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RSS Resources You Can Use: Automated Web Surfing for Lawyers

November 2006

You've heard the term. You've seen the RSS icon. Now you're ready to use RSS but you are still not sure how it works. Mighell and Kennedy will help you get started with this brief overview on how RSS resources will make your Web surfing more manageable.

We write and speak quite a bit about weblogs, and how they are changing the way people communicate on the Internet.  But as Dennis likes to say, "weblogs are the side show; RSS is the main event."  Indeed, if you are not finding a way to incorporate RSS technology into your online research toolkit, you are missing out on an amazingly powerful resource. 

We first wrote about RSS feeds and newsreaders in an article on LLRX.com more than three years ago. Our presentation on RSS feeds and newsreaders at ABA TECHSHOW 2005 was the first national presentation on the topic to lawyers that we know about. Much has changed over the last few years, but RSS and newsreaders are still very new topics and many lawyers are not familiar with them and the benefits they bring.

In this month's column, we'll cover the RSS phenomenon from a couple of different angles:  an introduction to those of you who don't know what it's all about, some basic resources for the RSS beginner, and some advanced tools for those of you who have been ahead of the RSS curve all along.

RSS:  What is It?

First, a little technical background. RSS feeds are simple XML documents that "package" content for easy distribution and may contain text, images and even media files. RSS feeds are also referred to as "Web Feeds," which Wikipedia says "are designed to be machine-readable rather than human-readable, which tends to be a source of confusion when people first encounter web feeds. This means that web feeds can also be used to automatically transfer information from one Web site to another, without any human intervention".

Depending on who you talk to, the acronym RSS stands for a couple of different things:  Really Simple Syndication and Rich Site Summary are the most commonly used.  For a good, technical definition of the term, check out Wikipedia on RSS, and the above-mentioned Web Feeds definition.  Tom's favorite new description of RSS comes from RSS the Oprah Way, which describes RSS as "I'm Ready for Some Stories!"  If you're looking for a more visual way of understanding RSS and how to use it, we both agree that the RSS Tutorial for Law Librarians tutorial webcast is a great place to start.  Even though it's designed for law librarians, anyone can benefit from the content.

Although blogs and RSS feeds are often mentioned together, it's critical to note that, although most blogs have an RSS feed, you can have a blog without an RSS feed and an RSS feed without a blog.  In fact, thousands of non-blog Web sites are using RSS to deliver the latest news to their readers -- the New York Times, ESPN, and even the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals are just a few examples of Web sites with RSS feeds.

When you find an RSS feed, you consume it by "subscribing" to it. Many feeds let you "auto-discover" them. There is a familiar orange symbol that points you to RSS feeds, too. In a way, you simply "bookmark" the URL for the feed and new items posted to the blog or Web site automatically come to your newsreader.  To learn more about subscribing to RSS feeds, check out the RSS Tutorial for Law Librarians mentioned above.

What is RSS Good For?

Dave Winer, the individual most associated with RSS, has a three-word answer when asked what RSS is good for: "automated web surfing." This sums things up very well. He goes on to say, "It gets you more news for the time you put into using the Internet. If you don't want more news, then RSS is probably not for you. But if there are subjects that you are intensely interested in, and if the people covering the topics also offer the information in RSS, then your computer (or a Web site) can make web surfing a richer and perhaps more productive experience."

J.D. Lasica famously referred to RSS as "news that comes to you", and Jo Twist memorably compared RSS feeds to a sushi restaurant conveyor belt for content.  The idea of "syndication" of content is also key to understanding what RSS does.

Dennis recently wrote: "With RSS and a news aggregator, each of the new posts from the blogs I care about automatically appears on my computer in an organized, easy-to-read-and-manage way in a news aggregator or news reader. I don't have to go out to each blog individually. The new material from the bloggers I want to read, after I "subscribe" to the RSS feed, is available to me in one place at my fingertips. That's magical. And, as I've written before, it's what changes the world". Just a few years ago, Dennis also referred to RSS and news aggregation as world-changing technologies in his article that started with the line: "I knew the world had changed the first morning I checked my news aggregator before I checked my e-mail."

