Explaining Blogs and RSS

This is from an article I started to write in 2004 about blogs & RSS. I found it & thought someone might it useful, perhaps for historical reasons.

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I've been keeping a blog for quite some time now. In fact, over a year. I'd like to introduce it to you.

So what's a blog? Well, "blog" is short for "Web log". But there's more than that. The journalist Jon Udell defines them as follows: "Blogs are public Web journals … Technically, blogs are dead simple: static Web pages, with diary entries ordered newest to oldest. … Your blog is your own personal space, an extension of yourself that you project with pride, and control with care. You write about things that matter to you, optionally referring to other blogs and acknowledging other blogs' referrals to you."

My blog covers a range of subjects. Mostly what I do is collect news & information, & then post an excerpt in my blog, with a link to the longer story. I kind of do that in my emails to you, except that I try to focus the emails on technology. My blog, however, ranges far beyond technology. Oh sure, it covers technology, but it also focuses on politics (a LOT on politics!), intellectual property issues, television, reading, my personal life, and more. I add to my blog several times a week, typically in bursts.

You can read my blog in two ways. The first way is the easiest, but it's not very efficient. The second way is far more efficient, but it requires a bit more work to get things going. That said, I recommend the second way.

The first way: simply visit my blog's Web page every day or so. This is easy, sure, but I guarantee you'll forget to do it after a couple of days. Unless you set my blog up as your home page, which would be silly, or you set your Web browser up to check my site every day & then report to you about any changes (which you can do, believe it or not), you'll soon forget to visit. That's why I don't recommend that method. I read 50+ blogs every day, and there is no way I could just visit all those Web sites. I wouldn't do it.

OK, so what's the second way? To understand the second way, you need to understand a key feature of most blogs: RSS feeds. Huh? Let me explain. Most blogs automatically generate a file called an "RSS feed", which is basically a version of my blog written in a way that computers can read & understand. Every time I update the blog, it automatically updates the RSS feed for me. I don't have to think about my RSS feed; it just sits there, automatically changing as my blog entries change. As I said, most blogs generate RSS feeds. The 200+ blogs I read all have RSS feeds. I'm sure the creators of the blogs I read worry about their RSS feeds about as much as I worry about mine, which is hardly ever.

The benefit to RSS feeds comes in when you start using software called an "RSS aggregator". An RSS aggregator collects RSS feeds and converts them from computer language to normal human language. It then displays the latest blog entries in a way that is easy for you to read and delete.

The process works like this. My RSS aggregator software knows that I've subscribed to 200+ blogs because I told it I was interested in tracking those blogs' RSS feeds. Every hour, my RSS aggregator queries the RSS feeds of those 200+ sites. If there's a new entry in the RSS feed for a particular blog, the aggregator grabs the entry and displays it to me, along with any other new entries. If there's nothing new in the RSS feed, the aggregator drops the connection only to come back again in a hour to see if anything new has been added. If you don't want the process to be automatic, then you can use an aggregator that only checks when you tell it to, say, when you press a button labeled "Check out RSS feeds".

So, what are some good RSS aggregators? Well, here's a short list of good, free aggregators (there are some you can pay for, but heck, why do that when there are so many excellent free ones?).

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