I have to confess I was totally shocked by Dear Author’s latest poll results. According to our small sampling, almost 3/4 of the Dear Author readers have no idea what a feed reader is. I figured that it was worth a Sunday post to talk about what a feed reader is and how blog readers can use it to their advantage.
That thing called a feed.
Nearly every blog has what is called a “Feed”. It can be either an RSS or an ATOM feed. I am not certain about the technology behind the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) v. ATOM but if you are interested, you can read about it here. Basically a feed is content from a blog packaged in such a way that feed aggregators can pick it up.
Aggregation is really what makes feeds great. By using a news or feed aggregator, you can combine information from hundreds of blogs into one place. Further, those aggregators are equipped to go forth into the internet and continually check the feeds for updated information. In essence, someone does the blog hopping for you and provides either a full text of the blog posts or summaries of the blog posts when the blog is updated. This is particularly great if you happen to visit a number of blogs.
I have 134 subscriptions. I don’t check all of them all of the time. I have news blogs, sports blogs, romance blogs, publishing blogs, tech blogs, craft blogs, law blogs, and gossip blogs in my feed reader. Each blog updates content differently. Some of the blogs updated several times a day and some very irregularly. With a news/feed aggregator, I don’t have to open up the blog in my browser window every day to see if new content is there nor do I have to constantly refresh to see what the content heavy blogs are adding. It’s all done automatically.
It would be as if some person went out every morning and delivered all the new content from your favorite newspapers and magazines to your front door. The content would have a summary page with all the headlines available and all the content would be tabbed so that you could go to the appropriate headline in a near instantaneous fashion.
News/feed aggregators are definitely one way in which technology is working for you.
Full Text v. Excerpts
If you start using a feed reader, you’ll note that there are two versions of a feed. Some blogs, like Dear Author, will give you the full text of the blog post. Other blogs, like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, give you an excerpt. An excerpt, I think, encourages people to visit the site more often. Because I prefer to read a full text in my feed reader, that’s what we provide here at Dear Author.
The downside of feeds, as Shannon Stacey blogged about once, is that you tend to participate in the community less. I recognize that this is a danger but am willing to accept a trade off because of the sheer convenience.
I use a web based feed reader called “Google Reader.” I’ve only tried a couple of news aggregators out and so I don’t know that I can competently recommend one. As you can see by this page, there are dozens of different news aggregators out there. If you are using Firefox, you can add on an extension like Sage and Wizz News. Of the two, I prefer Sage.
If you use Internet Explorer 7 or higher, it incorporates RSS feeds into the browser. Firefox 3.0+ also utilizes Live Bookmarks.
The reason that I use a web based feed reader like Google Reader is because a) it’s free, b) I don’t have to add new software on my computer, c) I can check all my favorite feeds from different computers (and the iPhone) and d) when I upgrade to a new computer, the feed reader settings are unchanged.
- Feed: the blog content packaged in either RSS or ATOM format.
- Aggregator: software that checks the feeds you tell it to and combines the results in one place.
- Subscribe: what it is called when you add a feed to your aggregator.
I hope that I was able to somewhat demystify this thing called Feeds for you. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for feed software or even why Feeds don’t work for you.