Explaining Blogs and RSS: A Primer

It’s surprising how it’s still difficult to tell, rather than show, people what blogs and RSS are. I’ve struggled with the explanation for a long time. Today, I have a new approach. thanks to David Maister.
Maister, one of the leading authorities on professional services management, generously and graciously mentioned me and a conversation we had as he started blogging in his excellent “Blawg Review” post yesterday.
One of the coolest aspects of blogging for me is that I occasionally get contacted by people whose work I have long admired. I’m one of the biggest fans of bloggers. I was thrilled when David got in touch and asked to talk because I had been reading his books and articles for years. What I remember most from the call was the wise advice he gave me, and the simple fact that it is much easier to talk to people for the first time when you’ve read and admired their work. That’s in part why bloggers seem to easily make friends with each other – there’s an earned respect that comes from reading each other’s work.
As an aside, David’s blog had one of the fastest speeds from zero to “must read” that I’ve ever seen for a blog. He has excellent content and a great podcast too.
His post got me thinkiing about blogging and RSS, and the difficulty in explaining it in words to people who are unfamiliar with the concepts.
It’s easy to show people a half-dozen or so blogs so that they get the idea – “posts,” “reverse chronological order,” et al. I’ve long maintained that if you have have 30 seconds to show people how RSS feeds work in news aggregators, they’ll know right then whether it’s something that they absolutely must have or whether it’s not useful to them. There’s little middle ground.
However, the short description still evades us. As many of you know, I like to explain blogs in terms of effects rather than technology. I say, a blog is “an online newspaper or magazine column without the newspaper or magazine.” To people who have maintained web pages for a long time, it’s useful to describe blogs in terms of a lightweight, easy-to-use content management system that lets you concentrate on content without hassling with HTML.
J.D. Lasica has famously described RSS as “news that comes to you.” Lasica’s article was one of the main motivators for me to get my blog launched. The phrase is at the same brilliantly concise and quite vague for people who have not seen or used a news aggregator. After all, doesn’t all news come to you? It reminds me of the Macintosh’s (or iPod’s) famous “intuitiveness.” Well, yes, it is intuitive, once someone shows you how it works the first time. I remember being befuddled the first time I tried a Mac (many years ago) before someone explained the notion of “double-clicking.”
David Maister’s post reminded me that I often think of blogging in terms of the benefits of it, not the technology or a precise definition.
Here’s the way I propose that you think about blogs and RSS, especially if you are new to this medium.
1. Blogs. Blogs allow you to read in one place the regular (often daily) writing of many of the best thinkers, experts and authorities in subject matters you care about or would like to know more about. (That’s why I often describe them as “columns.”) For example, in the past, I might have read a book by David Maister when it was published or found an article if I happened to subscribe to a magazine in which he published. If he had a newsletter, I might have subscribed (or my firm might have a subscription that was routed to me). My contact with his work was sporadic and had a hit-or-miss quality.
With a blog, the work and thinking of people I admire is now available on a regular, often everyday basis, in one convenient place. For free. There’s a certain informality to the form and often blogs have the feeling of being an email from a friend (more about that topic in another post to come). It’s that everydayness and the opportunity for opening a conversation that distinguish blogs from other forms of communication. They also give you a chance to see people you admire discuss a variety of topics (often “off-topic” in terms of their specialities) – a fabulous learning opportunity.
Think of blogs in terms of easy and regular access to the thinking of the best minds on the subjects of highest interest to you.
2. RSS. There is an abundance of riches in the world of blogs. You can find hundreds of blogs that interest you and even if you limit yourself to the leading authorities in your niche areas, you may still find yourself visiting a good number of blogs. It’s takes time and effort. You either have to remember URLs or manage bookmarks and favorites. Do you start your day by visiting a bunch of blogs? What if a blogger hasn’t posted something new that day? A benefit of the reverse chronological order of blogs is that you can see quickly whether there is something new on a blog.
What if . . . you didn’t have to visit each of those blogs individually everyday?
Here’s where RSS and news aggregators come in. You can explore the technology later. For now, think in terms of the effects and benefits.
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.
Thanks, David, for the mention (and the excellent and useful post), for giving me much to think about, and for inspiring me to come up with a new way to explain blogs and RSS.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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