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The happiness of learning something new: what is RSS, anyway?

RssOne of my happiness-project resolutions is “Learn how to do something new,” and I’ve had several readers email me to ask about RSS and Feedblitz updates. As happiness experts explain, “learning something new” is an excellent way of boosting happiness – though it usually means an uncomfortable period of frustration and discouragement, too. If you’re in the mood to “learn something new,” in this case about RSS and other ways of “subscribing” to blogs, read on:

Wondering what the heck RSS is?
RSS stands for “Real Simple Syndication.” If you’ve been mystified about that orange box with the white curves that appears on blogs everywhere, that’s the most common button for RSS sign-up. I have no idea how RSS actually works, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s actually easy to use.

This is how I think about it: Visiting a blog is like buying a magazine at a newsstand; using RSS is like getting a home subscription (except RSS is free) — you read the same content, and it’s delivered to you directly on your RSS reader.

RSS is handy if you read a lot of blogs. If you find yourself with a long list of favorite blogs to jump amongst, or if you follow a certain industry so need to check in with various sites periodically, or if you want to keep a list of blogs you like so you won’t forget one, RSS is very handy.

To use RSS, you need to sign up for an RSS reader – e.g., Google Reader (which I use), Bloglines. Then, when you want to add a blog to your list, you sign up to get updates through RSS (to use the magazine metaphor, to get the latest issue). After that, whenever that blog has new content, it’s sent to your reader. When you feel like catching up on your reading, you can go to your reader, and everything is updated, organized, and waiting for you.

Even though I have an RSS reader, sometimes I go to the actual blogs. One downside of using RSS is that you just get the update (much like getting a blog update into your email, see below). Sometimes it’s fun to go to the blog and see the whole site. On my blog, I have a lot of material in the sidebars that doesn’t show up in an RSS reader or in Feedblitz.

The upside of using an RSS reader is that you can zip through a lot of content very fast. It’s a very good way of organizing your reading.

If you want to try RSS, first sign up for a reader (e.g., Google Reader, Bloglines). Once you have a reader, you follow the instructions for adding a particular blog to your list. Lots of sites have buttons that show that they have RSS feeds available. The most common one is the orange box with white waves, like the one at the top-left-hand corner of my blog, but there are many others as well.

You can click the RSS button and follow the instructions, or paste in the URL of the blog you want to follow or the URL of its feed. It depends on your situation. When you’re doing it, this is a lot less confusing than it sounds.

I’m not very tech savvy myself, and I hesitated a long time before using a reader. Fortunately, it’s one of those tools that turns out to be fairly easy to use, once you get started. One day, I just held my nose, signed up, and fiddled around until I figured it out. But don’t feel like an idiot if it’s a bit awkward at first. It took me a while to get comfortable on it.

Want to use email instead?
Now, maybe you don’t feel like “Learning something new” and dealing with RSS, but you like the idea of getting updates. With many blogs, like this one, you can sign up to get updates sent to you though email. If you’d like to do that with this blog, go to the upper-right-hand corner of this blog and sign up through the Feedblitz box. (Never fear, you can unsubscribe any time, and I would never share the list.) Thousands of people use this method to get my blog updates, and it’s very handy if you like to route material through your email in-box.

Be warned, however: lately I’ve been having a problem with Typepad that means that people are getting duplicative Feedblitz emails. I’m working HARD to get this resolved, and Typepad is working on it, so I hope this problem will be fixed soon. If you’re annoyed by getting the extra emails, please bear with me! If you like the idea of email updates, but don’t want to get one every day, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter, which is a round-up of the best material from the previous month.

A lot of people complain about getting too many emails. If you feel that way, an advantage of RSS is that it allows you to get targeted updates outside your email.

That’s everything I know about RSS. As I say, I’m no tech expert. Please add a comment if there’s anything that I’ve explained poorly or am just flat wrong about.

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My RSS reader includes Cognitive Daily — it highlights interesting studies that I might otherwise miss. Today, for example, it describes a study about babies using sign language. This subject interests me, because we used baby sign language with both our daughters, and it’s FANTASTIC! It’s absolutely amazing to be able to communicate with your baby. The first time the Big Girl did the sign for “hungry”…I almst fainted.

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Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.