But Tom says, don't limit yourself to blogs; in Dennis's quote above, substitute the words "blogs" or "bloggers" for "Web sites," and understand that many fantastic information resources offer RSS feeds.  You don't have to be a blog reader to "get" RSS.

How many different ways might you use RSS? Take a look at this comprehensive and convincing list from Tim Yang.

Reading RSS:  Newsreaders

Once you better understand that RSS technology can enable you to receive regularly updated information on your computer with only one click of the mouse, you'll definitely want to find out the best way to read these feeds.  There are literally dozens of "newsreaders" available from which to choose; a fairly comprehensive list of these products can be found at this page of News Aggregators.

There are two types of newsreaders: the stand-alone using downloadable applications and the online readers.What's the difference in the two approaches? With an online reader, you need to be connected to the Internet to access your feed information. The stand-alone products download feed information and you can read them later when you are offline. Additionally, the world of news reading is changing in two important ways. First, news reader functionality is being integrated into the latest generation of the browsers, including Internet Explorer and Firefox. Second, we are also seeing hybrid approaches, with sites like NewsGator allowing an online reader to synch up with a stand-alone version.  Think carefully about how you will use a news reader to make a good decision about which approach will work best for you.

For several years, our advice to someone new to the world of newsreaders has been to start with an online reader, and Bloglines was our first choice. Tom is now recommending that new RSS users start out with the Google Reader, which makes subscribing to and reading RSS feeds extremely easy.  For those of you who use My Yahoo as your Internet start page or portal, you'll be pleased to know that it has its very own user-friendly RSS reader.

Once you have the hang of an online newsreader, you may be ready to graduate to the stand-alone version.  Why would you switch?  In a word, volume. As the number of feeds that you subscribe to increases, or if the best time for you to read feed items is when you are away from an Internet connection, you may well switch to a standalone reader. Our best guess is that if you find that your number of subscribed feeds reach 100 or more (surprisingly easier to do than you might think), standalone readers simply work better and easier. Standalone readers also give you some powerful management, search and other features that can be quite useful and valuable.

If you ask Dennis, he'd suggest that you start with the online news reader at NewsGator.com, because you can easily transition to NewsGator's standalone products -- NewsGatorfor Outlook (installs directly into your email program), FeedDemon and NetNewsWire for Macs. Tom agrees with that advice, because he uses both Newsgator Online as well as FeedDemon; however, he'd also recommend starting out with the Google Reader -- it's very easy to export your RSS feeds to a stand-alone product if you choose to go with one down the road.

Let's not forget the fact that your Web browser can also act as your newsreader.  With the debut of the new IE7 Browser Microsoft has incorporated an RSS reader directly into the browser, which may well become the typical RSS user's de facto newsreader.  Firefox has long offered an RSS reader with its browser product.  And if you really get into this RSS thing, check out LiteFeeds -- with this tool you can read your RSS news feeds on your cell phone or other mobile device.

Just a week before we wrote this article, CNET published an excellent article reviewing and comparing five popular RSS readers. FeedDemon was the highest-rated product in that article.

Finding RSS Feeds

You've reached this far in the article, and you're still interested in learning how RSS can deliver daily information to your desktop.  But you're probably wondering:  how do I find these RSS feeds in the first place?  There are a couple of ways to find them:

1.Look around your favorite Web sites for orange icons that will signify the presence of an RSS feed.  Many popular Web sites locate their various RSS feeds on a separate page; there should be a link to "RSS" or "RSS Feeds" from the RSS home page.

2.Try an RSS search engine or directory.  The sites we recommend include: Syndic8, NewsIsFree, and RSSMad.

