See You Later, at the Aggregators!
As our readers know, we like most all things technologywise. But every now and then the technology innovators come up with a name for a cool technology tool that seems like geek-speak to the public. Web 2.0 is one such label. And who names a web service del.icio.us anyway? (More on that in a future column.) So, this month we are going to cover two web services many of you use every day, but some of you have avoided due to the geeky labels. These are RSS newfeeds and news aggregators.
Now wait, don’t touch that dial, er, mouse! We’re not about to try to make you get an advanced degree in computer programming. We’re just going to show you some cool and useful ways to use the web. Bear with us for a little bit of background first.
For our purposes, RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication." If you want details, check out the Wikipedia entry on RSS at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rss. The take-away sentence from that Wikipedia entry is "RSS makes it possible for people to keep up with web sites in an automated manner that can be piped into special programs or filtered displays." This content is syndicated to any net user who wants to use it, free of charge. The information is pushed out to you.
The ironic thing is that many of you reading this right now think that you do not use RSS newsfeeds; however, it is quite likely that you already use them without even knowing it. In a 2005 study, it was indicated that about 4% of Internet users reported using RSS newsfeeds, while 27% of Internet users actually used RSS newsfeeds unknowingly through products like My Yahoo or My MSN. It is assumed that both of those numbers would be higher today. The point is that a lot of people now use customized news pages or landing pages and these are powered by some version of RSS newsfeeds or XML.
In the early days of RSS, a lot of the content was generated from blog postings. Major media outlets were hesitant to push their content across the web for free. The conventional wisdom was to have people visit your site to read your content (and, often your advertisements). But momentum built for RSS and most major news services now offer many feeds. See, e.g., the MSNBC.com RSS feed page. (Scroll down.)
Why does this matter to lawyers? Customized news pages are really cool! Some of you want all of the sports news. Others want none. Some of you want local news and others want lots of international affairs. (No, not that kind of affair!!) Some say "tomayto" and some say "tomahto." You know the drill. And we’re not just talking about news items and blog posts anymore. You can get lots of law-related information. You can get feeds for video files and sound files.
OK, thanks for reading that background information. All you really have to remember is that, to use a sports metaphor, the RSS newsfeed pitches the content to you and you need an aggregator (or news reader) to "catch" it.
According to Catherine Sanders Reach, the director of American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center, "There are actually quite a few ways to get RSS feeds. You can accomplish this through a downloaded feed reader (like FeedDemon), a web-based feed reader (like Bloglines), personalized web pages (like iGoogle) built into a browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer 7, or even integrated with your email like Outlook 2007." She noted, "Right now I’m using iGoogle rather than a more sophisticated reader because it is easy to set up, takes almost no management, is popular enough to have chicklets to make adding feeds a snap, and I can easily add gadgets too, like real-time Chicago traffic maps and Google custom searches."
OK, we started with trying to get our news and information automatically, and now we are discussing chicklets and gadgets. Hold on for just a bit, your honor, and we’ll connect that up later. OK, Catherine, we’re all busy lawyers here. Would you just cut to the chase and tell us which aggregator is the best?
"I think that for folks new to feed readers "know thyself’ should be their motto when choosing what to use," Catherine says. "If you know you will live in Outlook and would not regularly check a separate application or website, then look for a feed reader that integrates with Outlook or upgrade to Outlook 2007. If you typically switch from work to home, perhaps using a laptop in between, then a web-based browser will make more sense, as it is accessible whenever you are on the Internet. If you want to archive feeds and be able to use them as a research management tool, you will want to opt for a true feed reader, as most-based readers will drop old headlines out after a certain period of time. So, no method is &rsquot;better,’ nor does it really have to do with ’taste’—the end user should think about how and when she will add and access the feeds before getting a reader. That said, if one approach doesn’t work, then try another."
That makes a lot of sense to us. But, what we find is that a lot of lawyers have trouble managing their email inbox as it is. Setting up a true feed reader to pull in many news items to be reviewed later is, as Catherine notes, a great research management tool. But we just want to look at a few items over morning coffee or in our afternoon break. And, while it would be great to have a collection of those other items archived for our reading and searching pleasure, who has the time, really? (Don’t get us wrong, there’s real power in collecting much information in the true feed readers–if you have time to review it.)
