Or: how my experience of information, including this site, has been influenced by recent trends in web interaction. I’ve been using buzzwords without a proper explanation what they do, so here goes:
If you follow the “rss” link in the right-hand sidebar of this page, you will be presented with a page full of hairy XML code. This is not designed to be read directly by humans like you (assuming), but if you insert the link to that XML into a program called an RSS Aggregator, it is converted into a readable “feed”. There are various RSS Aggregators out there, including some web-based ones, so you don’t have to install software on your computer if that’s a problem: see the following blogspace page for some background and lists of readers.
The advantages of this approach are many, but the main one to me is attention conservation: if I change something on this page (like this new blog entry), or another feed changes, it is flagged as new, so you can read it in your Aggregator. Until that happens you don’t need to visit the site hosting the feed to check for updates. So, when I do this with multiple feeds – and I have dozens set up in FeedReader myself – I have access to updated information from many website sources, as it arrives, neatly categorized.
Depending on how you use RSS, you may find you prefer a “full text” feed, like this site provides: I let WordPress include the full text of each Blog entry. This works well if you read content offline, as I sometimes do on the iPaq (a process I’m currently re-examining). Other sites assume you have an internet connection available as you read, so they include only a headline, perhaps a short summary, and a link to a live site where you can read the rest. This is a choice made by the website owner, you have no control over it, but I find it affects what I read, or not. I always want a full-text feed – why not, for the little extra bandwidth involved?
For the last couple of months I’ve been enjoying Podcasts from various sources: but what is a Podcast? It is simply an audio file created by someone, and made available for download, usually in MP3 format.
What’s new about that? Hasn’t that been done for years? Yes, but what is new is the delivery mechanism: it piggybacks on to a RSS feed, as described above, with all the same advantages. It means that, if you want it, the MP3 file will be automatically downloaded and saved to your local disk, using an “enclosure” extension to the RSS standard.
Note that none of this actually requires an Apple iPod: Podcasting’s current popularity can be attributed to the success of the iPod, but it’s not required. I listen to Podcasts on my iPaq when commuting, and on my laptop at home, as I would with any MP3 file. iPods apparently have a mechanism by which MP3s dropped in a specified directory are automatically copied to the iPod: I just include the Podcast MP3s in the data I back up to take to and from work, and the iPaq reads them straight from the card. My PC Podcast client of choice is iPodder v2, which also comes in a Mac version, and the main Podcast directory is iPodder.org. That site also has a an explanation of the process: “what is podcasting?”.
The latest Podcasts are logged at audio.weblogs.com, but a nice place to start is with Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code, a semi-professional Podcast by a former radio DJ and MTV VJ, who produces an almost-daily show that comes close to radio, but with a more human side – bloopers, hardware problems, swearwords, his daughter wandering in and out – great fun. Because of the time-sensitive nature of RSS and Podcasting – new Podcasts are brought to your attention like RSS feed entries – there is a motivation for Podcasters to produce fresh new content regularly – which is part of the fun.
Since Podcasting uses RSS, why do we have separate RSS Aggregators and Podcast clients? Simplicity, probably: I tried out Egress for the iPaq, which did both at the same time, so we know it’s possible. I can see more such convergence coming in the future.
Next time I will talk a little about Tagging: a subject I am barely getting my head around. I know how it works, but the why is still a little unclear at this point. Later.