The Quiet RSS Revolution

This essay is for anyone who spends a good part of his or her day online, and doesn’t yet use news aggregation. If you already use it, click to the next item.

The abbreviation of the day is RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication. It is used by only a small percentage of web surfers. Most people have no idea that it even exists, at least not now. Those who do use it, however, find that it has changed the way they go about keeping up with information. Quite simply, it puts you in the loop in a way in which you will never be if all you do is click surf click surf around the web.

The point of this essay, then, is simply to help. It makes me sad to think of all the people who would benefit from RSS and yet know nothing about it. The action item is to download any one of a hundred news aggregators out there (I use the SharpReader which is free, but there are many others). Then you decide which sites you want to add to personalize your news reading. Most all major news sites have feeds. The New York Times offers several dozen broken down by category. The BBC does too. Most all blogs have feeds.

If you use the Firefox browser (another subject for another day), it shows in the bottom right hand corner whether a site has a feed or not. In fact, this browser permits feed reading from within the browser. (A feed, by the way, is site content that has been rendered in a simple code that your aggregator can understand.)

The news aggregator allows you to put the URL in the top line and it will detect the feed address for you (or sometimes it won’t and then you have to find the feed address yourself). Once that is in your aggregator, you can begin creating folders: news, weather, sports, economics blogs, or whatever. How many feeds can you put in your aggregators? Ten, a hundred, a thousand. It doesn’t matter. Your aggregator will follow all these sites for you.

The feed for LRC articles is here. The blog is here. The Mises Institute runs six feeds.

When a new item has been added, you can set your aggregator to show a small notification on your screen (and also set how long you want this to stay there). This way you can read the latest information as it is uploaded, and the instant it is uploaded. What this means is that you can follow hundreds of sources without actually clicking through the web. When you see something you want to look at, it is sitting right there on your aggregator. Or you can catch up on all that you missed while you were away in a matter of a few minutes (what used to take an hour).

Please understand: aggregation isn’t just for techy mucky mucks and geekheads with iPods and Blue Tooth ear plugs. It can be used by anyone and should be. Mom and Dad will love it. Even if a person spends a mere 30 mins. online per day, those 30 mins. will be put to much better use with aggregation. Aggregation fundamentally changes your whole approach to viewing the web. It is like touring a country on high-speed train rather than on foot, like crossing a lake on a jet-ski rather than swimming, like talking on the phone rather than yelling.

The culture of aggregation is rather interesting. Once a site is on your feed, it is not likely to leave. I’m super pleased with many blogs and sites that are on my list. But some just make me angry. I can’t stand what the person behind the site has to say. But for some reason, I just can’t bring myself to press the delete button. Not even the silly “quote of the day” site I signed up for and hate is going to leave my aggregator. It’s almost like doing so would impose a kind of information loss.

I have the sense that my experience is widely shared. Once a site or blog is in your feed, they are with you day in and day out. They have constant access to your attention, which is rather nice all the way around. Just as the old battle used to be to get a web reader to make a certain site the homepage, the new battle is to get a person to put a certain blog or a site on the news aggregator. It makes the site or blog in question a constant companion.

When people talk about the blogosphere, this is what they mean. If you are not reading blogs through RSS, you are outside the loop. You can’t possibly keep up through old-fashioned surfing. You need aggregation. It only takes a few minutes and the way you spend your day will change dramatically for the better.

But really, what is the point of all this? Haven’t we all got enough to read as it is? Quite simply, using news aggregation liberates you entirely from having to surf endlessly through your favorites list. In fact, it is very likely that once you get your news aggregator, sites that do not have feeds will fade into the background. This is just as well, since all the hottest and best sites and blogs have feeds. A site without a feed these days is likely to be rather hopeless, in fact. Sorry: that’s just the relentless forward motion of market-driven technology at work.

So the purpose of RSS isn’t to inundate you ever more with ever vaster quantities of information that you cannot use or process. The point is to liberate you from having to google around constantly to find what you need, or by spending hours clicking through your favorites in a hopeless clamor to keep up with what is going on. This way you can keep up with hundreds of sites in a tiny fraction of the time and without surfing at all. You will know all you need into know instantly.

Now, the reason I’m going on and on about this is that many people are fed up with enhancements to their life. People are sick of updates, upgrades, and always having the latest thing. Sometimes you just want to sit back and say, you know, I like my life the way it is. I like to surf! I don’t want news aggregation. Take your RSS and stuff it.

All these impulses are wrong. This is an innovation you cannot miss (actually it has been around a few years). If you are going to make only one more upgrade in your entire surfing life, make it this one. It costs nothing and it will save you plenty.

And a special note to all webmasters: don’t think you can get by without enabling RSS on your site. If you don’t have it, the people in the know are not reading you. You are slowly slipping off the face of the Internet. It doesn’t matter how high your Google ranking or Alexa ranking is. If you do not provide a feed, you are slowly but surely becoming invisible.