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Revving up Your RSS (Re-post) at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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Ah, the Internet. Gregory Zobel ran this wonderful interview about managing your RSS feeds with WRT-amigo David Parry (of Academic Hack) on the now-defunct “Adjunct Advice.” Unfortunately, that “long tail” can sometimes be severed, so to help it grow back, we are reposting that interview here. This marks the second in our continuing attempts to unseat The Wayback Machine as THE place to go for your golden oldies.

Revving Up Your RSS Feeds with David Parry

Once again, Dr. David Parry has agreed to share his tech wisdom with Adjunct Advice. Rather than going for a broad sense of technology, this interview focuses exclusively on the effective and efficient use of RSS feeds. As this interview demonstrates, RSS is much easier to use and more powerful when you organize your feeds. In addition to this interview, I suggest you read David’s own article about RSS feeds here.

Dr. David Parry is an Assistant Professor of Emerging Media at the University of Texas in Dallas.

RSS feeds seem like a great tool, but I find myself never having enough time to read them. I suspect I have sloppy RSS habits. Can you offer any secrets to effective RSS feed management (just like file management)?

I think we should probably distinguish between two things here for the sake of understanding how I use feeds: one is the practice of collecting and organizing feeds; the second is the process of reading these feeds. Now clearly the first is always with an eye towards the later, that is I organize them in such a way as to facilitate reading practices, but for the sake of answering these questions it is probably useful to keep them separate.

I currently subscribe to about 230 feeds, plus or minus depending on what you count and don’t count, but regardless it is crucial for me to keep them organized in a way that allows me to later process them. I have two primary grouping strategies. The first is to group feeds by category, and I place similar feeds in a folder which distinguishes the content of those feeds. So, for example, I have a folder labeled “News.” In this folder I have the feed from CNN (headline), The New York Times (headline), BBC (world), Newsvine, OhmyNews, and the Dallas Morning News (I live in Dallas). This gets me all of the feeds that are “news” related grouped together. Below that is a folder titled “Politics;” here I subscribe to Crooks and Liars, ThinkProgress, The Daily Kos, Red State, and a few others. Notice the editorials are not here; that is, I also subscribe to Salon and the NYTimes Editorial section. These are in a third folder (more on that in a moment). I also have folders for “Sports,” “Apple (computer not fruit),” “Education,” “Education Tech,” . . . you get the idea.

Now I crudely sort them by their time importance. This is why news is at the top: everyday I want to check these feeds; I consider it my reading the morning paper. If I don’t get to the feeds on “Running” for a particular day no big deal the information will keep, but the news I want to make sure to pay attention to. These are also the feeds, generally speaking, which receive the highest number of updates. This is also the reason that news editorials are in a different folder: they often require a different attention span and are not as timely as the news, so if I don’t get to them on a given day I can look at them the next day. They also tend to be updated less frequently so they don’t build up.

This sorting technique allows me to read feeds from one given subject area at a time, rather than having one giant miscellaneous pile of information, and I can read what is relevant to what I am doing at that moment, or my frame of mind. Or, conversely if I need a break, I can read just the feeds that I subscribe to for entertainment, like Digg Videos or running Web sites.

There is also a folder for student blogs, so I can read them all at once, and a folder for blogs I am trying out. When I run across a blog that looks like I might be interested in, I subscribe and give it a “trial period,” deciding if I want to move it to a more permanent folder. This helps me to keep the signal to noise ratio in favor of signal.

One other thing you can do rather than subscribe to a host of sites that have information that interests you, is find one site that collects in one place all of the best posts from various sites. For example rather than subscribe to four or five tech sites, you can just subscribe to Techme, or instead of subscribing to ten different news organizations, just try Newsvine.

How do you use RSS feeds to help you in your professional development (in terms of publications and conferences)? General suggestions and/or strategies would be great!

One key way is what I already mentioned above, that is I group feeds into folders that have relevant professional content, and set aside time to read them in the same way I would for trade publications.

You can also subscribe to the feeds of many journals (often through Project Muse). This way when a new issue comes out you get a notice in your RSS reader. Again it helps to have all of these grouped in a folder for easy reading.

Also when I am interested in a particular subject, say I am in the research phase of a particular project, I will do a great deal of research and subscribe to a whole host of blogs that engage in the subject matter. (Right now I have one folder that is dedicated to Wikipedia.) This gives me a sense of what is currently going on. Incidentally, I tell students to adopt this strategy as well. If, for example, they are taking a class on politics and American history, subscribing to a few blogs (getting good ones can be the key here) will give them a deeper understanding of the field and help them to engage better with the material.

Particularly in my field, many of the calls for papers, conference information, grant announcements etc., are published online in a way you can subscribe to the feeds. For example, HASTAC and Grand Text Auto have this type of information for me, so reading these sites frequently can be crucial to keeping up with what is going on, and RSS is key to this regard.

One other note, you can push email through RSS. This becomes another way to keep up to date on relevant information and stay in control instead of getting overwhelmed. Let’s say, for example, you subscribe to the H-Net email lists in your relevant field. Send these to RSS rather than email. I find I am far more likely to deal with them in that context than when they clog up my inbox—I don’t want group emails/notifications in my inbox.

What do you believe is the most under-utilized aspect of RSS feeds?

Because of the format of the information you can get just about anything off RSS. Think of it this way, if there is something you want to be “updated” on there is probably a way to get this via RSS. Weather. Traffic Updates. Community Events. Real Estate. I have been contemplating buying a new car for awhile now, two models in particular, and so I subscribe to those particular feeds through Craigslist. Now anytime someone puts one of these two models on sale via Craigslist I get a notice in my RSS reader. This way I have a sense of what the market value is, and should a great deal come up I get a notice. It is like having your own personal classifieds. RSS is a wonderful tool for sorting information, again managing that signal to noise ratio.

One other really useful feature is using RSS to monitor comments. You can subscribe just to the comment section of a specific post. This way you are updated when someone adds to the conversation rather than having to frequently visit a site to see if someone else has added to the post.

How can low-tech people make the most of RSS feeds in a quick and easy way?

First, if you are still a bit confused about how RSS works, check out this video from the Common Craft Show. Next get a reader, for ease of use you might check out Google Reader (personally I prefer having a separate application for RSS feeds but Google Reader is a good start with an easy to use interface and tutorial videos). Next pick a few areas you constantly read about on the web. Let’s say you are a history professor who likes to read about sports and cooking, make three folders (history, sports, cooking) and subscribe to blogs in each area. Now instead of going to check those sites, go to your reader. You will be surprised how much this will change the way you interact with the network of information.

A few other things to keep in mind:

My feeds are fluid and I treat them this way. A couple of months ago when political unrest was occurring in Burma I added a bunch of feeds to help keep me informed on the situation. If a feed isn’t productive for you (you find yourself deleting the updates all the time) just unsubscribe. But also keep in mind you can subscribe to a feed for that once-a-month important update and delete the other 20 posts for the month.

Don’t stress about reading everything. I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 items I haven’t yet read in my feed reader. No big deal — I get to them when I get to them. When I come back from two or three days away I often wholesale delete certain folders. And in that regard you can really often just scan a whole folder to see if their is anything that interests you rather than carefully looking at each entry.

Finally, use the mark for later feature. This is different for each reader, mine is called flagging, I think Google Reader allows you to star posts. Either way, this feature lets you mark certain posts to go back to at a later time and date and handle in depth.

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