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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Is too much news leaving you woozy these days?

March 6, 2006

When it comes to news, there are two kinds of consumers: the "E.F. Hutton people" and the "cocktail party people." E.F. Huttoners have it easy. Cocktail partiers are only now getting some help making their lives more manageable.

Years ago, E.F. Hutton ran a series of commercials that would always take place in a crowded spot, like a restaurant or plaza. One actor would be talking about his investment advice and preface it with, "Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says ... " whereupon everyone for hundreds of yards around would fall silent and lean in to find out what the broker had said.

Many people are that way about news. They like and trust one source, go there for enlightenment, and never bother with the hordes of other sources that now make the Web bulge at the seams. Nothing wrong with those people, of course. My grandparents were E.F. Huttoners. They watched one news broadcast in the evening, and that was enough for them.

Many of us, however, have now become virtual "cocktail partiers," exulting in the ability to move from Web site to Web site, the way people whirl from guest to guest at a party, exchanging a bit and then moving on. Unlike my grandparents, I check a minimum of three news and blog sites before breakfast. One is CNN (www.cnn.com), while the others are blogs only a techie could love. During the day, I take time to check still more, including the venerable BBC (www.bbc.com). But there are some I look at just for fun. There's a science blog called LiveScience I look at, for instance (www.livescience.com). The total list of sites I visit is growing fast, and getting rather unwieldy.

Others have the same problem I do. The number of business-related sites on the Web is staggering. No human could look through them all in a single day. Just the major ones, such as MSN, Yahoo!, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0, Wall Street Journal, BBC and Forbes, could eat up an entire morning without burping even once. Then figure in the sites that are demographic-specific, such as IBJ's. Then add to those the hundreds of high-quality business blogs that are growing like dandelions, and pretty soon you won't need booze to get woozy at this cocktail party.

Some blogs help out by being aggregation sites that list the headlines from other sites. A better way has slowly developed in the past few years, though. It's called "RSS" and, depending on whom you talk to, it can mean "Rich Site Summary" or "Really Simple Syndication." Each content site uses RSS to put together a list of its top headlines, new files or whatever else is hot at the moment. Your local software, called an "aggregator" or "news reader" scans the content sites you monitor, retrieves the list of headlines, and shows them to you. If you want to read more, you just click on the headline's link. It's a lot like having an online clipping service, where somebody finds and copies articles about your subjects of interest, then sends the pile to you.

RSS works for more than news sites, of course. For example, if you have a geographically scattered sales force, you can have them all check your very own RSS feed each day for new sales material, without having to actually log onto your site. For this magic to happen, you'll need software and a techie or two at your end. Ask your IT provider.

To get started receiving RSS yourself, you'll need an aggregator. Fortunately, they, too, have proliferated of late. Wikipedia (fast becoming yet another of my favorite sites to sift) has an updated list at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_news_aggregators. The browser Firefox will do RSS aggregation, although it uses bookmarks, which strikes me as clumsy. However, many "extensions" can be downloaded for Firefox that make it a strikingly good aggregator. Wikipedia has the list. Thunderbird, an email application that's Firefox's cousin, is an aggregator, too. When Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 arrives out of beta, it will have an aggregator. Extensions exist to make Microsoft Outlook into an aggregator, again to be found on Wikipedia. There are Web sites that are aggregators, too, such as Blog-Lines (www.bloglines.com). The Wikipedia article even lists aggregators for mobile phones. Some of the sites you now visit may also be aggregators, such as MSN.

With all aggregators, you need the appropriate RSS URL from each monitored site, so setup can take a while. Sites with RSS will have little orange "RSS" buttons. Click one, and the URL will appear unto you. Copy and paste it into the aggregator. Go to the next site and repeat. You need do this only once.

To find out more, visit Userland (rss.userland.com/howUseRSS), the BBC (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/help/rss/default.stm) or the omniscient Wikipedia.org. For fun, in Wikipedia, type in "cocktail party." There's actually an entry for it.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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