Friday, March 12, 2010

Leo, why does my google Buzz have so much garbage from you?

My original idea for this post was to present articles that I share using the bundle feature of google reader. But since now and then I feel like explaining the basics, I thought it was time to introduce the tools I employ to read and share articles from magazines and academic publications, as well as blog posts like this one. And since I started using blogs/RSS/etc only recently (in 2007) the first steps are still fresh on my mind. So please forgive me if I skim over technical details, neglect other services or over-simplify the descriptions (but don't hesitate to comment if my explanation is wrong or confusing). Not that I could explain much better than this...

Google Buzz and FriendFeed

It became easier to share articles and blog posts with google Buzz, that aggregates shared content like FriendFeed, but integrated with google mail and google reader. The contents to be gathered might be your posts to the twitter microblogging service (see my stream as an example), pictures you upload to Picasa web albums, posts from blogs you contribute or items you share through google reader, among others. You can also post directly to FriendFeed or Buzz. The idea is that you keep track of what your friends and colleagues are writing or reading, with the possibility of commenting.

Once you set up the sites that you want to connect with Buzz or FriendFeed, you don't need to do anything else, since whenever you write a blog post or share an item on google reader, they will be updated automatically and be available to people on your network (friends and colleagues that follow you on Buzz or FriendFeed).  To start tweeting, you just need to create an account on twitter but you might want to use an application like echofon or tweetdeck to read and write posts. To write a blog post you must create a blog (blogspot and wordpress are the most famous ones) or join a collaborative one. I use the ScribeFire firefox extension to write my posts, but any text editor can help if you don't want to type from within your blog. But even without producing content (=writing) you can already enjoy these tools by sharing what you read or reading what other people share.

Google Reader

Nowadays web pages are dynamic (now you have a lower bound for my age), and this is specially true for newspapers and academic publications. There is always new information available - new issues from a magazine, new blog posts or new articles from a newspaper - and from several sources, that we should read regularly. While it is impossible to keep up-to-date by reading on the websites, receiving e-mails (with e.g., TOCs) is also very time-consuming and far from ideal to me. Fortunately all decent sites provide an RSS feed with the headlines of the "posts" - where by  "post" I mean the more static part, like the article itself, that can be referenced through a link. Then if you have an RSS reader (a.k.a. feed reader or aggregator) you can let it know about the location of the RSS feed provided by the site, and it will be updated whenever the site releases a new post.

My favorite RSS reader is certainly google reader, despite I also use akregator to have a backup of important feed entries. With akregator the feed entries are downloaded to your computer, while with google reader everything is in their servers. A feed entry can have the whole post, just the abstract or no explanation at all besides the post title and eventually the author, but all entries have a link to the original post on the site to which the feed belongs to. Usually you have the options of browsing the entries in a compact view (like in the picture) or expanded, marking them as "read" such that the reader doesn't  present you the same entry again. The feeds you subscribe to can be classified by folders - for example one folder for academic journals, another for blogs etc - and, at least in google reader, the entries can be tagged. I find the tags very useful for fine-tuning how I share the entries: besides the straightforward sharing (responsible for showing the items in google Buzz, google profile and the public page depending on the privacy settings), I publicize entries which I tag as a science-related post or an academic article [1].

Have in mind that RSS readers cannot recognize homepages in general, only those in a specific XML (not HTML) format. Therefore despite you can do a search for the journal or blog you want to follow from google reader (since it knows how to find the related RSS), in some cases you may need to search for the RSS feed manually. It is common for newspapers and journals to offer several RSS feeds, one per subject, and you might want to choose only a few of them. You can find the link to the RSS feed if you can spot this icon, on the homepage or on your browser:

[1] The "bundle" feature of google reader is for sharing feeds, but I actually tweak it to include the corresponding tag. It is also possible (and much simpler) to just make the tag public in the google reader settings, like here and here. But the bundle is prettier.

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