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Feed Reading, Three Ways

Here's a simple version of the story of feeds.

First, the Internet had too much information. Then, RSS feeds came along, which were designed to reduce the torrent of information from the Internet into something more manageable. RSS feeds (or just "feeds") are simplified streams of information from websites: just the headlines, or if you want, the full text. No longer would you have to individually visit each site to read new content. By subscribing to the site's feed with an "feed reader," the content would now come to you. Quoting Wikipedia:
RSS is a family of Web feed formats used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. An RSS document, which is called a "feed," "web feed," or "channel," contains either a summary of content from an associated web site or the full text. RSS makes it possible for people to keep up with their favorite web sites in an automated manner that's easier than checking them manually.

RSS content can be read using software called an "RSS reader," "feed reader" or an "aggregator." The user subscribes to a feed by entering the feed's link into the reader or by clicking an RSS icon in a browser that initiates the subscription process. The reader checks the user's subscribed feeds regularly for new content, downloading any updates that it finds.
All good. But then, websites with useful information proliferated -- news, medical information, blogs -- and they all published feeds. And the feeds proliferated. And different feed readers also proliferated, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, some online (like Google Reader), some integrated with web browsers (like Firefox), and some standalone applications (like NewsGator).

And then there were too many feeds. Even with feed readers, it seems impossible to keep up with all the potentially important information that's out there. Feeds, that were initially designed to solve the problem of information overload, have actually contributed to the problem because they're too easy to subscribe to and read.

Here's one solution. In the following sections, I'll propose three methods of reading feeds using three different systems: Google Reader, Email, and Netvibes. Each of these methods is appropriate in different situations. And together, they can make the torrent of information from feeds manageable again.


To start, here are some initial questions to ask about any feed to which you're thinking of subscribing: "How important is this? Is this something I want to read every day? Is this website of sufficiently high importance and/or quality that I don't want to miss a single post?"

If you answer "Yes" to these questions, then the best way to read the feed is probably by email. (This is the first way of reading feeds that I'll discuss.) This might be counterintuitive (or even controversial). After all, isn't the purpose of feeds to provide a stream of information apart from the website itself and apart from your regular correspondence?

All true, but email remains the best way of ensuring that everything gets to you and nothing is lost. (And if you use gmail, forwarding feeds to email also ensures that all your feed content is forever archived and searchable).

However, reading feeds by email is a mixed blessing. If you aren't careful, feeds will clog up your inbox and you could easily become frustrated and not read them at all. Choose the feeds you read by email carefully.

My personal favorite service for converting RSS feeds to email is Feedburner -- it's fast, reliable, and the formatting is usually perfect. Certain websites, like BoingBoing, offer the option to subscribe by email through Feedburner on the main page. Other websites, like Tech Medicine, Kidney Notes, and The Efficient MD, also offer links to subscriptions by email. Most services like Feedburner offer the option to subscribe to the feed as a digest (one large, daily email of all posts) or as individualized emails. (I usually prefer the digest format.)

But what if the website doesn't offer the option to subscribe by email? Feedburner, as far as I know, doesn't allow you to subscribe by email unless the website allows it, but other services are available. Two popular services as Rssfwd and Feedblitz. After copying and pasting the feed's address, each website will then deliver the feeds to you by email. Rssfwd even offers a bookmark that you can place in your browser that allows you to automatically subscribe to the websites you visit. (I personally prefer Rssfwd to Feedblitz because the formatting on the iPhone is better.)

For medical news, two feeds that I subscribe to by email are Kevin, MD and The Wall Street Journal Health Blog. Non-medical sites that I subscribe to include Boing Boing and The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.


In the last section, I suggested that the best way to read your most important feeds is by email.

But what if you don't want to read every word of the feed? What if the feed is important, but not that important?

Consider using a customized home page. Put simply, these pages allow you to display the headlines from multiple feeds on one page, like a newspaper. You can then quickly scan the feed's headlines for items of interest and click to reveal the full view.

Two popular free home page services are iGoogle and Netvibes. Each service allows you to create multiple tabs for different subjects. One tab, for example, could contain general news, while another could contain news about medicine, and a third could contain the tables of contents of popular journals. Here's a page from Netvibes, as an example. On this page, the feeds are all about science and technology:

The advantages of using customized home pages are many. The feed's recent items are all there, so it's unlikely that you'll miss any. You don't need to see the full text of the items, and you can click on any items that interest you. And can flexibly create tabs which contain different topics -- medicine, science, or whatever else you choose.

In the next section, we'll look at the third and final way of reading feeds: feed aggregators like Google Reader.


Let's recap. It's difficult (if not impossible) to keep up with all the new information posted to countless websites without using RSS feeds. In the first section, I suggested that the proliferation of feeds and the ease of reading them may have actually contributed to the problem of information overload. There's simply too much good stuff to read.

One strategy to deal with this problem is to use different methods to read different feeds, depending on their importance. In the second section, I argued that the best way to read your most important feeds is by email. For example, if you rely on Kevin, MD as a major source of medical news and you don't want to miss a single post, then visit Rssfwd.com and enter Kevin 's feed ("http://feeds.feedburner.com/KevinMd-MedicalWeblog"). That's it. Kevin will email you all new posts -- in daily digest form, if you prefer -- from now on.

In the last section, I suggested that some feeds are best read by using a customized home page, like iGoogle or Netvibes. If Rssfwd turns feeds into letters that are emailed to you, then iGoogle and Netvibes turn feeds into newspapers, complete with topic sections and headlines.

The third way of feed reading is to use a feed aggregator like Google Reader. This type of aggregator turns feed reading into the equivalent of surfing channels -- in the case of Google Reader, the new feed content (usually just the headlines) scrolls endlessly up the screen. Clicking on any headline reveals the full text.

This type of feed reader is most appropriate for content that you'd like to keep up with, but you don't mind missing. (Of course, it's possible to have all your feeds in Google Reader and make generous use of folders to ensure you don't miss the most important feeds.) Google Reader is the most sophisticated way of reading feeds, and has recently added many new features, like discovering new feeds and sharing feeds with your friends.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the number of feeds you read, and you haven't yet tried Rssfwd.com, iGoogle/Netvibes, and Google Reader -- try them. They might simplify your life and make reading feeds manageable again.
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About the Author


Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.