October 2003  Volume 29, Issue 7
October 2003 Issue
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nothing.but.net: News Readers: Feed Your Mind
by Rick Klau
With aggregator technology, you can filter your Web readings and get more content--and context--in less time.

Back when the Internet first emerged on the legal profession’s radar screen, one technology was heralded as promising a revolution: XML, which stands for Extended Markup Language. XML seemed to guarantee a technical nirvana where data would flow freely between all applications, and integration costs for larger firms would dwindle to nearly nothing.
It’s now 2003 and, arguably, the revolution has finally arrived. Like many revolutions, however, this one hasn’t developed according to plan.

Mixing Independent Data Storage with RSS
XML is a structured representation of data that makes it easier for applications to talk to one another. Although XML has had a dramatic effect on a number of applications, its work has been almost entirely in the background, where end users are unaware of its power.

The real advantage of XML is its ability to store data independent of the application that created it. This ensures that any other application that needs to read the data can do so without expensive or time-consuming conversions. As long as the application understands the structure of the XML file, it will be able to leverage the information contained within that file. That ability, it turns out, works very handily in conjunction with weblogs, also called blogs. (If you’re a weblog neophyte, see the Links below, which will point you to earlier nothing.but.net columns that provide the full scoop.)

Around the same time that weblogs were maturing into the latest Internet phenomenon, a companion technology developed that was originally intended to make it easier to read weblogs. This technology is known as RSS, which--depending on who you talk to--either stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. RSS creates a format of a weblog that is stored in XML, called an RSS feed. Weblog readers can then read the weblog in one of two ways:

  • Through a traditional Web browser (where they read the HTML representation of the blog)
  • Through a news reader, an application designed to monitor RSS feeds

Powering Content Distribution with News Readers
News readers, which are also known as aggregators, operate on the premise that you’re already overloaded by information that is potentially interesting to you. They monitor sites that publish RSS feeds and download the feeds so that you can read each item when it’s convenient.

What’s in an RSS feed? Since RSS grew out of the weblog phenomenon, an RSS feed typically contains a headline, such as the title of a blog post, and either a summary of the post or the post’s full text. Most news readers will represent each entry in an RSS feed as an individual item, so you can read each one separately.

Over the past 12 months, RSS has grown beyond serving as a weblog syndication tool. It is now becoming a popular information distribution tool. Companies that produce press releases, periodicals and other frequent updates published through Web sites are finding RSS to be a powerful mechanism for ensuring that interested individuals receive their information as soon as it’s published.

News readers, which are designed as applications for individuals, started out as programs that you install on your hard drive. But today there are also Web-based aggregators that will monitor RSS feeds of your choice. As a user, you decide which RSS feeds to subscribe to; the news reader will then periodically check those feeds for new content. Any new posts to a favorite blog, any new stories at the magazines you follow--the content will be downloaded to your hard drive so you can read it at your pleasure.

The big advantage to using news readers is that you can monitor far more sites than you could realistically visit in a day. Rather than being forced to limit the sites you visit, you tell your news reader which sites to visit for you. Once per hour (or at whatever interval you tell it to check) your news reader will visit your subscriptions and download any new items.
Think of receiving an e-mail every time something of relevance to you is posted somewhere on the Internet. But instead of being drowned by those e-mails, you have your news reader organize the posts by source, by topic or by keyword. You stay in control of the incoming information, not the other way around.

The Applications: What Do They Offer?
Just 18 months ago, the choices in aggregator applications were slim--at most, you had two or three viable options. Today, there are more than a dozen, each with its own particular advantages. For a good review of what’s on the market, visit www.hebig.org/blogs/archives/main/000877.php. (As of this writing, there are more than 50 sources listed for review.)
Here are some capabilities to look for when evaluating news reader choices.

Auto-discover Web site feeds. Several news readers provide an RSS auto-discovery function. This means that the news reader can monitor Web sites that you visit, and if the news reader detects available RSS feeds for those sites, a pop-up window will ask if you want to subscribe to any of the feeds. This makes deciding which sites to monitor very simple. Keep in mind, however, not all sites that publish RSS feeds will work with the auto-discovery function in your reader. If the auto-subscribe window doesn’t pop up, check for either a small orange XML button (often linked to the site’s RSS feed), or look for a link that says, “Syndicate this site.” Both can be clues to finding the site’s RSS feed.

Post to your blog. If you maintain a weblog, a news reader can be the best way to stay on top of news that you want to post to your blog. So when you see something pertinent on someone else’s blog, or in a publication you read on the Web, one click of a button will have you adding the news item to your blog. This function will simplify your posting process, and it will also add attribution and format the links so your site vistors can see the source of the item.

Organize feeds. Once you start using a news reader, you’ll likely find that your list of subscriptions could quickly grow to more than 100 feeds. Your reading life will be easier if you organize your feeds. Then, rather than reading all posts at the same time, you could choose to read only the technology news posts, just the posts from a particular individual and so forth.

Filter new posts. Different aggregators handle filtering differently, but the premise is the same across the board: to filter out the latest RSS items to show only the newest. If you aren’t monitoring your news reader every half hour, you can periodically check in and see just the posts that have come in recently.

Realizing the Full Advantage
The full impact of using a news reader is only obvious after you’ve used it for a while. The biggest difference is the fact that relevant, interesting information will bubble up through your aggregator. Very often, several sites you subscribe to will start commenting on the same story--in many cases, with varying comments and observations--which can produce more information and give you more context than you would get from just one source.

The other advantage is that you won’t need to remember all the sites you’re interested in following. Your news reader can handle that for you--and can provide a centralized place you can go to get your information. In much the same way that your inbox is the one place to go to get messages from people who matter to you, your aggregator becomes the one place you can go to get Web content that matters to you.

Spending Less Time to Get More
I’ve been using an aggregator for almost two years. In that time, I’ve vastly expanded the sources I monitor. I’m better informed, I’m aware of a broader number of issues, and I’m able to participate in more conversations as a result. All of this is possible while simultaneously spending less time surfing Web sites.

More information in less time from more places. Finally, XML’s revolution has arrived.

Rick Klau ( rklau@interfacesoftware.com) is Vice_President of Vertical Markets at Interface Software, Inc.,and a coauthor of the ABA LPM book The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet (2nd edition). His blog is at www.rklau.com/tins.

To learn more about how weblogs work, read these nothing.but.net columns online at www.lawpractice.org/magazine:
• “Fire Your Web Site, Hire a Weblog,” September 2003
• “A Blog in Every Law Firm?” July/August 2002
• “Blog On,” April 2002