3.Use the Auto-Discover feature of your newsreader.  Many newsreaders can "auto-discover" an RSS feed from a Web site, simply by scanning the site's URL for available feeds.

4.Create your own RSS feed for any site (see PonyFish, below).

Another Acronym to Remember - OPML

Dave Winer also gave us OPML, an outlining markup language that is especially useful when working with RSS. What if I have subscribed to a number of useful feeds and want to share them with Tom? Or what if I want to give you a nice set of useful starter feeds to populate your news reader. Most newsreaders let you export and import OPML files that simply and easily let you do that.

Generating Your Own RSS Feeds, and Other Advanced RSS Tools

Bloggers rarely give any thought to the actual process of creating RSS feeds anymore because blogging software tools (Movable Type, WordPress, TypePad, Blogger, et al) automatically create them for you. Dennis actually had an RSS feed for his Web site that he created by hand before he launched his blog.  But RSS is also a powerful tool for the non-blogger; in addition to subscribing to and reading RSS feeds for information important to you, RSS users can create their own feeds so that specific, customized information is delivered to them.  Here are a few sites that can help with that:

  • Feedgit -- this site allows you to create your own RSS feed from major news, blog, video, image, and other search tools.  Simply enter your keywords, select the type of RSS reader you use, and Feedgit generates an RSS feed from those keywords.  Just "subscribe" to that feed in your newsreader, and whenever your search terms appear on that particular site, you'll be instantly notified.
  • PonyFish -- does your favorite site lack an RSS feed?  With PonyFish it's not a problem.  Just plug in the URL of the site, click on the links you want to see when they are updated, and voila!  You're creating RSS feeds where none existed before!
  • FeedBlendr -- Tom has a number of feeds that search different sites for the same terms.  Rather than have all of those feeds, Tom uses FeedBlendr to combine them into a single feed.  Now, whenever his search terms are mentioned at any of these sites, he's notified through one unified feed.
  • FeedRinse -- those of you who are already using RSS may find that you get a lot more information than you anticipated.  FeedRinse can help with this, by applying a filter to your feeds.You can specify specific words or phrases (including profanity) that you don't want to see, and FeedRinse sends you only the stories you're interested in reading.
  • ReminderFeed -- you can also use RSS to remind you of important appointments, dates and deadlines.  ReminderFeed does just that, notifying you by RSS at the time you specify.
  • Rasasa -- if you're on the road and don't have access to your feeds, Rasasa can help.  It will forward your RSS headlines to your mobile phone if you're offline, or to your IM or e-mail programs if you're online.

Brian Satterfield's article " Easy Ways to Publish Your Own RSS Feeds" is a great place to start your research on this topic.

How Might Lawyers and Law Firms Use RSS Feeds?

Steve Matthews wrote a helpful article called "Top Ten Uses for RSS in Law Firms" that we highly recommend. In simplest terms, RSS opens a new channel of communication to clients and others that will increasingly be used. We're as enthusiastic about the potential (and reality) of RSS feeds as we were three years ago. If you haven't dipped into the world of RSS, there's no time like the present.

About the Author

Dennis Kennedy is a technology lawyer, legal technology consultant, and well-known blogger based in St. Louis, Missouri. An award-winning author and frequent speaker, Dennis has written extensively on the technology of electronic discovery and co-authors the "Thinking E-Discovery" column at DiscoveryResources.org. His website and blog are well-regarded resources on legal technology and electronic discovery topics. He is a member of the Council of the ABA's Law Practice Management Section and the Webzine Board.   He podcasts with Tom Mighell about legal technology, with a focus on the Internet, in The Kennedy-Mighell Report.

About the Author

Tom Mighell is Senior Counsel and Litigation Technology Support Coordinator a Cowles & Thompson in Dallas.  He publishes the Internet legal research and technology weblog Inter Alia , and is the current Chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2008.  He and Dennis Kennedy talk about legal technology, with a focus on the Internet, in The Kennedy-Mighell Report .