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For me, RSS is second only to search on my list of the most useful web applications.

RSS is neither difficult nor particularly "high tech" once you wrap your head around the basic concept of what it does. RSS provides a visually easy way to scan a lot of different websites as they update. This increases the number of sites you can read and has the added benefit of only bringing a website to your attention only when something on it changes. For example, whenever anyone joins this Ning community, my RSS Reader updates and lets me know we have a new member. Any website can have an RSS feed, but typically people use RSS to track websites that update their content several times a day, sites like digg.com or the The New York Times. Alternatively, you can use RSS to alert you when sites that don't update frequently finally do without you having to check the site itself every day. An example of the latter would be an interesting blogger who only posts once a week or so.

RSS can also do some other really neat tricks like automatically searching for blogs about a particular topic or searching for bit torrent files (the most efficient way of distributing very large files on the web) or keeping tack of podcasts. But you don't need to do any of that fancy stuff. Most people - myself included - use RSS mainly as a way to create my own custom "newspaper."

Aside from knowing what RSS is supposed to do, the only terms you need to understand are Reader (sometimes called an Feed Aggregator or News Reader) and Feed. A Reader the way you see content, and a Feed is the actual data stream coming from the website your reading. There have been several types of Feeds through the years, and in the past this has caused some confusion and incompatibility, but those problems are (almost all) in the past now. Pretty much any Reader can present pretty much any type of feed nowadays.

Readers themselves come in two flavors: web based and stand alone. Web based readers, like Yahoo!'s, "live" on the web and you access them with your web browser. The main advantage of using a web based Reader is that you can see your RSS content from any computer anywhere. The downside is that web based Readers typically don't have the advanced features that stand alone ones do. Conversely, while a stand alone reader will often have, for example, more advanced searching and subscription features than a web based one, because it's an actual program that "lives" on your computer, you have to be at your computer to use RSS.

My personal preference is for web based Readers (Google's in particular), but I'm some power users l have known use super tricked-out custom, stand alone readers. A web based browser will probably be an easier place to start if you've never used RSS before. That said, if you're an advanced Outlook or Mail user, both those mail clients have very good built in feed Readers, so you might want to consider using them as you'll already be familiar with the interface.

This post is getting much longer than I intended, so I'll leave the further discussion on how to use particular Readers for another day (or perhaps defer to more experienced and erudite members.) Perhaps other people would like to talk about their particular RSS reader preferences in additional posts?

For now, I'll assume that you actually have a reader: an easy way to use your RSS reader to monitor this Ning site is to go to the main page and click on the RSS icon at the bottom of the right column labeled "Latest Activity." That will create a feed that updates whenever anyone does anything on this site. Don't worry, the updates are very brief, just headlines.

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