Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

syndicating blogs: creating and subscribing to newsfeeds

05.8.06 @ 05:12:04 pacific

(from Chapter 8, Packing Your Toolkit)

/feed/atom/Ocap.gifne of the decisions any blog author must make is whether or not to allow readers to subscribe to your updated content via syndicated newsfeeds. More and more blogs sport buttons or links labeled RSS, Atom, XML, newsfeed, or simply feed. Click those links and you’ll often find yourself abruptly presented with a web page full of dense, incomprehensible text. What’s this all about?

First of all, newsfeeds aren’t exactly new. Many of us have been subscribing to them for years, often without knowing it. If you have a personalized web page on Google, My Yahoo, or MySpace, the headlines and stories from the various news organizations you’ve selected arrive as newsfeeds. So do most podcasts. Additionally, newsfeeds are often used to distribute newsletters and track packages, as well as provide marketing, weather, and stock updates.

Essentially, newsfeeds are syndicated web content delivered to subscribers’ news aggregators, also called newsreaders, in real time. Besides being able to subscribe to the content of blogs, many of the newer search engines allow you to subscribe to updated results of specific search queries. If you wanted to track all the blog posts that include the word “bogosity,” for instance, you could conduct a search on Bloglines or Technorati and then subscribe to future search results for the term. Now, each time your newsreader updates your subscriptions, you would receive a list of links to each new blog post containing the term.

Newsfeeds offer a number of advantages over previous content delivery mechanisms. Unlike subscribing to email newsletters, for instance, new content replaces older posts in your newsreader, so you don’t have to manually delete content. Remarkably—at least so far— newsfeeds are virtually spam-free. Plus, unlike traditional media syndication, in which publishers make their content available for a fee to select distributors, web newsfeed publishers make their text, audio, or video content available to any who choose to subscribe and, for the most part, they charge nothing.

Newsfeeds may at first seem mysterious and perhaps even superfluous, but after a bit of exposure many readers find them indispensable—addictive, even! With very little effort, you can have the latest information on any topic delivered to your newsreader (more on this below), which allows you to keep up with all your favorite blogs, news sources, and search terms within one easy-to-navigate environment. In a world where there is never enough time and things often seem scattered and disparate, newsfeeds provide a fast, centralized resource.

choosing a newsreader

Newsfeeds are generally published in XML format (eXtensible Markup Language), an extension of HTML. The messy page of dense text you see when you click a newsfeed link is raw XML code. To view the content in a more readable form, we subscribe to the feed using software programs called newsreaders or news aggregators. Then, each time new content is added to that blog or news site, the items appear in our newsreaders. In a sense, subscribing to newsfeeds allows you to program your own news and entertainment channels.

Just as with blog authoring software, newsreaders come in a wide array of web-based and desktop solutions. Wikipedia maintains links to most of the known news aggregators and currently lists more than a hundred! Among the variety are sixty solutions for Windows users; nine for Macintosh, and seven for Linux. In addition, most of the newer web browsers integrate news-aggregator capabilities either natively or via extensions. There are even a handful of email-based aggregators that forward subscribed newsfeeds to your usual mailbox.

browser-based news aggregators

Among the browser-based options, Bloglines, owned by Ask.com’s IAC Search and Media, and NewsGator are two of the more popular aggregators. Bloglines is free, handles even audio and video files well, boasts full-featured blog search, and provides useful tools for managing and analyzing feeds. You can even use a free Bloglines email address to subscribe to and read traditional email newsletters in your aggregator rather than your email client. NewsGator offers a free consumer version that provides many of the same capabilities, as well as a paid version that allows posting from mobile phones and PDAs, and integration with Microsoft Outlook. These web-based solutions can sometimes be a bit slow, but it’s convenient that you can read updates to your subscriptions using any computer connected to the Internet.

standalone news aggregators

Some individuals, myself included, prefer news aggregators that reside on the desktop as a separate application. The downside is that you have to access your newsfeeds on the machine on which the application is installed. The advantages vary among newsfeed applications, but most are faster than the browser-based solutions and you generally have more control over organization and layout. The best allow you to combine feeds into folders, assign descriptive tags, view and listen to multimedia files, and to search the body of your feeds.

Two of the more popular desktop options are FeedDemon for Windows users and NetNewsWire from Ranchero for Macintosh users. FeedDemon requires a $29.95 purchase fee, but it comes pre-populated with dozens of feeds, has a clean and intuitive layout with a built-in tabbed browser, and it allows you to store items for future reference. NetNewsWire offers a free version and another that costs $29.95. Both are fast, clean, and straightforward. The paid version includes search, the ability to store items, tag subscriptions with descriptive labels, and allows scripting and podcast downloads.

and yet more aggregators

Some aggregators aren’t obvious at first. For instance, iTunes acts as an aggregator for podcasts. Also, some newer web browsers, such as Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari, automatically detect newsfeeds when visiting websites and have aggregators built in for easy subscribing and reading.

subscribing made easy

Once you’ve chosen a news aggregator, you’re ready to begin subscribing. In an ideal world, when you click a feed link on a site to which you would like to subscribe, your aggregator would autodetect the correct URL for the feed and, you’d be subscribed. This is occasionally the case, even here in the real world, but in general, you may need to coax the subscription process along.

