Tuesday, 7 September 2010

My reasons for using RSS and Google Reader

Taking advice from Matt Might, I took another step into the 21st century a short while ago by starting to use Google Reader to aggregate RSS feeds. For the sake of productivity, if you don't use RSS feeds already, you really should. Here are my reasons why, along with how I'm doing it. (If you don't know what RSS is, have a look at the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article.)


By subscribing to an RSS feed, you're guaranteed to miss nothing. For webcomics, that means I save time because I don't have to open a new tab. It's on a page I'm already looking at. For news sites, it means I don't look at a frontpage of stories I've already seen.

For academic journals, it means I don't end up double-checking titles or abstracts I've already seen. I find this particularly useful because the journals I look at aren't very good about letting you know what's new since the last visit, even though they have facilities for displaying accepted articles before they appear in the printed copy.

For everything, it means that if I'm away for a while, I don't have to go back through the logs trying to work out where I left off. It's all waiting for me in Reader and I know whether I've seen it or not. Okay, granted that might be many hundreds of posts, but at least I won't miss a paper that's scoops my PhD project...

As time goes on, you'll find it quick to sift through your feeds. But beware the temptation to gorge yourself like some kind of infovore by subscribing to every technology news site on the Internet.

Google Reader

Like all Google's web tools, I use Reader because it's accessible from anywhere. In my case, this means I recover some dead time at home. I mostly restrict working to the workplace. After all, I have better odds against the PhDemon when I have 4 cores, 4GB of RAM and a 24" screen. But with the RSS feeds for journals coming through, I can look at the feeds and clean out stuff I don't want to read even on my six-year-old P4 hand-me-down. Conversely, Flash isn't installed on the computers we use in the office, so I leave embedded videos for home viewing. Basically, I look at materials where it's most convenient.

A lesser point is that I've found Reader's recommendations pretty good. It's how I picked up on a blog like AstroBetter. It's also meme-tastic. My recommendations always seem to be right on top of dominant virals and popular websites. The Wilderness Downtown, Arcade Fire and Google's HTML5 demo, popped up on a recommendation shortly before appearing in every tech blog across the Internet. (Another reason for not being an infovore is the redundancy. I'm pretty sure all the science sites base their stories on the same limited set of press releases.)

Custom Feeds

All this said, some RSS feeds aren't perfect. I'm a reader of the webcomic Ctrl+Alt+Del. The RSS feed on the site doesn't seem to display the comic... which is kind of the point of a feed for a comic. That means I have to click to get it. Fortunately, someone else who knows more than me has made a fix.

Moreover, some feeds that you might want don't seem to exist. Don't despair though: if you search around a bit, you may well find that again, someone else has fixed the problem. I looked hard for a Zapiro feed on the sites of the newspapers that print his cartoons but instead I found it here.

So if there's something you read online, find a feed. Seek the orange button. Remember an unofficial one might be more efficient or exist where there's no official alternative at all. With a good aggregator, like Google Reader, you'll save yourself a lot of time, which either means you can spend more time elsewhere or just read more on the web. Instead of going out looking for stuff on the web, you can make sure it's sent to you.


  1. Well, no one had commented on anything here really so, being the magnanimous soul that I am, I decided to deflower your blog's comments section with my humble insights. To this end, I quote the wonderful Christopher Plummer in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: "There are three cardinal rules. One, there's no black-magic, only cheap tricks. And...I forget the others."

  2. Welcome to the Tubes :-)

    I'll agree that feed-aggregators are useful - invaluable for someone in research - but for me they're trouble. I have a chronic lack of self-control when it comes to tech-site consumption, and I can waste hours eating up feeds if I'm not careful. My karma bonus on slashdot is ridiculous...

    So, I stick with Live Bookmarks. I can check if blogs and feed sites have been updated with anything that sounds interesting from the title without being tempted by graphics and figures. It's not remotely as convenient or clever, but it probably saves me hours a day!

    Consider yourself bookmarked...