Teaching RSS: A Discussion

Of all of the Web2.0 tools I know of, I think that RSS is one of the most difficult to explain to new users. I’ve been doing a lot of explaining lately – in trainings, blog posts and work proposals. I thought I’d put my current thinking down in text and see if others are interested in contributing their thoughts as well.

Here’s some observations I’ve made lately and teaching practices I’ve been employing:

  • An actual demonstration goes a long way. That’s why I’ve set up a demonstration account with online feed reader Newsgator, my favorite RSS reader. I tell people they can log in and see what a reader seeded with a variety of types of feeds looks like. The username is “marshalldemo” and the password is “welcome” The account contains basic mainstream media feeds, government feeds, blog feeds, search feeds, multi-media search feeds, scraped feeds (via Feedfire.com), podcast subscriptions and others. I think that gives visitors a good idea of what sorts of information is receivable via RSS.
  • My medium-lengthed RSS definition is currently as follows: “Many web sites now publish their content not just in HTML as your browser views them, but also in a format called XML. You can subscribe to the XML content of any web site to receive any changed content into a special inbox for feeds. So a new article in the New York Times international business section, a new post to a blog you like, a new email in your email inbox or even a new result in a web search you’ve subscribed to…any time that new content is available from any of those sources it will automatically be delivered to your feed reader inbox. So that means that you don’t have to go to a site more than once – if you like it you can just subscribe to its updates in the future. You don’t have to go to sites to check for updates only to find that a site is unchanged, or even remember what all the sites you’re interested in are. Lots of different information streams are all delivered to one place, set up like a personal news desk. It saves a lot of time, increases the amount of information you can absorb and can make you one of the first people to get that information.”

    Ok, so that’s no elevator pitch. How about: “RSS is a system you can use to set up a special inbox to receive automatic notification of any new information available from a wide variety of sources: news sites, blogs and even searches. Just subscribe once and you’ll get updates from whatever sources you chose automatically.”

  • Subscribing to a feed URL is not very intuitive to people who are used to being passive web consumers. If you’re used to copying and pasting a URL after things like a href, then it’s probably no big deal to you. But I know that I want to teach people who focus on things other than the internet how to use the internet. So it really does take some talking through with people to help them either “copy shortcut” or to go to an XML filled page, stop screaming with horror and copy the URL into their feedreader.
  • Before I show some one how to use RSS, I like to ask them what some of their favorite news sites and blogs are. I set up an online feed reader account (Newsgator or Bloglines) for them, seed it with feeds from their favorite sources and some search feeds, and give it a basic password they can change later. That way they can see RSS in action and relevant to them right away.
  • I usually use feeds from Google Blogsearch and Technorati for blog intro blogsearch, Topix.net for US news search or Yahoo News for domestic and international news, MSN Search for web search and Blinkx.com for podcast search.
  • If I’m really feeling able to spend some time on it, I’ll create a metafeed channel by splicing all the tag search feeds from Tagcentral.net into one feed via Feed Digest. That delivers items tagged in del.icio.us, Flickr, Upcoming.org social calendar and other tag-supporting services.
  • In an account filled with feeds, there has to be some way to differentiate between high-value feeds and lower-value feeds. I advise people to place feeds with lots of items in them, where any single feed is less likely to be essential to read, in folders together by theme. On the other hand, feeds with fewer results or from which each result is essential to read (like inbound links to their own site or blog), can be placed outside of any folders so that new items will be immediately visible and won’t get lost in a torrent of feed items.
  • Finally I always teach feed reading in conjunction with tagging. Let’s be honest, though RSS does enable greater information absorption with increased efficiency – it also has the potential to deliver far more information than a person could possibly absorb. I tell people, you’ve just got to let a lot of it zip by and when something looks interesting – open it in another tab. If it is interesting, tag it into Del.icio.us (or sometimes Spurl.net if the pared down UI might be intimidating, or if a cached copy is key).
  • Finally, after finally, I always contact people some time afterwords and see how their feed reading is going. I ask them to let me log into their feed reader account to see if I can advise them how better to organize the feeds, what else they might want to subscribe to, etc.

Well, that’s a lot of information – but describing, much less teaching RSS is a complicated thing to do. This discussion leaves out the use of RSS for attention streams, RSS to HTML, RSS to IM (something I hope Immedi.at can help me make work ASAP), analytics, security and countless other possibilities. They don’t call it a separate language for nothing!

Your thoughts on explaining, teaching or using RSS are more than welcome. I hope we can share our knowledge so that all of us will be more effective in our efforts to extend adoption of this fantastic technology.

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