See this nifty little image? It’s also over there on the sidebar of my blog. You’ll see it all over the interwebs these days. It’s a subscribe-to-an-RSS-feed button. Now, when I was growing up the word “subscribe” had bad, and usually expensive, connotations – that subscription to The Reader’s Digest or National Geographic that you didn’t seem to be able to cancel, for example. [Cool story on this topic at the end of this post].
With RSS feeds, there is no such problem. Subscribing is free and you can unsubscribe at the touch of a button. What is RSS? It stands for Really Simple Syndication.” I type and format my blog here on Blogger, I hit the “Publish Post” button and my random rants are instantly available to 29 squillion readers worldwide. So it’s easy from my end. How do you make it easy from your end?

Well, a vast number of websites now have that RSS thingie happening for them. It’s a bit like the Reuters feed of old – updated news would be tapped out on the ticker tape as it became available. And as long as there was someone on the other end to read it, news could spread fast.

You can see the little orange windscreen wipers logo up in your address bar if you are on an RSS-enabled page like this one. And if you are a regular visitor to that page, your life will become immeasurably easier if you subscribe to it. That way, instead of having to visit your local breaking news page ten times a day, you can leave a feed reader page open in your browser, and every time that local news page is updated [imagine chattering ticker-tape noises here] it will update in your reader. Similarly, your preferred blogs, or advice sites, or a ticket alert for your favourite band can all pop up in this one place.

I started reading blogs in 2004, and started getting serious about that effort as I discovered more and more amazing thinkers and writers on the subjects in which I am interested. At one point, I had around 25 sites that I visited daily, looking for updates, news and ideas. This became a real time-wasting pain. I would visit a site, wait for it to load in my browser, only to discover that there was nothing new to read. Do that with even a handful of sites a couple of times a day, five days a week and you are clocking up some serious hours …

And then I found Google’s Reader. You can sign up for free, or just use your GMail account name and you can start subscribing to any site that has an RSS ticker-tape. I have merrily subscribed and unsubscribed to lots of blogs and newsfeeds since discovering Reader and it has saved me major time along the way. I can comfortably keep track of some sites which update once a month and others which update ten times a day. I am better-informed and reading more widely than I have ever done in the past and I am able to do that at any time of the day or night from any computer on planet earth.
Do yourself a favour and try it – if you are reading more than ten RSS-enabled sites per day, you’ll be doing yourself a real favour. The instructions how to do all this are in plain English and could not be easier. The way things are going on the web, you’re going to be utterly dependent on these things in a few years’ time anyway, so you might as well get ahead of the curve and try it now. If you’re bothered about Big Brother Google [the Googleyman?], there are other readers like Bloglines and Newsgator; but really – try one. Below is Common Craft’s superb little video on how RSS works. If you’re a little bewildered by all this, I highly recommend spending 4 minutes to get a handle on the wonder that is RSS.

Oh! And don’t forget to hit the subscribe button here while you’re at it. I promise not to replicate the actions of the publisher below if you unsubscribe – not because I wouldn’t want to, but because the way RSS is set up, I can’t … 😉

Now – that story. Many years ago, my father succumbed to the tempting offer of a subscription to The Reader’s Digest – if memory serves, I think he fell for the old “First Year Completely Free!” line. So every month we got our little magazine in the letterbox and we read stories of people trapped up mountains, down wells and in sinking vehicles; we increased our wordpower; and were generally inspired by the can-do tone and content of our monthly Digest.

But not enough to pay for it.

So when the free year came to an end, Pop politely ticked the “Thanks but no thanks” box on the subscription form, put it in the reply-paid envelope and sent it off.

But the Readers Digest kept appearing in our letterbox every month, along with a veritable barrage of competition entries, raffle tickets and personalised letters all telling us how utterly ridiculous it would be for us to cancel our subscription to this fine, fine publication.

Now, my father was a gentleman, and a gentle man; but even he began to lose patience with this degree of persistence. He sent them back form after form with the “No” box very firmly ticked. He even sent them a letter suggesting that there must be some fault in their computer system and that perhaps a drop of oil in the appropriate slot might make the difference – all to no avail.

Then I got involved.

I had recently posted something heavy off to my brother in America and knew the pain of high postal costs. So when I spotted that Pop was sending all his correspondence back to the fine folks at Readers Digest in the UK using reply-paid envelopes, my evil little mind hatched a plan.

We started storing up the reply-paid envelopes and then, once a week, my father would wrap an eighteen inch concrete building block with brown paper and twine, stick the reply-paid envelope onto it and airmail it back to the UK. Each of these block weighed – maybe 12 pounds. Correct me if I am wrong, but airmail is charged by the ounce. Someone in Readers Digest eventually noticed, because the junk-mail dried up. But not before we had sent them enough blocks to build an outside toilet …