Saturday, August 25, 2007

How to Read the Internet

As I mentioned in the comments section of the previous post, the ayes have it regarding posts on religion. One explicit aye and an implicit one from the discussion on the subject at hand is good enough for me considering I only know of 7 people who read what I write here. Expect more discussions on the subject as I feel like writing them, and feel free to comment/ask questions about the subjects as well. Considering the theme of this blog (as seen in the title and the quotation from Dante's Inferno) is essentially I'm an idiot, knowledge about the subject is not required.

As some people who read this blog aren't experts when it comes to technology or computing, I thought I'd mention one easy way to keep up to date on web pages you may read every day, including this one. If you know what RSS is, I'll quickly mention that I've enabled RSS feeds for comments; and you may safely ignore the rest of this post. If you don't know what RSS is, keep reading. It may be of interest to you.

One of the more tiresome aspects of reading web pages with constantly updating content is knowing when that content is added. Because to many of you A day without Incomprehensible Vacuum is like a day without sunshine, you feel compelled to check this page every day in anticipation of something new that I've written. But like a child who's woken up too early for Santa to have arrived, you often find yourself having to wait just a little bit longer for me to post something because I don't write things every day. Plus, because I hide comments by default on the main page, it's hard to tell if there's an active conversation in one of the comment threads. It's easy for me to keep track of it all because I get emailed every time someone leaves a comment, but the rest of you aren't so lucky.

Some really smart people were so bothered by this annoyance that they decided to get rid of it. They came up with a standard way sites could present web content such that one's computer could do the tedious job of checking a web page for updates and alert the user when the page was updated. They called this standard RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication. A site then publishes one or more RSS feeds, which is usually a copy of the newest content on that web site formatted according to the RSS standard. The applications which do the job of checking feeds for updates and displaying them for the user are called aggregators.

Some other really smart people decided that an aggregator didn't need to be an application that a user had to install and run on their computer; they could build a web site which could keep track of a bunch feeds provided by other sites. That way, no matter how many web pages someone reads every day, they only need to visit one; and it's always up to date. Using one of these aggregator web sites is like using a Mac, a Tivo, or a GPS navigation system; it's really hard to go back to the old way of doing things once you've tried it. Recursively, many of these aggregators publish RSS feeds which are a combination of all the feeds the aggregator keeps track of for each user. I'm unsure when anyone would use this feature, but it's often provided.

As luck would have it, Blogger (who hosts this blog), has RSS feeds for both posts and comments. The blog as a whole has an RSS feed which consists of a bunch of the most recent blog posts. Each post has a feed containing all the comments associated with that post. So if, for example, you want to follow the riveting discussion Lucas and I are having about Sola scriptura, you can easily do so by adding the comments feed for that post to the list of feeds your aggregator keeps track of. Then whenever someone posts a comment on that post, it'll show up in your aggregator.

Which aggregator should you use? That's up to you. Until last week I used Bloglines, now I use Google Reader. Both are good, but I personally like Google Reader more. The UI feels a bit better and it does a better job keeping track of what posts you've read than Bloglines does. Both Bloglines and Google reader have instructions on how to use them, and these instructions will be better than anything I can write here. If you use Firefox or IE 7 (or Opera, but I don't know anyone who uses it), they have aggregators built in. You can view this blog's main feed by clicking on the Site Feed link in the sidebar. You can view the comment feeds for each post by clicking on the post's title and clicking on the Comment Feed link in the sidebar once the page has loaded. Feel free to appreciate that little goddamn RSS icon (RSS icon) next to the link, as it took several hours to get the color to match that of the sidebar links. The lengths I go to for you people; I do it because I care and because the default orange icon would have looked like shit when put against the rest of the site's color scheme.

If you read a lot of web pages regularly, I urge you to try reading some of them using an aggregator. I doubt you'll go back.


Blogger Arthaey Angosii said...

Aaron wrote: Until last week I used Bloglines, now I use Google Reader. Both are good, but I personally like Google Reader more. The UI feels a bit better and it does a better job keeping track of what posts you've read than Bloglines does.

Bloglines just launched Bloglines Beta, which is an AJAXy site redesign. Finally, their interface isn't ugly. :P I've tried Google Reader a couple times, but I've always switched back to Bloglines. What do you mean about Google Reader doing a better job of tracking read posts?

8/27/2007 10:47 AM  
Blogger Aaron *@ said...

Google Reader (and apparently the Bloglines beta) mark posts as read as you scroll down to them. Bloglines always marked an entire feed as read once you clicked on it, which was annoying when I'd read half a feed at home and want to read the rest at work (only while my code's compiling of course).

Having just tried Bloglines beta, I've gotta say it's a lot better. They've borrowed a lot from Google Reader (or if there was some other site Google Reader borrowed from, they both have borrowed heavily from it).

Bloglines still lacks a "read all new items in all feeds" button (or I can't find it). That feature in Google Reader has grown on me to the point that it's the only way I read feeds nowadays.

I may try switching between the two; see which one comes out on top.

8/27/2007 8:27 PM  

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