October 13, 2004

Bloglines, Flickr, and del.icio.us make RSS delectable

Author: Philip J. Hollenback

Everyone's talking about RSS feeds these days, but sometimes it's unclear how you can use RSS to do anything useful. I've been experimenting with RSS for quite some time, and I've discovered an interesting combination of tools that let you become productive with RSS.

A quick RSS primer

RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on who you ask, is nothing more than a standardized way to poll Web sites for data. You give an application called a newsreader or an aggregator a list of RSS feeds for various Web sites. The newsreader contacts each Web site on a regular basis and downloads a feed. If any new items show up, the newsreader displays them. Thus instead of having to go to each Web site you are interested in to see what has changed, the newsreader collects all the changes in one place. This makes keeping up with what's changing on your favorite Web sites much easier.

On a news site, an RSS feed might contain all the current headlines along with a short summary for each. On a blog, the RSS feed usually contains the author's recent postings, or at least a summary of each post. Typically the individual items in a feed are called articles. Any sort of data which is updated on Web sites can be exported as RSS feeds, including, for example, Web site searches; this is a completely unappreciated feature of Craigslist, by the way.

To keep things interesting, there are numerous incompatible RSS specifications, such as RSS .90, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, and Atom. Luckily, most modern newsreader software understands all the different versions. All you need to do is look for a button or label that says "RSS" or "Atom" or "Syndicate This" on a Web site. Copy the link that button points to into your newsreader and you are ready to go.

Bloglines

There are various standalone newsreader programs available for pretty much any computing platform. Some are quite good, but they all share the same flaw: information about what feeds you subscribe to and which articles you have read stays on your individual computer. What if you use the Web both at home at at work? How do you synchronize your feed-reading experience?

(At this point some of you are saying, "Hey, what about this SuperNewsReaderPro I use on my Mac? It can save your settings on a server so you can synchronize usage on another system!" While it is true that some standalone newsreaders have this feature, it only works with the same software on each system. What if your office system is Linux and your home machine is a Mac? You're out of luck.)

Enter Bloglines. It solves the problem by being completely Web-based. Instead of entering your feeds into a program running on your system, you go to www.bloglines.com, sign up for a free account, and read your feeds there. It doesn't matter what system you use -- as long as it has a relatively modern Web browser, you can access Bloglines. If you install the Firefox/Mozilla Bloglines extensions or the Bloglines bookmarklet in your browser you can subscribe to a feed with one click. Bloglines will be happy to recommend feeds to you as well.

Last month Bloglines announced Bloglines Web Services, a mechanism for other programs to
access Bloglines data. That means that instead of your standalone news reader querying each individual feed, it will now be able to get them through Bloglines, via your Bloglines account. Thus in the future it is very likely that even when you use a standalone newsreader, you will be using Bloglines anyway, and you'll be able to seamlessly switch between a newsreader and Bloglines.

Photo sharing the RSS way

Once you've gotten comfortable with Bloglines, check out Flickr, a site dedicated to easy Web photo sharing. As you upload pictures to Flickr, you add descriptive keyword tags to them. You can later search on tags to find groups of photos. By default all pictures are public, so a Flickr search returns all your photos tagged "newyork" as well as all the photos others have tagged "newyork." Collections of photos on Flickr are collectively known as photostreams. Here's a sample Flickr photostream.

What does this have to do with RSS, you ask? The answer is that every photostream has a corresponding RSS feed listed at the bottom of each photostream page under "Feeds." For instance, the RSS feed for the previous example is http://flickr.com/services/feeds/photos_public.gne?tags=graffiti&format=rss_200.

Since these are RSS feeds, you can read them with Bloglines. To test this, simply create a new subscription in Bloglines with the URL above. Every time someone posts a photo tagged "graffiti" it will appear in your bloglines. Remember that Bloglines keep track of the articles you have already seen, so you will only see the images posted since the last time you checked. You can see the most popular tags on Flickr and search all tags on the Flickr tag browser page.

Flickr includes some of the social networking aspects of Friendster or Orkut. When you sign up for Flickr, you can designate other members as contacts. Then, Flickr will show you your contacts' photos as they post them. That is a very cool way to keep up with your cameraphone-toting buddies. Naturally, there is an RSS feed for your contacts. Just use the feed URL from the Photos from your contacts page on Flickr and subscribe to it in Bloglines. Now, every time you check your subscriptions with Bloglines, you will automatically see what your friends have been taking pictures of as well. Obviously you need a Flickr account to use that last feed (so Flickr knows who you are), but any of the other Flickr feeds are freely available.

