‘I’m not dead yet’: How to use RSS effectively

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 8.50.10 AMWhen Google announced it was killing Reader, some pundits wondered whether the move might mean the demise of RSS as well.

Let me channel a little Monty Python so we don’t throw RSS — the original push technology that delivers content to users — on the death cart just yet.

‘I’m not dead yet’

In the days before social media became our primary filters, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) had been the primary way to manage the firehose of Internet information. Let me humbly suggest that we should keep RSS in our media mix.

Facebook filters its news feed, and we’re apt to miss important stories in the sea of updates and snapshots from friends and family. Twitter works more effectively, but content moves so quickly — especially if you follow more than 100 accounts — it can be difficult to keep up. And if you miss a day? Forget trying to catch up.

Enter RSS.

What is RSS?

An RSS feed is an .xml file that has content specifically formatted for programs that can interpret the specialized markup. Just as browsers can turn HTML into Web pages with pictures and formatted text, RSS readers can decipher the .xml and turn it into a readable summary of the latest content from sites you subscribe to.

Most sites — especially news sites like NPR and the New York Times — still have RSS feeds built into their sites, allowing users to subscribe to the site’s content. And often, the feeds are customized by topic or interest:

NYTimes RSS feeds

Once you find the page of feeds, click through to the feed itself so that you see the link to the .xml file in your address bar. This link is what you’ll need to copy into your RSS reader. If your browser is RSS-aware, it may offer to subscribe to the feed for you.

Why RSS?

At first glance, RSS seems a lot like a Twitter feed: Headlines and blurbs, with links to full articles. But RSS feeds are  updated every time new content is added to the site; that’s not always true of a site’s social-media presence.

A good RSS reader usually gives you a bit more than a social-media blurb. Some pull in pictures and provide ways for you to save stories or share them with your social networks. Often, the blurbs are longer than 140 characters, and you can consume content more completely.

After Google wrote Reader’s obituary, I latched onto Feedly, a free cross-platform reader that works well with Google Chrome and Apple’s mobile devices.

Feedly Reader

I’ve changed my morning routine to start with Feedly. The site allows you to designate certain feeds as “must-reads,” which prevents you from missing the latest posts from your favorite blog. It also makes it easy to organize feeds into categories to create your own magazine of sorts.

The site provides an effective recommendation engine as well. I’ve added more than a few feeds suggested after Feedly saw what types of content I had subscribed to.

More than subscriptions

RSS feedsBut RSS feeds are not limited to subscriptions.

For starters, you can add a WordPress widget that will post headlines from an RSS feed on your blog’s sidebar. It’s a great way to provide fresh, updated content from around the Web.

And Twitterfeed (among others) allows you to take content from RSS feeds and deliver them straight to Twitter or other social medium.

Yes, RSS may be an older technology, but old doesn’t mean useless. Before you dismiss RSS, try it with your favorite sites, and see how much more you discover and learn.


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