As of now, there’s a small but highly significant link lurking on the pages of this site, titled ‘Syndicate this Wiblog’. You’ll find it on every Wiblog, just beneath the list of archives (which seem, excitingly, to have discovered the concept of negative time).

The initiated need read no further, but to those who still think that syndication is something to do with American television, I’ll try and explain. And yes, as it happens, I did draw the short straw on this one.

Syndication is a way for you to check a weblog or news site without really reading it. In a nutshell, your computer scans all the sites you read regularly, and those sites tell your computer what’s updated since the last time you checked.

Your computer does this through a program called an RSS reader (you might sometimes hear them referred to as ‘feed readers’, or, slightly inaccurately, ‘news readers’). RSS, in case you’re wondering, probably stands for ‘Rich Site Summary’, or alternatively, ‘Really Simple Syndication’.

So why is this a good thing? Firstly, it saves your time. Much as I’d like to think that you all hang on every word of my finely crafted prose, I don’t think any weblogger, in their heart of hearts, really expects every single visitor to their sites to want to read every one of their outpourings. So syndication lets you glance through the titles and the first few words of things in your RSS reader, and only then must you decide whether it’s worth your visiting the actual site and reading the whole blog post, or news item.

Secondly, it’s handy. I mean, really handy. If you’re on the Internet for a length of time, your RSS reader can alert you to updated sites every so often, much in the same way as MSN Messenger pops up to tell you when you’ve got mail. If you’re only sporadically on the Internet, your RSS reader will do all the hard work of checking which sites have updated since last you were online. You can know what’s changed on literally hundreds of websites with a single click.

Thirdly, it’s free, or at least, free for the download. Most authors of RSS readers write them because they enjoy doing so (mad fools etc.) and because they think someone out there might find their efforts useful. And more often than not, people do, and they are useful.

Fourthly, it’s 2004, and as Jonny Baker points out, it’s the way things are going.

In short, RSS is great, and if you’ve read this far, you’ll be wanting to know what to do next.

First, get an RSS reader.

Most RSS readers can be downloaded and installed in less than five minutes, even on a slow modem.

For Windows, recommendations vary: the world seems to love Amphetadesk, but I never really got on with it – it crashed too often to be useful. That was a year ago, though, and things move very fast in the programming world. Its advantages are that it works in your web browser, and it’s relatively intuitive. The disadvantage is that it works at (slightly slower than) the speed of your web browser, which if you’re as naturally impatient as me, may not be a good thing.

FeedReader is good, hasn’t crashed for me, is fast, and is quick to download. It’s not being developed actively at the moment, which means it’s a little behind the times when it comes to new features, but it’s one of the easiest ones to install I’ve come across.

An RSS reader, yesterdayMy favourite, though, is SharpReader, a screenshot from which you see to the right. It’s got everything I could wish for in a reader, and so far it’s been fast and stable. It does come with a caveat, though, in that most people need to install an additional Windows component before using it. Microsoft do give that component for free to Windows users, but it takes… er… an hour and a half to download on a dial-up modem, and ten minutes on 512k broadband. Personally, I think it’s worth that download, and you may even be lucky and have the component installed already (here’s how to check, and install that component if needed).

Mac users all seem to swear by NetNewsWire for RSS reading, Linux users seem to be well catered for in Straw – I haven’t used either, so can’t comment.

Assuming you’ve downloaded and installed all that, then…

Next, find some RSS feeds.

Many blogs, probably most, have RSS feeds these days. You might find them hiding on their front page under ‘XML’ or ‘Syndicate’, or behind a small RSS or XML icon. And many news sites have RSS feeds too. Don’t click on these links in your web browser – nothing untoward will happen, but these links are meant for the RSS reader, not for you. To use them, find the ‘Open feed’ or ‘Subscribe to feed’ option in your RSS reader, and paste their address into that. From then on, everything should be plain sailing, and as straightforward as using a web browser.

Want something to be getting on with? Well, I can see from here that you’ve got impeccable taste in websites, so you’ll be wanting a list of the things I subscribe to, which I’ve added to the Wiblinks at the top of the page. You can import this into your RSS reader by finding the ‘Import subscriptions’ or ‘Import OPML’ option. It should be hiding somewhere under the ‘File’ menu. Chop, change, add and delete from it as you wish. I’ll try to update it regularly as I find more RSS feeds, and I’ll add all the Wiblogs to it when they come online. Share and enjoy.

Enjoy your RSS wanderings, if you choose to do so. If you want to find out more, or frankly didn’t understand a word of my yakking, here’s some more help from the BBC, Guardian Online and Wired. Give kudos to Chris for getting this all working (thanks, Chris). And thanks for reading this far. Of course, from now on, if you use an RSS reader, you won’t have to.

See? I even decimate my audience for you too.

12 thoughts on “syndicate

  1. Thanks, Rhys, for this RSS tutorial. Also many thanks for posting those truth tables on my blog! You mention you’ve programming of your own to be getting on with — what language(s) and project(s)?

  2. No, it can’t have been that, Nessa: I posted that after Martin commented. So Martin genuinely does think that you would write a long, rambling and ultimately pointless 1000-word entry on RSS feeds. I’m not sure which of us should be more offended by that.

    Well, Neil, what can I say, except try it, and you might find it useful?

  3. is downlowding the thingy something that i will probably get away with at work? or will the IT dept (read ‘big brother’) in Trowbridge raise an eyebrow at me?

  4. Rhys, for some reason when I read this entry I had got it lodged in my brain that I was reading Ness’s wiblog, and I only noticed it wasn’t when I got to the previous entry which I remembered as being yours. So are you and Ness turning into the same person? I haven’t seen you both in the same room for a good few days now …

    Apologies to you and/or Ness if you find this unsettling or upsetting.

  5. Excellent Rhys, as usual. Written in the manner of a man who has drawn the short straw but is determined to make the most of it. I had noticed the archiving dates thing, but left it to do it another day because … I’m like that. Anyway, many thanks for putting all this down for us newbies to read.

  6. Sadly I have not a clue what you are on about, but assume that I can ignore this syndicating thing and it will go away, right? (or will it haunt me in the night?)

  7. Oh, Neil, I’m sorry. Particularly because when I wrote it, I wanted to make sure that you (yes, personally, you) would get something out of it. Though you can ignore all of it and it’ll go away, what bits didn’t you get? Or was it just too long?

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