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Use a Feed Aggregator [Grind Skills]

RSS Logo Drawn In The Sand
Creative Commons License photo credit: kiewic

New to Grind Skills? See this post first.

Grind Skill Brief — If you regularly visit blogs, news portals, or other dynamic websites (This means you), you need to be using some form of feed aggregator to consolidate the content of all your favorite sites into one, manageable place. If you aren’t already doing this, you are wasting time and energy and simultaneously failing to keep up with the topics and ideas that interest you most. Even worse, you’re missing out on powerful means of learning knew ideas and knowledge. If you need a feed aggregator, Google Reader is free and incredibly easy to set up for existing Google (Gmail) account holders.

The Details — What is RSS / Atom? Simply put, they are two forms of XML coding websites use to syndicate content. Content syndication empowers Internet users to subscribe to a site through XML aggregating software — the aforementioned “feed aggregator” — without using clunky, cluttered email. Feed aggregators virtually eliminate the need to physically visit (As in, load in your Internet browser) your “must-read” websites. They check for the latest site updates on your behest, pull the entirety of content from whatever websites you want, and then dump all the newest, unread posts into an inbox-like format for your easy reading digestion.

By way of an example, there are nearly 70 websites to which I currently subscribe using Google Reader, my feed aggregator of choice. If I didn’t use a feed reader, I would have to try and remember all 70 sites I’m tracking and then visit every one of those sites numerous times per day to accomplish the same task that my feed aggregator has already accomplished every time I login. The Grind Skill angle should be obvious: a feed aggregator is technology makes you more efficient and effective at doing the things you want to do.

Google Reader — I am not an expert on all of the various feed aggregators out there and would be interested in hearing about any feed aggregators that readers have found particularly useful. I like Google Reader because it has an intuitive interface that allows you to search for feeds, categorize them into common groups, fluidly scan through the latest posts by site or category, tag content, search your feeds, email posts (this functionality taps your Gmail address book to auto fill email addresses), “star” content, and use hot keys to navigate around. You can even share posts with other Google Reader users with which you have had regular contact (More on this feature below). Because Google Reader is web-based, it requires no software and can even be accessed on your mobile device. If your browser supports Google Gears, you can even get setup to take your feeds offline for reading when you don’t have Internet access.

If you need to get setup on Google Reader go to http://reader.google.com and login with your Google/Gmail account. From there, click on the button at the top left that says “Add a subscription.” From there, you can search for sites by domain name, keyword, etc. and a list of possible matches will be returned. Alternatively for instantly adding subscriptions, if you see an RSS icon on a website, which typically looks like this symbol sans wings:


You can try it by right-clicking the linked icon above, copying the linked address, which is the Feedburner feed for all Justin Owings blogs, and paste that address into the “Add a subscription” dropbox and hit “Add.” Done!

Feed Aggregators Accelerate Learning — Beyond the immense time-savings you’ll realize from the feed aggregator grind skill, there is a less-obvious benefit, which is making you smarter: feed aggregators accelerate learning through focusing your curiosity while enabling you to take advantage of the work others’ put into reading their own feeds.

Curiosity is a precursor to learning. I am a curious cat, and my curiosity often leads to seemingly random pursuits of ideas and knowledge. These pursuits are exciting and of high interest to me, which is why I’m so likely to internalize and gain knowledge from them. However, just as my curiosity is unplanned and spontaneous, it is practically impossible to keep track of. A feed aggregator manages the human element, my forgetfulness and lack of focus, and “remembers” my interests for me. Even more impressive in the case of Google Reader, is that my aggregator suggests other feeds I might find worth reading by intuiting my interests from my existing subscriptions.

The other way a feed aggregator can accelerate learning may be particular to Google Reader and that is via shared items. Google allows you to broadcast items in your feed aggregator that you found particularly interesting, insightful, funny or otherwise worth noting. Your friends (as determined by your Gmail contacts) who use Google Reader will see your shared items and vice versa.

The power of shared items is twofold. First, there’s a reasonable probability that the individuals you regularly contact share some common interests with you. But with every Venn Diagram, there are certain interests your friends share that are either of no interest to you or have yet to be discovered by you. In this latter category lies an additional avenue for finding ideas or insightful posts that you may otherwise have never found! Furthermore, like you, your friends are scouring countless blogs but only “sharing” a small fraction of the content they read. This tiny fraction, the cream of the feed crop, has a high probability of containing novel or interesting ideas.

In short, not only do feed aggregators save you time but they can expose you to ideas and knowledge that make you smarter.

Update 3/12/09 10:02 AM: I just learned that you can now comment on shared items within Google Reader. This feature was just released yesterday. Comments are only visible to friends using Google Reader (for now). This is cool in that previously you could only write brief notes on shared items. Google Reader just keeps getting better!

Note — Presently, if you’re looking for a particular Google Reader user’s shared items, you have to find a link to where that user makes his or her shared items public. I make my shared items public at Justin Owings Google Reader Shared Items. You can also find links to the ten most recent posts on the front page of this site.

Grind Skills Reading

If you have questions or comments about this grind skill, please comment below or contact me!

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The Power of Blogging (On why I blog)

March 13
photo credit: the name is Josh

Blogging, which I define as published informal writing, makes me happy. I blog because I enjoy it. Why do I find blogging so fulfilling? Briefly, blogging provides me with a creative outlet to focus my thinking and share my ideas and interests with others. Even as these are sufficient reasons to blog, there are certain particulars of blogging that make it absurdly powerful, and this post attempts to get at these reasons.

