Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How do I put Earl in a riss? (basic questions about subscribing to feeds)

I am in this weird bubble kind of thing in which things are very strange and not normal. And you are too.

In my daily reading, I view the conversations about the best ways to find things to read. Is RSS relevant? Can we get information from Twitter? Which protocols provide optimum information gathering capabilities?

But 99.9% of the people don't care about such things - a point that was brought home to me when I helped someone subscribe to a feed.

Now the person that I helped is no dummy, but this person had previously been exposed to email lists, and had never made the acquaintance of an RSS feed. The person had asked me how I obtained some of the information that I use in work, and I explained that I used RSS feeds to do the job. I then offered to help the person set up some work-related feeds to keep up with industry information.

Now I was not about to dump Google Reader on the person, because the person doesn't even have a Google account. And I'm not familiar with the desktop reader applications, so I wasn't going to suggest that. Basically, I had two options:
  • Set up RSS feeds in the person's Internet Explorer 8 browser
  • Set up RSS feeds that were associated with the person's personal account - iGoogle, My MSN, My Yahoo, or whatever.
I haven't really exercised either of those options much myself, so I figured that I'd do some self-testing before I went to the person's computer. I vaguely knew how the browser subscriptions worked, so I tried the other option by firing my Firefox, going to a feed, and clicking on it. Firefox nicely presented options that allowed you to choose where you wanted to set up the feed - Google, My Yahoo, whatever.

So I proceed to the person's computer, had her login to her personal service, then had her open up another tab to find the feed...and then realized that she was running Internet Explorer, not Firefox, and all those nice options that I saw in my Firefox weren't showing up in her Internet Explorer. Perhaps they could, but maybe it depends upon how her IE was configured, or how my Firefox was configured, or whatever.

After I had set her up with a feed and explained how to check on it, and after I gave an answer to her basic question ("What's the advantage of reading feeds vs. just visiting the website?"), I thought about how I could have done this better. And I discovered that my hands-on session, even with its false starts, is actually a LOT better than what passes for RSS education these days.

I'd like for you to perform an exercise. Pretend that you had never heard of online feeds or anything like that, and that you pretty much used your computer to get to what AOL provided for you. This is the way that many people use their computers today, incidentally. Now let's say that someone like me suggested that you read feeds, and provided you with these instructions. I'll take them slowly. Read the fcllowing sentence aloud to yourself.

In order to subscribe to an RSS feed or newsfeed you will need two things, an RSS reader (also known as a news aggregator) and url (web address) of the RSS feed that you wish to subscribe.

Quick question to you before we continue - how did you read "url"? Did you say "you arr ell"? Why did you say that? That's not what the word looks like. It looks like you should say "Earl." So now we're talking about an RSS (riss???) feed that has Earl's web address. Is Earl a spider? Does the web address have a zip code?

The important thing is that while the sentence above makes complete sense to me, it's a foreign language to most people. And the following steps don't help either.

1.) Download a News Aggregator / RSS Reader

2.) Locate the web address (url) of the RSS feed (XML file) that you wish to subscribe.

A news aggregator or RSS reader is a software application that collects and displays news headlines and summaries from sources that you have designated.

An RSS feed is an XML document that contains the news headlines and summaries.

3.) Install the feed reader or news aggregator on the computer

4.) Insert the url of the news feed (there is usually an "add feed" button)

5.) Many of the news readers will allow you to set the interval that the software will look for a feed update others simply update daily.

6.) The information in the feed will be updated when the feed contains new content.

OK, perhaps this is a really bad set of instructions for newbies. I found another set of instructions, which pretty much admits that this is a very hard thing to teach.

To subscribe to an RSS feed:

* Follow the instructions of your RSS feed reader. Each RSS feed reader is a little different.

Later, the tutorial states:

One of the weaknesses of RSS is that there is no easy method to subscribe to feeds. There is not a "one click" method to pick an RSS Feed and subscribe to it.

Subscribing to the RSS feeds is the only manual task involved in the process of using the RSS feed reader.

Unfortunately, this manual task is one of the first tasks that you have to perform, and if you can't complete that task, you're not going to get the goodies out of RSS feeds.

Now when you find instructions for a particular RSS reader, things get a bit easier. Here are Microsoft's instructions on how to subscribe to a feed in Internet Explorer:

How do I subscribe to a feed?

1. Open Internet Explorer by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, and then clicking Internet Explorer.

2. Go to the website that has the feed you want to subscribe to.

3. Click the Feeds button Picture of the Feeds button to discover feeds on the webpage.

4. Click a feed (if more than one is available). If only one feed is available, you will go directly to that page.

5. Click Subscribe to this Feed.

6. Type a name for the feed and select the folder to create the feed in.

7. Click Subscribe.

Now I didn't reproduce them above, but Microsoft's instructions also included a couple of helpful pictures of the Start button and the Feeds button.

But even if you have a fairly good set of instructions, it's a laborious task to set up a feed reader and subscribe to feeds for the first time. Now one can argue that you have to perform some level of learning to do a task like this - there's no way that feed reading can be completely intuitive - but we still have to recognize the fact that this learning must take place before you can have streams of information flowing at you hourly.

But you can always get Earl to help you.
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