Technology Trend: RSS Feeds

Have you ever seen this symbol on a Web page and wondered what it was?

It is the symbol for RSS, an internet tool for having news or other website updates fed to you at your convenience. RSS has a fairly low profile among internet tools – even people who use the Internet every day may not know about it. But it can be a very useful tool for keeping up to date on news and changing information.

Once you have subscribed to an RSS feed, you will be among the first to know of new listings to a site, such as CYFERnet research articles, news headlines or items added to online auctions. And when you want to drop the feed, it’s easily deleted.

Subscribing to an RSS feed is called a “pull” action – quite different from subscribing to an e-mail distribution list (list-serv), which is “pushed” whenever someone wants to send you something, and which can be abused. Because RSS technology is so flexible, feeds can be delivered in a number of ways – to a Web browser, a portal Web site (such as MyYahoo! Or iGoogle), e-mail software or Internet-enabled mobile phone.

Most users navigate this path backward – by starting with a page that interests them. You can tell that a Web site offers RSS feeds when you see the orange symbol. Clicking on it will lead you to a menu of delivery methods. Choose one that is compatible with the platform you are using (PC or Mac, probably) and the browser you are using (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Netscape, etc.). All of the RSS feed readers are free. Click on it and download it. Some popular RSS aggregators, as they are called, are BloglinesFeedreader, and Newsgator. The most popular one for Mac is NetNewsWire.

Then if you haven’t already done so, go to a Web site that you read regularly, such as this one, and click on the orange symbol. CYFERNET.org offers a feed of research and articles newly added to its extensive database. Look for the orange symbol at the bottom of the CYFERnet.org home page, or go directly to the CYFERnet RSS subscription page and click to subscribe.

Having done that, the orange symbol will appear in your browser window, ready to give you the latest headlines anytime you click on it.

The most popular RSS feeds are for news sites and blogs, but it can be used in a number of ways. Here are some examples.

Ways to use RSS feeds in your life and work

  • Most newspapers offer RSS headline feeds. Bigger ones, such as the The New York Times, allow users to refine their feed, by selecting a section of the daily newspaper. For example, you can choose to receive only Environment headlines from the science section, or only college basketball headlines.
  • You may use RSS feeds  be notified of new grant funding opportunities: As an example, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation offers a number of RSS feeds for various types of grant programs across the US.
  • RSS can be a useful tool for shopping online from one of the online auction or “garage sale” sites. For example, if you were shopping for a used digital camera for your group, you might be watching the photo-video section of craigslist in your area or ebay for new listings. You could keep a closer eye on them by subscribing to the RSS feed for that item. To do so, simply go to the site and search for the item the way you usually do, then find the orange symbol and click on it to have newly added listings fed to you.
  • Your own RSS: With a basic knowledge of HTML/XHTML, you can set up RSS to feed the headlines from your own changing Web site to those who want to keep up with your group’s developments. Caution: this may require the help of an experienced Web designer.
  • If you are already blogging, you may want to subscribe to your own blog. That may sound a bit like sending letters to yourself, but because blogs are two-way communication, setting up an RSS feed to your blog will enable you to know if anyone has contributed to your blog by glancing at your browser menu occasionally. It is also possible to do the reverse: set up an RSS on your blog for other blogs or news sites, so that visitors to your blog can see the latest from these sites, as well.

Once you have subscribed to a feed, the orange symbol will appear continuously. But the headlines listed when you click on it will be different every time the RSS feed is updated. And unlike subscribing to a list-serv, cancelling an RSS is instant and completely effective, making it safe to try new feeds without complicating your online life.

Author(s), Presenter(s): 
CYFERNet Technology Team
Year published or updated: 
2008