Staying on top of the information avalanche

Orange RSS logo made from fabric on jacketAt the end of my workshop I quipped “I hope you haven’t ended up more overloaded than when you began.” The participants in my workshop at the Engage your community conference on Friday smiled warily in reply.

Setting out to cover the main bases of how to fine-tune harvesting information online meant we had to cover a lot of ground.

During the 2.5 hour session we touched on email alerts, email filtering/ rules, twitter, url shorteners, social bookmarking, dashboards and folksonomies. The main focus was on using RSS to manage the information flow, and blogging networks.

The benefits of staying in touch and contributing to a virtual network of fellow bloggers can be very rewarding. The opportunity for interaction combined with personal reflection makes for a great way to learn. Fortunately I found an article on online that sets out the key ideas behind a blogging network, so I won’t expound on these here. (See “How do you build community?” by Denise on here Flamingo House Happenings blog.)

The utter lack of standardisation on the internet is no more apparent than with the RSS button. It appears on websites not only in standard orange, but also in blue, green, grey and other rogue colours. Try explaning why this might be to people new to using RSS.

Another challenge for me as trainer was explaining why an RSS feed one of the participants found couldn’t be imported into a reader. (I’d welcome any explanations about the offending RSS feed didn’t work, the URL is http://www.nrl.com/ajax.aspx?Feed=News.RSS&moduleId=114260).

The most important question that arose was, what is the best way of receiving updates?

My answer was: it depends.

Choices include: using online services, eg Google Reader, Bloglines, MyYahoo, PageFlakes; installing software on your computer eg RSSOwl, NetNewsWire, FeedDemon; using your browser, eg LiveBookmarks in Firefox, or Favorites in Internet Explorer; and I’m sure there are other ways I haven’t come across.

Each of the options has pros and cons. As I didn’t really get time to go into this in-depth on Friday I’ll cover this briefly based on my own experiences.

I use Google Reader as it means I can read feeds anywhere there is an internet connection (using my computer or someone elses). It also means I can add new subscriptions when I find them rather doing later, which l invariably forget to do. The tagging and sorting features are strong, plus there are ways you can follow people or explore sources of new feeds. Importantly, it’s moderately uncluttered so actually reading articles is fine.

At the same time I also use a desktop client called NetNewsWire (for Mac OS only). Fortunately this syncs with Google Reader so I get exactly the same list. I want a desktop client so I can scan, search and read articles (or excerpts) without needing to be connected to the internet. The sorting features and readibility meet my peculiar standards.

I’ve never been drawn to following feeds in my Browser (or Email client such as Thunderbird) as these lack the powerful sorting/ highlighting features of the others and updates don’t follow you around. I also don’t find lists in the browser easy to navigate or the most attractive reading option.

Now, I can imagine someone liking the reverse of what I do. Perhaps you’d like to have one place to look at all your updates, and if you subscribe to a few sources sorting is not so important.

Although anything goes, I’d suggest you don’t get stuck with the first option you come across (which is likely to be browser based as it’s obvious). Try it out another way of subscribing. Check first that you can export your subscription, as you can easily move if you can do this (something that’s important if you follow more than a handful of feeds). I’ve changed RSS clients 3 or 4 times in the last five years.

I’m not about to launch a campaign to promote recognition of the neglected RSS service (for an honour after an industrious career, in web years at least). But I will say that anyone who is serious about staying on top of the information avalanche should take a look at using RSS to stay in control.

PS For anyone who attended my workshop, I’m still waiting for a reply from the insurance company about whether my laptop is repairable, or if they’ll replace it. Unfortunately I had a Minities moment at the beginning of the session. A glass of water ended up on my keyboard. For those of you that we’ren’t there, this didn’t stop me.

Resources

Fine-tune how you harvest information slides
Fine-tune how you harvest information resource list on wikispaces
A list of RSS readers on AlternitveTo.net

Photo credit: Popoever.

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