The next time you’d like to subscribe to a newsfeed, find the link on the front page. It will generally be labeled something like XML or RSS or Feed, although it could say Atom, Subscribe, or even Syndicate This!

If you click the newsfeed link, it should take you to either that dense page of code or to a customized page on a newsfeed service like FeedBurner (more on this shortly). In either case, what you want it the URL at the top of the browser window. Use your cursor to copy the URL. In your newsreader, choose the menu item that sounds most like “New Subscriptions.” In some cases, the copied URL will automatically appear in the subscription address space. If not, paste it into the appropriate box, click Subscribe or OK, and syndicated items should start pouring into your aggregator.

Occasionally, you may want to move a whole set of subscriptions from one aggregator to another. The easiest way to do this is to export the selected newsfeeds as an OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) file and then import that file into your preferred aggregator.

Newsfeeds are one of those things that you might think sound silly or too much work until you start using them. While working on this book, I’m tracking more than three hundred blogs. Obviously, I can’t read every blog every day, but my news aggregator allows me to organize my feeds into categorical folders. Whenever I tell my aggregator to refresh my subscriptions, I can easily click on the feeds and then the individual posts I’d like to read. A simple double-click links me to the actual web page, but I find that I do much of my reading right in the newsreader. I appreciate not having to jump back and forth from my browser bookmarks to the websites I’m tracking. Plus, I don’t have to wait for the web page to load unless I actively choose to visit the site. Overall, newsfeeds can be a great boon for those wishing to save time and avoid spam.

publishing newsfeeds, podcasts, and video feeds

Options for syndicating content will generally include a title for your feed (you can’t go wrong with the title of your blog); whether you wish to publish the full text of your blog entries or excerpts; and how many posts you’d like included in your newsfeeds. Once you’re satisfied, your blog software will generate the URL for your newsfeed, usually something like http://dispatchesfromblogistan.com/feed/. That’s it. You’re a syndicator.

If your software doesn’t support newsfeeds, or even it if does, you might consider using a third-party service like FeedBurner to publish your feeds. The reason FeedBurner is currently managing more than a quarter million newsfeeds is fairly straightforward: it provides accurate counts of the number of subscribers, something difficult to do in most blog authoring environments. There are always tradeoffs. In this case you balance better statistics against the fact that the newsfeed address is a little unweildy, reading something like http://feeds.feedburner.com/dispatches-from-blogistan.

Should you publish the full text of your blog entries or a truncated version? This is a hotly debated point. Those in favor of summaries or excerpts often want subscribers to view their posts in the context of their overall blog environment, trusting that their newsfeed headlines and teasers will convince subscribers to click through and read the full text on the blog itself. They also hope to foil unscrupulous sorts who subscribe to newsfeeds and then republish the content on their own sites, sometimes called splogs, collecting advertising revenues from contextual ads placed against the purloined content.

Those in favor of publishing full-text newsfeeds argue that what matters most is what you have to say, not how pretty your pages look, and that any distribution is good distribution. They also point out that with more and more people using news aggregators to keep up with blogs, publishing full text is much friendlier. Even more convincing, a number of the most popular blog search engines index the content of newsfeeds rather than a blog’s pages, so if you want your entire posts to be included in their searches, you must publish full-text feeds.

For those wishing to up the ante and begin syndicating audio podcasts or video newsfeeds, it’s good to know that most blog authoring software makes it fairly easy. For podcasts, within the blog administration interface, you select an .mp3 file, upload it to your blog server, name it, and tell your blog software to include a bit of code in your blog file to enable the link. The technology is always changing, but luckily there are helpful folks willing to offer a hand-up to those behind them.

Video bloggers, sometimes called vloggers, often use either Windows MovieMaker, which comes free with Windows, or Apple iMovie, which is part of the Macintosh iLife package, $79) to prepare their files. Some choose to upload their videos to special server environments like Vimeo, vSocial, or the phenomenally popular YouTube. The servers are optimized for video display and individuals can apply descriptive labels, commonly called tags, to their videos, making finding visual content much easier.

what does rss stand for?

Web veterans with the longest memories say RSS stands for RDF Site Summaries. RDF, in turn, stands for Resource Description Framework, a geeky Web specification published in 1997 that allows bits of descriptive text called metadata to accompany files sent over the Internet. RDF metadata can include elements such as headline, author name, and excerpts or full texts. One might call these, you guessed it, Site Summaries. Hence, the RDF Site Summaries.

Most bloggers, however, will assure you that RSS stands for Rich Site Summary. Or, perhaps, Really Simple Syndication. Or sometimes even, Rich Site Syndication. Given the confusion surrounding the acronym, it perhaps won’t come as a surprise that there are seven, count them seven, versions of RSS in use today. The first was released by Netscape in 1999, some of the middle versions were subsequently released by Userland Software, and a quasi-final version 2.0 is currently distributed under a Creative Commons license by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. There are no official plans to update RSS 2.0, and so we are beginning to see alternate protocols for distributing newsfeeds, the most prominent being Atom, which is based on a specification authored by the Atompub Working Group within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the same body that oversees protocols for the World Wide Web. It’s hard to tell which protocol will survive, but for most subscribers the differences are transparent since the aggregators generally recognize all the most popular versions. The protocol may continue to fork and evolve, but syndication remains one of the best tools in a blogger’s kit.


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