An Introduction to News Feeds

Most web sites are updated from time to time. News feeds are supplementary files (in RSS or Atom format) that provide a summary or an alternative source of recent additions to such sites. These feeds are read by programs (or web-based services) known as feed readers, which provide people with an overview of what’s new at their favorite sites.

Popular feed readers include NetNewsWire and Google Reader. I use Vienna. Current browsers can display feeds, too.

Web sites that offer news feeds are usually identified by an icon in the browser tool bar. Safari displays a blue “RSS” badge when it detects an available feed; Firefox and other browsers show an orange logo. Alternatively, a link or button within the web page, labeled “RSS/Atom,” “XML,” or “feed,” may indicate that a news feed is available. In any case, clicking the icon or link will establish a subscription to that feed.

Subscribing to an RSS feed in Safari

Your feed reader will periodically check to see if any of your subscriptions have been updated. If so, it will retrieve information about the new content — often including the new content itself — and display each new item in a list resembling an email inbox.

Viewing a subscription in Vienna

You can read new posts right in the news reader or follow a link to read them in context at the original web site. Since some news feeds provide only the title of new articles, you must visit the associated page to read the actual content in these cases.

Viewing an article in Vienna

Different feed readers provide different ways to manage your subscriptions. There are some common features, however. You can group related subscriptions, and you can save or discard items you’ve read — otherwise, they may eventually expire.

Feed readers are sometimes called news aggregators because they collect information from many sources in one convenient location. I find this service useful because it helps prevent me from wasting time online: instead of surfing from site to site and back again, I simply subscribe to sites I find interesting. It’s like receiving a newspaper instead of spending all day gathering news myself. It also helps me to keep an eye on sites I might otherwise forget to check.

Posted on Wednesday, January 16th, 2008. Tags: .