Aggregator Bliss
How a new tool has changed my life.

My friend and former co-worker Andrew has been preaching the about the possibilities of RSS, syndication, BitTorrent and aggregators and more for a year or two now. He wrote an essay if you'd like to read much more about this stuff -- but much of this will appeal mainly to publishers at this point. That's not what I'm not writing about today. I'm writing only about the aggregator.

I'm addicted to my aggregator now. An aggregator is software that periodically requests short summaries of recently updated news or other content from web sites that I specify and shows me what's new since I last looked. That's quite a mouthful.


Let me explain how this has changed the way I surf. Before I started using an aggregator, my surfing worked like this:

  1. Click on a bookmark for
  2. Wait for the site to load.
  3. See if there's anything new.
  4. Read everything new.
  5. Repeat for 7-10 other sites which I visited daily, plus 15-20 I would check less frequently.
Now, I tell my aggregator which sites I want to monitor and it handles steps 1,2,3, and 5 above. The aggregator shows me at a glance what's new and I read just the new stuff. Usually the site just gives a brief overview of the new articles -- if I want to read more, I click through to the site.

Behind the scenes, the aggregator periodically grabs a special file from each site that has the summary of new articles, content, or other items in RSS format ("Really Simple Syndication" or "Rich Site Summary"). This RSS file, also known as a feed or a channel, has basic information for each item such as the title, the date and time, a short summary, a link back to the site for the full artile, and perhaps the author and a list of categories. The aggregator then compares what you've already read to the new RSS file to determine what's new for you.

You may see aggregators also referred to as "News Readers". This is decently accurate as well, but I prefer aggregator since much of what I read using it wouldn't necessarily qualify as "news".


Aggregators let you group your feeds. My current categories are News, Tech, Friends, Java, Stuff (aka "Toys"), Tools, Work, and Drivel. Most of those should be self-explanatory. Let me elaborate on the last three.

In my "Tools" category, I have feeds from Blogger, Mozilla, gaim and other sites of software tools I use. I rarely visit their sites because I already use their tools and updates are rare. By adding their news feeds to my aggregator, I get news about updates in a more timely manner.

My "Work" category utilizes the automated RSS feed from tools such as Atlassian's Confluence and JIRA which we use for documentation and bug tracking respectively. This could also be useful for updates in source code versioning systems (such as CVS or SourceSafe). There's already a project which supports this, but I haven't tried it... yet.

The "Drivel" category covers those weblogs that are less inherently useful (and some which border on navel contemplation). I actually enjoy a few of these. Somehow, Dave Barry's weblog didn't fit anywhere else. (This category is populated entirely with content I wouldn't qualify as "news".)

With this degree of categorization, I gain two things:

  1. I can focus my surfing as appropriate for where I am, what my priorities are, and for how much time I have to catch up.
  2. I can satisfy my innate, but somewhat twisted, need to absorb ever more information by being able to add more and more feeds while still being able to manage it all.

As you can tell by my list of categories, this isn't just for techies. In addition to web logs (aka "blogs") for any interest, many traditional news organizations are now providing RSS feeds. Here are four links to lists of available feeds:

More generally, take note of web pages which have a little orange icon like this . Other sites may have icons that say "RSS" or just text links. There are also directories of RSS feeds such as Feedster, but I've had enough luck just subscribing to sites I already visit.


Subscribe with Bloglines The aggregator I use most is Bloglines. It's web based -- they store my preferences on their site and I can access my news from any computer with a browser and internet access. I've been using Bloglines almost exclusively lately -- partially because I was on vacation and didn't know what computers I'd have access to and partially because I can use it easily at home or at work.

As an added bonus, their site is smart enough to recognize mobile devices and delivers a trimmed down, yet still functional site which is friendly to low-resolution, small screen, slow bandwidth devices -- like my Treo 600. The list of feeds looks something like this and when you follow a link to read some news, you read it like this. Note that this second example is showing a sample of my "Stuff" category, but only two of the sources have new content and so only those are shown. 1

There are plenty of other aggregators to choose from. There are standalone programs that run on your computer (Windows, Mac, Linux, and undoubtedly more) which have a richer user interface than a web based tool and can be used offline. The ones I hear most about are SharpReader (Win), Radio UserLand (Win/Mac, more than just an aggregator), FeedDemon (Win) and BlogMatrix Jager (Win).

Another way to look into aggregator choices is by following the links above for the news organizations' feeds. Alongside their list of RSS feeds, these sites have introductory RSS articles of their own.


Different aggregators display the feeds in different ways. For example, Radio Userland shows all new content in a single window ordered chronologically (screenshot), SharpReader splits the feed names, item titles and item bodies into three panes (screenshot)and FeedDemon lets you group your feeds to show the headlines all on a big newspaper like display (screenshot).

With this sort of variation, it's good to try more than one. The good news is that you can build up your feed subscriptions and move the list from one to another. All aggregators that I've tried support reading and writing subscriptions in a standard format, OPML.

In addition to offering flexibility when test driving aggregators, this also allows you to maintain the same subscriptions between different locations or for sharing your subscriptions (all or part) with others.

To help you get started, I'm going to do just that. If you download this example OPML file, you can import this into just about any aggregator. This is a trimmed down list of my subscriptions as of early October 2004. With this, you'll get a mix of feeds organized into the categories I described above. Delete some of the techie feeds, add more feeds, change categories, go crazy.


Of course, aggregators aren't for everybody. When I asked MarkD, another friend and former co-worker, if he uses an aggregator, his reply was "Nope. I kind of like the endlessly clicking around and seeing the personality of the individual sites. But I'm a really fast clicker-upper."

1 These examples weren't taken directly from my handheld, but rather using Firefox using the User Agent Switcher Extension to mimic the Treo's browser.

Doug Harris - Cognitive Overflow