Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Feed Reading, Three Ways (Part 1)

Here's a simple version of the story of feeds.

First, the Internet had too much information. Then, RSS feeds came along, which were designed to reduce the torrent of information from the Internet into something more manageable. RSS feeds (or just "feeds") are simplified streams of information from  websites: just the headlines, or if you want, the full text. No longer would you have to  individually  visit  each site to read new content. By subscribing to the site's feed with an "feed reader," the content would now come to you. Quoting Wikipedia:
RSS is a family of Web feed formats used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. An RSS document, which is called a "feed," "web feed," or "channel," contains either a summary of content from an associated web site or the full text. RSS makes it possible for people to keep up with their favorite web sites in an automated manner that's easier than checking them manually.

RSS content can be read using software called an "RSS reader," "feed reader" or an "aggregator." The user subscribes to a feed by entering the feed's link into the reader or by clicking an RSS icon in a browser that initiates the subscription process. The reader checks the user's subscribed feeds regularly for new content, downloading any updates that it finds.
All good. But then, websites with useful information proliferated -- news, medical information, blogs -- and they all published feeds. And the feeds proliferated. And different feed readers also proliferated, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, some online (like Google Reader), some integrated with web browsers (like Firefox), and some standalone applications (like NewsGator).

And then, there were too many feeds. Even with feed readers, it seems impossible to keep up with all the potentially important information that's out there. Feeds, that were initially designed to solve the problem of information overload, have actually contributed to the problem because they're too easy to subscribe to and read.

Here's one solution. In the following sections, I'll propose three methods of reading feeds using three different systems: Google Reader, Email, and Netvibes. Each of these methods is appropriate in different situations. And together, they can make the torrent of information from feeds manageable again.

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