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    Technology: RSS - Making the Internet Subscribeable

    Now there is a tool - RSS - that automatically delivers updates of valuable Web content directly to your computer. Read how RSS can save you time and money.

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 79, No. 8, August 2006

    RSS: Making the Internet Subscribeable

    Now there is a tool - RSS - that automatically delivers updates of valuable Web content directly to your computer. Read how RSS can save you time and money.

    by Bonnie Shucha

    It's no secret that the Internet has become an invaluable tool to the practice of law, but most researchers know that locating relevant Web content can be time consuming. As the saying goes, time is money. Wouldn't it be nice, then, if there were a tool that would allow you to automatically receive updates of valuable Web content? Fortunately, there is. It's called RSS,1 and it makes the Internet subscribeable. With RSS, news and information are delivered directly to you.

    Bonnie ShuchaBonnie Shucha is head of reference at the U.W. Law Library, Madison. She is a past president of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin. She may be contacted at edu bjshucha wisc wisc bjshucha edu.

    Instead of you manually visiting the New York Times Web site each morning or searching for a corporation's latest SEC filings, with RSS your computer can automatically compile any new content and present it to you. This can save you time in two ways. If no new content is available, you won't have wasted time looking for it. If new content is available, it will all be consolidated into a single view, thereby making it unnecessary for you to visit multiple sites manually. The more content you typically monitor, the more time you save by using RSS.

    What is RSS?

    Because RSS is often associated with blogs, it is useful to begin an explanation in that context. There are two main ways to read blog content. The first is via the blog's Web site, which you access by typing the URL into your browser. Although you can stay current this way, it does require that you visit the site daily to check for updates. For those who read multiple blogs, this method can be very labor intensive.

    RSS chartThe second, much more time efficient method for reading blog content is via RSS, a format for distributing, or syndicating, Web content in real-time. Each time a blog is updated, new content is automatically distributed via a file called an RSS feed. Users wanting to receive the new content may subscribe to the blog's RSS feed, which can be viewed, along with many other RSS feeds, in a single application called an RSS reader.2

    An RSS reader is somewhat similar to an email application.3 With email, content takes the form of an email message. The user cannot interpret that content without the aid of a reader - an email application, such as Outlook. With RSS, content exists as a post within an RSS feed. It also cannot be interpreted without the aid of a reader, which usually is an RSS reader.4

    Despite these similarities, RSS has some distinct advantages over email. A great deal of useful content simply is not available via email. Because RSS delivery is automated, it is easier for content providers to syndicate content via RSS than via email. Another advantage is that RSS content is usually delivered faster than email, again because it is automated. With email, frequent content delivery may not be practical for the author or desirable to the user. Therefore, rather than delivering individual email postings, authors may wait until there is a batch of email content before delivering it.

    Another significant advantage of RSS is that, unlike with email, the user does not need to take the step of deleting content that does not interest her. With an RSS reader, content is only displayed the first time it is accessed, unless the user acts to save it. This can be an incredible time saver for a user who subscribes to tens or hundreds of feeds. Just as a person might skim through the headlines of an entire newspaper but only clip a fraction of the articles, so with an RSS reader a person can just save a fraction of worthy posts. By contrast, unwanted email messages must be individually deleted.

    RSS Readers

    There are two types of RSS readers: Web-based and installed software applications. Web-based readers can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection. This type of reader is ideal for individuals who use multiple computers throughout the day or access the Internet via public terminals when traveling.

    One such Web-based RSS reader is My Yahoo!. This very basic reader is a good place to start if you already have a Yahoo! account for email or scheduling. Bloglines is undoubtedly one of the most popular Web-based RSS readers. You can use it to read RSS feeds as well as email listservs. Another option is Pluck, which offers plug-ins for both Internet Explorer and Firefox. (Please see the related article "Getting Started with Bloglines.")

    There also are RSS readers that you install as separate software applications on your computer. These work well for individuals who primarily use only one computer. One advantage to this type of reader is that content can be downloaded and later viewed off-line, making this type of reader ideal for commuters or travelers with laptops. There are several free software-based RSS readers, but some of the more popular are FeedReader, FeedDemon, and RSS Bandit. (Please see the related article "Finding RSS Feeds.")