A few notes on Flickr: first, it is still in beta. While it works well, the site does go down from time to time. Second, the free Flickr membership is limited to 10MB of picture uploads a month. That's a lot of little cameraphone pictures, but only a handful of full-size digital camera photos. If you are using a "real" digital camera, you should scale down the pictures before uploading them. Also, you can only see your last 100 uploaded pictures (older pictures are stored but not accessible unless you upgrade your account).

The real power of Flickr is available if you upgrade to a Pro account for $60 per year. The Pro account has an upload limit of 1GB per month, and gives you access to your original full-size images. When you upload pictures to Flickr, they are automatically scaled to a variety of sizes for display. The largest size you can access with a free account is 640x480 pixels. If you have a Pro account, your original image remains available. This makes Flickr a great place to archive all your digital images, not just ones you plan on sharing with others.

Bookmarks the easy way

If you like Flickr, you might wish someone had developed a similar service for Web bookmarks. Like everyone else, I have saved many bookmarks in my browsers over the years, only to forget I'd ever saved them. Except for the couple of bookmarks you might put on your bookmark toolbar, they're often too hard to find and use.

The solution is del.icio.us, a Web site that serves as a communal bookmark organizer. Every time you find a Web site you might want to visit in the future, throw it in del.icio.us. Just as with Flickr, you tag each link with a set of keywords. There are a variety of ways to bookmark sites, including a Firefox extension which makes it as simple as right-clicking on a Web page and choosing Bookmark with del.icio.us.

Unfortunately, again, that only works with Firefox or Mozilla. I use Safari on Mac OS X at home, so the other bookmarking tool I use quite often is the del.icio.us bookmarklet. This works the same way as the Bloglines bookmarklet. You create a bookmark on your bookmark bar containing the bookmarklet JavaScript. Then, whenever you find a page you want to store for later, click on the bookmarklet link and fill in a few fields.

The real power of both Flickr and de.icio.us come from the concept of tagging. Tags are nothing more that free-form keywords. I typically tag my del.icio.us bookmarks with three to six words. For example, I tagged my bookmark for betterPropaganda.com (a free and legal MP3 download service) with audio mp3 songs web. Del.icio.us keeps track of all my tags for me, and I can search on any of my tags. Thus at some time in the future if I forget what that Web site was where I downloaded all the songs, I could check all my sites tagged mp3 or songs and probably find it quickly, based on general categories. For other examples of how to use tags, look at what a couple of del.icio.us power users, such as Merlin Mann (who runs the 43 Folders blog) and Jon Udell (software developer and author of Jon's Radio), are doing.

Del.icio.us allows everyone to see everyone else's tags and bookmarks. As you would expect from the people that created Flickr, everything is exposed via RSS. Thus you can view all links with a particular tag in del.icio.us as a feed in Bloglines (or any other newsreader, of course).

By tracking how many people are adding particular URLs, del.icio.us can provide a list of most popular bookmarks, and of course there is an RSS feed for that page too. This is a fantastic feed to subscribe to in Bloglines because it gives an insight into what everyone is thinking about at a given moment -- a shared consciousness, if you want to think
of it that way.

Merlin Mann developed a creative technique for using del.icio.us. He suggested that everyone who reads his blog post links about Mac OS X programs which have text interfaces on del.icio.us and tag them macosxcli. I and a number of others followed that advice, and all of a sudden, we had created a shared information repository. Anyone can search del.icio.us for that tag and see our shared recommendations and ideas. Anyone can do this with any group of friends or colleagues and instantly pool their resources.

People are extending del.icio.us in all sorts of interesting ways. One extension that I like is the pasta text-clipping service. Pasta acts as an way to insert arbitrary text into del.icio.us. You can go to the pasta site and enter any text you want in a Web form. When you click on Submit, pasta creates a page on the cantbedone.org Web site containing your text and automatically posts it to del.icio.us. Thus you can not only bookmark Web sites, you can bookmark any sort of text. Remember of course that all of this is completely open to the entire Internet, so you probably don't want to post your credit card numbers in pasta. By extension, I would advise against posting bookmarks to things like your bank's Web site in del.icio.us.

Conclusion

The strength of RSS is how it acts as glue to bind Web services together.  There's no doubt that sites such as Bloglines, Flickr, and del.icio.us are each useful on their own. However, once you tie them together with RSS you create a powerful way to manage information on the Internet.

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