Some useful web-technology advances go unnoticed by the majority of users, perhaps the most notable being RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. RSS summarises site contents for distribution and viewing in any format. Its first popular use was to distribute web newsfeeds to a wider audience. It caught on because it is a totally portable format, and is both platform independent and content oriented. Once some data source is made available in RSS format, any application that’s RSS aware can view it, and users who subscribe to a particular feed get fresh content pushed to them any time it changes. Not surprisingly, RSS feeds have become popular with bloggers too.
The applications you use to read RSS feeds are both varied and plentiful, ranging from dedicated standalone aggregators to applets that integrate into mail clients like Outlook (I will be looking at just such an application in next month’s column). If you have been tempted to dip a toe in Mozilla waters following my recent Firefox coverage, note that it now comes with an interesting new technology called Live Bookmarks, which lets you view both RSS and blog headlines directly within the Bookmarks toolbar/menu without having to visit the home site in question. Clicking on any entry displays the full content in the main browser window, and adding new feeds is done from the New Live Bookmark entry under Bookmarks | Manage Bookmarks | File Menu. Alternatively, just click the live Bookmark icon on the bottom-right corner of the browser window. More information on this can be found at www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/live-bookmarks.html
The trouble with all these RSS and blog feeds is finding the ones you want to read, which is where services such as Technorati (www.technorati.com) come in. Monitoring over six million blogs – and 750 million links as a result – Technorati is a kind of Google for blogs, but it makes a pretty good RSS feed finder as well, because so many blogs have cottoned on to the fact that RSS is a great way of spreading their word. If you want to find more RSS feeds, the aptly named Feedster (www.feedster.com) will not disappoint.
Also putting RSS to good use, as well as being a painfully cool URL, is del.icio.us, which lets you share your bookmarks by publishing them as RSS feeds. Essentially, it is a social bookmarks manager that exploits the same shared browsing concept I already admire so much in StumbleUpon (www.stumbleupon.com), bringing it into your browser by way of a simple bookmark. A shared bookmark facility is not as daft as you may think, and once you have experienced it you will find social browsing hard to give up. Its value lies not in seeing the sites other people have bookmarked – although that in itself is a pretty addictive hobby – but in seeing who else has bookmarked the sites you use most often and what other sites they value equally. The adage about great minds thinking alike couldn’t be more wrong in the information age, and you will find invaluable sites and services that would never have crossed your horizon were it not for either StumbleUpon or del.icio.us.
Davey the digital detective
If you have ever wanted to find out more about a website, an IP address or a domain name, the chances are you have stumbled across DNS Stuff (www.dnsstuff.com), which is an all-on-one-page set of DNS, Whois and other IP-related lookups and tests (including reverse lookups, URL obfuscation tests and IP routing lookups). However, if you are a really savvy user, you need to dig a little deeper, and for once I’m not recommending you go to Sam Spade (www.samspade.org), despite that also being in my Bookmark folder’s ‘essential tools’ directory. In fact, you only need to dig down one or two levels at DNS Stuff. First, try www.dnsstuff.com/pages/expert.htm, which adds such things as MAC address lookup and DNS timing lookup. Then, if you are really adventurous, go to www.dnsstuff.com/pages/testbed.htm, which enables credit card merchant category code and charge-back reason code lookups, SSL examination and even telephone number lookup from number fragments.