What is so powerful about blogging?

Blogging enables me to write about whatever I want. I can write about the particulars of property rights, ideas for workout routines, the consequences of holding a certain belief, or how best to apply an understanding of human evolution to modern life. I can blog about my personal doings or the book I just finished reading. The informality of blogging provides an enormous amount of creative freedom to speak my mind. This freedom caters to my tendency towards boredom with overspecialization. It allows me to jump from subject to subject as often as I choose.

Seth Roberts described this purpose of blogging wonderfully in a recent comment: “[blogging] allows us to talk about whatever we want without fear of boring our listeners.” With blogging there is little fear of rejection and an empowering feeling of control. Label it “narcisistic” if you want, does it really matter? Blogging provides such a fantastic creative outlet that it is a worthwhile pursuit for this reason alone.

Blogging focuses my curiosity and clarifies my thinking. Putting my thoughts into writing requires a “good enough” understanding of a concept for my written explanation to successfully transfer the idea to others (including me at future date). This put-it-in-writing induced constraint helps clarify my thinking and can also aid my memory. Somewhat related to clarified thought, blogging provides an end-product for my curiosity. Whereas a random interest in parkour may mean running any number of Google queries on the subject only to be done with it, the add-on of blogging creates a deliverable: I can jot down my findings for future reference and produce something tangible and useful from what would otherwise be a passing curiosity.

Blogging results in the mass production of ideas. Creating a blog is cheap, which means that anyone can do it (See below for how). Since bloggers have the power to write whatever they want, an enormous amount of writing is generated. Of course, most of these blog posts will be quickly written and forgotten. And many (if not most) of the ideas generated by bloggers will be duds. Regardless, the raw abundance of ideas presented through blogs is one of the prevailing strengths of the medium. This is because the ideas captured in blog posts are public.

Blogs, whether written anonymously or otherwise, are a means for publishing writing. Whatever I blog about is almost instantly assimilated into the vast bounty of information that is the Internet. Once published, blog posts can be searched and linked. Thanks to search, similarly interested individuals can find my writings and I can find theirs. The public nature of blogging thereby prevents both good and bad ideas from obscurity. Bad ideas are subject to correction from reader feedback. Good ideas are made better by the same. Public discourse on blogs occurs via two pathways. The more basic of the two is that readers are allowed to comment on my blog directly. The alternative, and potentially more powerful pathway is by indirect feedback on a fellow blogger’s site that is hyperlinked to my site.

The resultant combination of blogging and linking is volatile: hyperlinks are the oxygen off which the best blogs thrive. Whether it is simply another blogger sending readers to my site via a blogroll link (a sort of blanket “seal of approval”), linking to a specific post, or through submission of blog posts to the virtual watercooler, social bookmarking sites like reddit, twitter, digg, stumbleupon, del.icio.us or facebook, hyperlinks can provide an immense amount of exposure. Of course, the more linked a blog becomes, the more likely it is to be linked: hyperlinks tend to follow a power law distribution. This means that a blog post containing a good idea (or a good blog generally) has the potential to spread virally. It is through being linked that an idea can go from obscurity to widespread consideration in a very brief time.

Perhaps one of the greatest powers of blogging is how all of the above characteristics provide me with a “home” in the Blogosphere. When I write, even as I do it for my own benefits, the writing is done within a community. Random ideas no longer need to stagnate within my mind: I can publish them on my blog and share them with others who are want to hear what I have to say. I contribute to this community in my own peculiar way, blogging on whatever strikes my fancy. I keep tabs on my neighbors by visiting their sites and subscribing to their feeds. Through this community ideas are freed to germinate, mutate, evolve, or cross-fertilize with each other, producing results that can scarcely be predicted but are almost always eye-opening and sometimes even world-changing.

Indeed, that is the benefit of living in any community, in real space or online. Communities provide the potential for fortuitous opportunities — luck, in other words. That’s why we choose to live with and near other human beings. Its why civilization exists. To share, trade, create, and profit from the resulting opportunities. The main difference between communities in real space and those online is that real space communities tend to be set up based on geographical proximity to your neighbors. In a way, proximity still reigns supreme in the blogosphere; however, it’s the proximity of minds, ideas, and intellect. Blogging eliminates physical barriers to intellectual commerce; as a result, more transactions occur and better ideas and communities are created.

It is for all of these reasons that blogging is one of the most dynamic aspects of the Internet. It is changing the way we learn and the speed at which we create and record knowledge. Despite this immense power, most don’t realize the huge upside potential to maintaining little more than a public journal. The reality is that they don’t have to — like me, most bloggers start blogging because they think they’ll enjoy it, and of course, most do. That the practice results in countless other benefits? Bonus.

Do you have a blog? If not, consider setting one up.

Blogging is nothing more than writing down your thoughts and publishing them. Yet doing so can change your life for the better in ways that you can’t currently predict. Anyone can set up a blog for free using services like blogger, livejournal, or wordpress dot com. If you’re feeling more industrious, you can secure your own webhosting, buy a domain name, and work through setting up a wordpress dot org or b2evolution installation. It’s really not all that hard and probably worth the effort if you want to make the most off your productive efforts. However, if you’re a bit intimidated to go this route, just pursue the free versions — you’ve got very little to lose by starting up a blog, and as I’ve illustrated above, a great deal to gain.