A Guide to Social Networks for the Tragically Uncool, Part 2: Google Reader
Monday, March 30 2009

Note: this is part two in my series, “A Guide to Social Networks for the Tragically Uncool.” For Part 1, click here.

Back for more ideas, eh? OK then, let’s move straight onto the next phase.

Google Reader: Nexus of Your Social Web (for now)

Google Reader doesn’t look all that social at first, and that’s because its social features have been added more recently– but whether it’s a social network or not, you need it. Let me explain.

As you wade out into the social ocean, you’ll start to feel the riptide pulling you. At first it’ll just be a little, but go deeper, and it’ll grow strong, threatening to overwhelm you and steal all your time away with checking every site your friends have every eight seconds, on every network they use. After all, how can you keep up on my Twitter, Flickr, Dopplr, and blog posts (I have two blogs now!) without checking every single site? And you won’t get the latest data unless you keep doing it!

Well, luckily, there is a solution, and it’s called an RSS reader. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it was the first standard to do what it does and really make it big on the web– allowing time-delimited content (like news items) to be “subscribed” to by hordes of readers, so that a machine could just grab all the content whenever it got posted, and the human could just look in one place for all their updates from everywhere. We don’t usually use RSS anymore– it’s been left behind somewhat in favor of a better standard, Atom– but you don’t need to worry, as most RSS readers understand both and you don’t need to bother about the details; you just give it a site, and it figures out subscribing.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of RSS readers available; some live on your desktop, others on your cell phone, and still others live on the web; Google Reader is one of the latter. Why is that the best option? That way, you can read updates whenever and wherever is convenient– on your phone on the train, on your desktop at home, on a laptop in a cafe, etc.– and have just one place keeping track of what things you have and haven’t read. This is much nicer if, like me, you’re neurotic enough to want to make sure you haven’t missed anything. In addition, Google Reader has by far the nicest mobile interface (and a dedicated one for iPhone users), so that makes it more pleasant as well.

So then, once you’ve signed up at Google Reader, to what should you subscribe? Well, that’s really up to you. A good rule of thumb is, “what sites do I read every day?” If you find yourself checking in for LOLcats four or five times a day, just copy their URL into the “add subscription” box and let the LOLcats come to you for noms. If you always read Slashdot to get your geek on, make sure you keep up your geek cred by not missing an item.

One thing to keep in mind is that some sites post more than others. For instance, while I post here at Times and Measures about weekly, on average, Engadget posts twenty to thirty times per day. Now, I love Engadget, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of volume, feel free to just hit the “mark all as read” button to toss the rest; that way, you can decide for yourself how much is enough, and you don’t need to go there to find out what odd item just had a USB key implanted.

Something I personally always do is subscribe to my own feeds, which helps me keep track of my own actions over the web. Since you signed up for a Flickr account yesterday (you did do that, didn’t you?), you’ve got a feed for that; just go to your Flickr site (for instance, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ussjoin/), then click the orange icon (occasionally blue, depending on your browser) at the far-right of your location bar (the thing you type the URL in). That’ll give you the feed address (that’s the universal feed symbol), which you can then hand Google Reader so that you make sure your photos always show up as soon as you post them!

In addition to reading your news items, if you find anything and say “gee, I’d really like to share that with my friends,” hit the “Share” link Google Reader helpfully provides at the bottom of every post. That’ll add it to your personal Google Reader feed, so anyone can see what you’ve shared; later in the week, I’ll talk about making One Big Site with all your stuff, but for now, it’s OK to have lots of little feeds around the web.

The best thing about a news reader, for me, is that while you might think “I don’t have time to read all those sites,” using a reader actually greatly cuts down the time I need to spend on them– since the information is delivered to me, in a convenient format, whenever they post, I spend no wasted time just hitting all the sites I read looking for updates. (Since I subscribe to 70 feeds with an average of 4300 posts per month total, that would very quickly become impossible).

Looking for other suggestions for things to read? I subscribe to a range of sites, but I’ll put a few here. Feel free to use as few or as many as you feel like, and remember, if you find them overwhelming, or just boring, you can always delete them. I’ll just link to the primary sites here, and you can paste that URL into Google Reader to subscribe (it’ll find the feed for you).

Tomorrow, we’ll attack something much more like a traditional social network; this one even lets you talk to people! Think of it!

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