So for beginners, we have the same recommendation as Catherine. As Jim’s 12–year–old son would say, iGoogle rocks! You should probably have a Google account anyway for GMail or Google Docs and Spreadsheets, so the same logon information works here. And, the nice thing is, if and when you want to "upgrade" to a more powerful true feed reader, you need look no farther than Google Reader, a nice online resource that will capture a lot of content for your future (and current) use. For more information, see the Official Google Reader Blog. (Of particular interest is the post "There’s a feed for that?")
We just really like the idea of one place to quickly glance at all of the headlines, opinions, and blog posts of interest to us. And if we missed last week’s material, well, we just missed it.
You don’t have to use the Google sites; there are many customizable pages to display feeds along the lines of My Yahoo or My MSN. The Open Directory Project lists 41 of them here. We’ve heard good things about Netvibes, NewsIsFree, and in the "True Feed Reader Category, Web Division," a service named Bloglines.com served us well before we were seduced to change to Google Reader.
It is pretty easy to set up and initially customize these pages, and then it is very easy to add new feeds. Just visit the web page and look for RSS on the front page or the icon at the right. Clicking on that will take you to the sites RSS page. Usually they will have those chicklets Catherine talked about. If you are using one of the popular feed readers, you just click on the correct chicklet.
Here is the ABA Journal’s Daily News chicklets page: http://feeds.feedburner.com/abajournal/dailynews. You can scroll down on that page to see the current feed content. This is a great source of law-related news items.
If you prefer your headline news on cable, you can focus instead on items related to your law practice. Check out the ABA Journal’s Blawg Directory, which lists more than 5,000 law blogs. You may find a lot of good content here. There are 27 blogs listed that cover bankruptcy law and thirteen that cover white collar crime, just to give you two examples. You can also visit the ABA Journal’s Blawg 100 to see what the editors viewed as the cream of the crop. A non-ABA source is Justia’s BlawgSearch.
Getting new court opinions via RSS would be just like free electronic advance sheets. We checked at Rory Perry’s Weblog and Oklahoma, Utah, North Dakota, and West Virginia are the only states that have RSS newsfeeds for recent opinions. Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute provides RSS feed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Ohio courts have RSS opinion summaries and Louisiana has court news releases
The Oklahoma Bar Association used the court’s RSS feed to set up the OKNewsBar site to allow one to, at a glance, look at a link to every recent Oklahoma appellate opinion. It also contains legal news, both local and national, and law practice management information and tips through the PMA Pipe. You can visit the site at http://www.okbar.org/oknewsbar.htm.
Speaking of law practice management material … we’d like to promote this feed called the PMA Pipe. This combines all of the blog content from the various blogs of state bar practice management advisors with the content of ABA’s Site-tation into one RSS feed. Just copy the address below and paste it into your aggregator.
For another example, here’s what the Missouri Bar did with the PMA Pipe.
If we still haven’t convinced you to customize a feed page, there are lots of preformatted pages that might prove useful to you. Several of them are listed at the Open Directory link above. Google News is nice. Check it out if you have never visited it. It can be customized as well.
And if you think we spend too much time surfing the Internet, check out The PopUrls Network. This is a pretty incredible page combining many feeds from news sites, video sites, Internet radio sites, social bookmarking sites, and much more.
Well, that’s all for now. Go set up your new news aggregator while it is on your mind. See you later, aggregator!
Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He served as chair of the ABA TECHSHOW™ 2005. Calloway publishes the weblog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips, at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com, and was coauthor of the book, Winning Alternatives to the Billable Hour. He serves on the GP|Solo Division Technology Board. Courtney Kennaday has been the practice management advisor of the South Carolina Bar since 2002. Her PMAP (Practice Management Assistance Program) web pages are among the most visited on the SC Bar website and were recently ranked number five by the ABA in the top six best state bar resources in the country. One of her favorite things to do is to talk about law office technology.
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