    RSS Drawbacks

    The blogosphere is often seen as a forum for the exchange of ideas. In reality, however, most blogs are inherently one-sided. As a publishing medium, a blog is designed so that one author, or perhaps a small team of authors generates the bulk of the conversation. This one-sidedness is not so much of a drawback as a misconception about the technology.

    Many blogs do, however, offer a comment feature so that readers can respond to posts. But, as a blog user, it is important to be aware that when users view blog content through an RSS reader, the comment feature usually is not displayed. To view or submit a comment, the user must access the blog's Web site.

    Another potential drawback of RSS is that content viewed with an RSS reader is not automatically saved. Although many experienced users consider this an advantage, it could be problematic for people who are unaware of it. Therefore, with a little education, this feature may not be a drawback after all.

    Unfortunately, legal professionals aren't the only people who realize the value of RSS technology. Marketers and hackers are starting to take advantage of RSS as well. Ads already are beginning to creep into once pure data RSS feeds, and experts are predicting that spy ware and other dangers may not be far behind. As with any Internet interaction, the user must exercise caution when downloading unfamiliar data.

    RSS Feeds Other Than Blogs

    In addition to the provision of feeds from blogs, RSS has many other applications for legal professionals, especially in the area of research. Many traditional news media have begun offering content via RSS that allows subscribers to receive news as it is reported. Some newspapers have established multiple feeds covering specific topics or sections. This is especially useful for large publications, such as the New York Times.

    bloglinesRSS also can be used to track legal information. Some courts, including the Western District of Wisconsin Bankruptcy Court, have begun to distribute orders and complaints via RSS (https://ecf.wiwb.uscourts.gov/). GovTrack, a site that tracks the status of federal legislation and the activities of senators and representatives, also offers customized RSS feeds. For more law-related RSS feeds, see TVC's RSS News Feeds for Law.

    Perhaps even more valuable are the free customized alerts offered by services such as Feedster and Google News. Researchers perform a keyword search and subscribe to the results via RSS. Then, when future content is indexed by these search engines, relevant information will be delivered automatically to the subscriber's RSS reader. There are many research applications for this technology, including monitoring what bloggers are saying about you and your clients, learning about competitors' projects and activities, and staying up-to-date on developments in your practice area.

    Thanks to a resource called Badgerlink, researchers in Wisconsin also can set up RSS alerts from some subscription databases. EBSCO, supplier of the medical and business databases available in Badgerlink, is among the first database vendors to offer customized RSS alerts based on keyword searches. Funded by the Department of Public Instruction, Badgerlink is available at no cost to Wisconsinites.5

    For RSS feeds based on law journal content, see the Washington & Lee Law School Library's Current Law Journal Content (http://law.wlu.edu/library/CLJC/). With this free service, you can receive, via RSS, tables of contents for legal journals complete with links to the full-text articles in Lexis, Westlaw, BEPress, SSRN, and other databases (passwords may be required).6

    It's About Time

    It's true that the Internet is an invaluable - and sometimes unwieldy - tool to the practice of law. Now, locating relevant content may not be as time consuming as it once was thought to be. By taking advantage of RSS to automatically receive content of interest to you, you'll stay current in less time, thereby saving yourself and your clients time and money.


    1There is some dispute over the meaning of the RSS acronym. Three versions have emerged: Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication.

    2RSS readers also are known as RSS aggregators, feed readers, news readers, and news aggregators.

    3Some email applications, such as Thunderbird, have built-in RSS readers. They are not considered in this example.

    4Bonnie Shucha, RSS: It's About Time, Connecting, December 2005, at 8.

    5Due to Badgerlink licensing restrictions, access to the newspaper and magazine databases is restricted to Wisconsin residents. A system of IP (Internet Protocol) detection is used to determine site visitors' eligibility. Badgerlink also has registered the IP address ranges of most of the state's public libraries, public schools, and Internet service providers to provide access to their users.

    6For more information on creating RSS feeds for law journal contents in CLJC, see the instructions posted on WisBlawg.