Articles explaining RSS for the non-initiated are pretty easy to find – this is the most recent one that I noticed.
I was formerly closely involved with a company heavily engaged in the RSS space, and so have a particular interest in its development.
Update : The text of the article is now available below.
Mornings working out of my home office tend to follow a pretty similar pattern each day. Fuelled by a large mug of coffee, I check emails and spend about half an hour browsing the web.
Thing is, the way that I spend this 30 minutes is completely different from the way that it was spent three years ago.
Then, I had a list of websites in my internet Explorer favourites, which I went through in an orderly fashion, checking to see if anything new had been published. I don’t have to do that anymore.
With an online service called bloglines – yes, the name is misleading, but let’s leave that just for a moment – I can now easily see if there are any new articles or updates on a site, from one easy-to-use location.
What has enabled this shift that allows news to be pushed to me, rather than me actively going out and seeking the news? RSS, or Real Site Syndication, often called web feeds, news feeds or syndicated feeds.
What is RSS?
An RSS feed is a file which contains the essential information about an update to a website – usually this would be title, description, date and the body. There are others, but for know these are the ones we are interested in. If you were interested in looking at this file in its native form you would see an XML document. This means that information within the document can be retrieved, very much like how information might be retrieved from a database.
To make sense of these RSS files, they are best viewed in an aggregator or reader. Bloglines, which I mentioned earlier, was one of the original online reader applications used to check updates to blog sites and initially revolutionised the use of feeds. There are lots of other similar applications out there today — Google Reader for example. There are also various plugins for Outlook.
I click on the orange icon that usually signifies a feed is available. Once I have added the feed to my account, I can also decide to place it in a specific folder – for example, my blog-lines account has folders that I have created entitled Irish, Technology, Health, Bloggers, Media, PR, and so on. This makes it easier to browse feeds from multiple sites, and cherry pick the articles that might be of interest.
I might note such an article, but may not want to read it there and then. No problem. I simply click on a check box, and this article remains unread until I have the time or inclination to read it.
Then versus now
What I have not mentioned up to now are email newsletters and subscription. It is possible that I could receive a lot of this feed based information via an email, if this was made available by the website. However, there could only be two possible outcomes from this.
Firstly, there would be a backlog of hundreds of unread items in my inbox. Secondly, the black print on the delete key on my laptop would be worn away through overuse.
So when I compare my online reading habits to three years ago, what has changed? The most obvious one is that I read more blogs than I do traditional websites – all blogs have feeds, and many bloggers are well informed. Using them as filters and arbitrators can be extremely useful.
The corollary to this is that I visit less frequently sites that do not have feeds. Why should I have to key the site name into the address bar of the browser, when the website owner could very easily make the site updates available as a feed?
The latest version of internet Explorer (and the Firefox browser from the very start) makes identifying sites with feeds very easy. This will probably mean that more and more internet users will become familiar with the usage and the benefits of the little orange button much more quickly.
Feeds are becoming indispensable. Web retailers and all manner of online service providers are already enabling users to receive special offers, discounts, deals and information on their services.
Applying this idea of information dispersal to general practice, what kind of changes could we expect for new and existing services? How about automatic updates to software installed in the practice — often called Appcasting (a take on the term podcasting, which will be covered in a future article). How about only receiving articles on specific topics that you are interested in from online medical journals? Or, on a more holiday specific note, how about getting up to date information on ski destinations where real snow has actually fallen…