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A Beginner Guide to RSS (Feeds)

RSS cartoon

Well, you got to this page either from clicking the link in the sidebar or perhaps because The Great Google sent you here from a search approximating “what the hell is a (RSS) feed?” So you’d like to get your feet wet in syndicated web content? Nothing to it. The process is painless and almost interesting. All you have to do is just follow a few simple steps and within minutes you’ll be feeding with the best of them. Promise.

A Brief History of Syndication. Very Brief.

Once upon a time people used to do their reading off of something called pa-per, a dangerous and vile medium that could stain the limbs and inflict near [fatal wounds]. Luckily for us, the advent of the internet changed all that. Now we consume our information in little germ-free digital packets delivered to us off of pristine computer screens and the only danger we face is to our sensibility. Back in the day, if you wanted to read a favorite publication there were basically two ways you could get it — you could either haul your fat butt off the Barcalounger and walk down to the corner newsstand to buy it, or you could subscribe to it and have your friendly mail carrier deliver it to you in the comfort of same Barcalounger. Well, you can do the same with the publications you consume on the internet! Thanks to the invention of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) by a fellow named Dave Winer (fondly known as “Father Christmas of the Internet”, due to his unfailingly generous and kind personality… ahem), we can set up our computers to retrieve the contents of our favorite sites into a single location for easy reading. All you need is a reader and the address(es) of the “feeds” you want fed into it.

1. Get a reader

There are any number of applications that you can use to collect your feeds, but one of the easiest to use is Google Reader — so that’s the one we’ll use for this demonstration. All you have to do is go to the Google Reader site at [www.google.com/reader] and sign in using your Google ID or create an account if you don’t already have one. Once you are logged in you should see a screen like this one:

Google Reader opening screen

I’ve outlined in red the important bits on the screen: in the left sidebar a list of all the feeds (sites) that you subscribe to, above that a place to enter new feed urls and, in the center of the screen, a digest of sample content from each feed. To read the full content of any particular site, you just click the link on the left and read to your little heart’s content. When new content is published on your favorite sites it will automatically be pulled into the reader — no more having to remember to visit a long list of bookmarks! It’s the modern way to read.

2. Collect RSS urls, paste into reader

Each site that you frequent will, somewhere (you may have to hunt for it), display a link to its RSS feeds, which are usually indicated with an orange icon — as is the case on this site in the upper right sidebar. What you want do is to copy the url that link leads to and paste it into the “add a subscription” feature of the reader, as illustrated below.

Diary of a Rat feeds
Right-click (Ctrl-click on Mac) and copy the link location for the RSS feed (indicated by orange icon)


Google Reader subscribe dialogue
Paste the address into the reader and click Add

3. Read

Presto! You’re done. All you have to do is click on the new link in the left-hand sidebar of your reader and enjoy piping hot syndicated content. Told you it was easy.

Google Reader Diary of a Rat

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