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Information overload is a common symptom for many professionals. Tapping into the internet has become more like a drenching from a fire hose, with huge volumes of data flooding in from disparate sources in various formats.

One way of emerging from beneath a wave of data is to establish a “feed”. This is what Really Simple Syndication – known as RSS – and newsreaders offer: an easy way to condense information into a digestible form.

RSS is a language designed to deliver frequent information updates to individuals. Users subscribe to the updates, or feeds, which can be thought of as a series of updates by the same author or authors.

In the early days of RSS, many feeds delivered weblogs. A blogger who had been updating his web page regularly might publish an RSS feed, so that people could quickly see his updates without visiting his web page.

Since then, however, the world of feeds has opened up, with many publications, including the Financial Times, offering RSS feeds. And with the introduction of RSS 2.0, which began in late 2002, it became possible to embed attachments in RSS data, so that publishers could deliver video and audio elements as well. This is how podcasting (essentially RSS with audio) began.

RSS has a long way to go according to Rebecca Jennings, a senior analyst at research company Forrester, who thinks that as few as 1 per cent of online European adults use RSS.

Perhaps the growing number of RSS-friendly software tools will help. These mean instead of having to visit tens of websites each day to keep abreast of information, desktop newsreader programs can be used to subscribe to feeds and regularly check for updates. The updates can then be displayed in the newsreader in a similar way to e-mail, enabling users to skim hundreds of headlines each day, with the aim of improving productivity.

Newsgator is one popular newsreader tool, which integrates with Microsoft’s Outlook to deliver RSS feeds directly into Outlook’s e-mail inbox. A sister tool called FeedDemon, which Newsgator acquired, delivers feeds into a dedicated reader program, separately from e-mail.

Although few people are consuming RSS, some companies are creating services based on it. PubSub, for example, is a web service that scans weblogs and online newsgroups, creating custom RSS feeds based on a user’s search terms and delivering the information to that user’s RSS feed as it appears online. A marketing executive might create a custom feed in PubSub using a company’s name as a search term, for example.

“Later this year we’ll pick up a lot more sources of information,” says co-founder Bob Wyman, “They’ll include everything from tickets for sale through to sports information, weather, and more financial information. We will also allow people to tell us ‘here’s a feed to monitor’, even if it’s just for them.”

In the future, more innovative uses will emerge for RSS, predicts Forrester’s Ms Jennings: “We think it’s a good channel for things such as classified advertising updates – very time critical and information intensive applications,” she says. “Share prices are one thing you might want to see via RSS, and any other constantly changing data that you want people to have access to.”

Options might include travel alerts for companies with lots of employees in one city, for example. At Kent University, computer science lecturers have even created an RSS feed for the canteen’s daily menu options.

But like all enabling technologies, RSS should be used with caution. It can be a great personal productivity tool, but it is easy to get lost in the various blog postings and news articles that will inevitably hit a newsreader each day.

Trying to skim for relevant information without being sidelined by interesting but ultimately distracting titbits will require significant discipline.

Sadly, willpower is not something that any software programmer has yet been able to code.

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