up an RSS Feed Reader inside your WebCT area (from ‘add content link’: here’s a clear help page to guide you) to deliver feeds from the world outside, you can’t read any updates to the area from the outside – presumably because WebCT is a password authenticated area.

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