"RSS" (Really Simple Syndication) was something I came really late to the game, considering my typical early adoption when it comes to web technologies. (I've already forgotten my password to more facebook and twitter clones than you can even imagine.)
But I've found it difficult to explain to others why they should care about this, why it's so great, and why it's an amazing time-saver. Until I discovered RSS, I had to actually set reminders for myself to go and visit my friends' blogs. I would get busy, or distracted and realize I hadn't checked in on my friends in over a week. And over time that list got really long.
It eventually got really crazy, trying to keep up with everyone. And at the same time, I had all these subscriptions to newsletters cluttering up my inbox. It was getting out of hand. Finally, enough people were talking about it that I finally tried Google Reader ( http://reader.google.com/ )
How does it work? Nearly every website and blog program out there offers an RSS feed of their content. GR (and countless others like Bloglines and Outlook 2007) essentially "collect" and file the content, so that the next time you go to the application, all of the stuff you follow is waiting there for you, all sorted by website (called a "feed") -- and if you want, sorted by "tags" (folders) of your choice. Here's mine at right. It's short right now because I read everything last night and this is just what's been published since then. (Google Reader would even let me, if I wanted to, rename these so that it would say "Jon" instead of "Your Moment of Zen" or "Adrea" instead of "Burnt Fudge".)
So when you click on a category, you see the post. Some sites are stingy and only post short blurbs, forcing you to go back to their website to read the entire post. This protects their advertising revenue (others have ads in their rss feeds) but it makes it really annoying and I'm less likely to pay a lot of attention to their blogs unless it's a super big deal that they're talking about. But for the most part, people post full posts so you can read it all without ever going to any website except reader. (You can jump from any entry to the original blog entry or website post through several links on each entry.)
These days, I do not sign up for newsletters on websites. I look for an RSS feed. If they don't have one, they won't be communicating with me regularly. I'm also actively weeding out the newsletters I already get, trying to cut back on the amount of mail I get. (Even all those Facebook notifications - they can nearly all be turned off and diverted instead into a single feed.)
You can quickly look at a list of entries if you don't have time to read someone's entire feed. (For some reason, Google Reader thinks that you want the newest ones at the top. Fine for a news site, less so for a personal blog. There's an option under "Feed Settings" to change the order.
How do you add a new feed? That's pretty easy. Often, you just get the website address of the blog you're reading, go to reader, click on "Add subscription," paste in the address and it locates the feed. You can also search within Google Reader for feeds you might not have otherwise known about. There are a few other ways to get feeds into Google Reader, but they aren't consistent from browser to browser.
I like Google Reader's ability to create folders/tags. This allows me to group like feeds together, either to read all at once, or so that if maybe I only have a few minutes, I can read my friends' blogs, or read some entertainment news.
You can also easily share an amusing post with someone else. Each entry has a button to email, and even gives you the ability to add your own notes so they'll know why you're forwarding.
You can also "star" entries (just like Gmail) so that you can quickly find them later. I use this for items that require more in-depth study, or visiting other websites, or watching video, or downloading something. Usually when I'm using the reader during the week, I can quickly scan through hundreds of entries in no time, starring some to come back to on the weekend.
You can also "share" items. Your shared items actually create their own RSS feed, which you can post on your blog, or give someone the link to. There's actually one guy in Silicon Valley (Robert Scoble) who reads something like 750 blogs a day. His shared list is subscribed to by thousands of people. (It's in the list at the right.)
And, if you're ever curious, the reader keeps track of what you're reading, when you're reading, and which of your subscriptions are generating the most entries. (Good if you ever feel overwhelmed, you know which ones to save up for when you have more time, or which ones to dump.)
Hopefully this helps a little better explain why Google Reader (and other RSS feed readers) rock and how they can help you stay connected and save time.
All of the feeds I follow are linked on the right-hand side of my blog.
Google Reader is extensively keyboard driven, great for blazing through all kinds of information. It's free. You can sign up for an account here: http://reader.google.com/ If you have a Gmail account, you already have an account.
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