Explaining technology in words

February 28, 2008 – 1:54 pm

Julie Starr faced an interesting problem recently: how to explain RSS, aggregators, even Twitter to a room full of journalism students … without slides or a net connection. In attempting this, as she says, she “found a new respect for teachers this week”. As a recovering teacher (or, as we’re called when companies pay the bill and we have no pedagogic qualifications, trainer) I thought I’d give it a go.

The basic rule is that you start with what they already know and move out from there. So rather than starting with Twitter, I’d start with newspaper web sites …

You know how at the heart of a newspaper’s web site is a continuously-growing pile of stories, but there’s a lot of web site froufrou on top of it? I’m talking about how stories are separated into pages and pumped with ads and links to other parts of the site and all that bollocks. Well, modern web sites have a page (in a format that’s easy for computer programs to work with, called RSS) where they just list the new stories—none of the formatting gunk, just the stories. This is useful beyond newspaper sites. For example, a person’s homepage can show ‘the most recent photos I put on the photo web site Flickr’, getting the list of recent photos from my personal RSS page on Flickr. In short, RSS means “syndication” of content to other places and the bundle of new stories is called a “feed”.

Once you’ve got syndicated content, you can have “aggregators”–sites or programs that bring together the content from a number of different places. My favourite is Google Reader. You use Google Reader to subscribe to a bunch of different RSS feeds and it gives you an easy way to read those stories you’ve chosen to get. You could think of Google News as a personal newspaper, where all the stories come from the wires. You can keep up with Real News Sources, of course, but also bloggers and chat groups and all sorts of other useful sources.

Another way of keeping track of sources, particularly those that don’t have an RSS feed, is through Google Alerts. Google has data centers filled with computers whose sole job is to read the web, to visit every page and download its contents. You can tell Google “when you find a new page with this phrase in it, email me” and get an hourly, daily, or weekly digest of web sites featuring your target phrases. I have over 30 alerts for topics I’m following like “synthetic biology”, my own name, and the names of alpha geeks I follow like “Andy Baio”. It’s a good way for uncovering articles in blogs that you didn’t know previously existed.

You all know what blogs are, right? They started as online journals, where someone would post once or more a day and readers could come to see what was new in their lives. Blog posts are often quite long (there’s no upper limit on size), with photographs and what have you. Consequently they can take a long time to write and have moved away from being places where you just dash out thoughts.

Twitter has become that place. It’s a web site that asks “what are you doing now?” You reply, in 140 characters or less, and it posts that for others to read (140 is the maximum length of a text message, and you can SMS in your “tweets” too). You can “follow” other people and your Twitter home page shows the recent tweets from the people you follow. People use it for witty comments, for life updates, for chitchat. The idea is you have the page open and it refreshes every minute or so and you see what’s new in your friends lives. Useful if, as is my case, you’re on the other side of the world from your friends. Twitter sounds a lot of work and a waste of time, but it’s designed to be as easy as possible to use and it has a remarkably emotional commitment; you can close the window and work, or leave your computer for two hours for lunch, and nobody complains that you’re not Twittering any more. Newspapers such as the Dom Post and others are experimenting with putting their feeds of new stories onto Twitter (so people can follow the Dom Post and be told when new stories go online).

To summarize: Alerts mail you for new pages, RSS feeds encapsulate new content on a particular site, Google Reader lets you subscribe to feeds and build your own personal newspaper, and Twitter forms real-time connections between people and/or services.

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