"Information overload" is another way to describe the inability to manage information abundance. For most people these days, the Web is an overwhelming flood of incoming information that we are forced to navigate. There is another way: tune the web. Specify information about the precise topics that matter to you and arrange for it to come to you in an organized manner through a configurable dashboard that reflects your exact priorities. There's a tool for that. It sounds more technical than it turns out to be in practice. RSS
Despite the technical-sounding name, RSS is an easy to use and powerful tool for dealing with information overload. Used skillfully, RSS can help you get beyond coping with overload to a more positive ability to design, tune, and harvest your own relevant information from the available floods. You can set up a dashboard and tune in from high-altitude to in-the-weeds levels on the latest info on just those topics that interest you.
I was teaching Stanford students in the mid-2000s when the Web and social media were ramping up. Some of them were beginning to panic at the tsunami of information available to them. So I started showing them how to deal with information that came in streams rather than queues: Email inboxes are queues -- in effect, to-do lists that have to be cleared item by item. And the incoming email always outpaces our ability to respond to each one and clear our inboxes. With Twitter, the heyday of blogging, the advent of the Facebook timeline and Instagram, algorithmically recommended YouTube videos, information started coming in streams. And streams can only be handled by filtering and sampling. A tool for filtering and sampling was deliberately created to handle information streams: RSS.
RSS (it has had different names, but I like the backronym "really simple syndication") is a way to set up specific streams of information that you can read through a centralized dashboard. That's the simplest way to think about it. Another word that is less technical than it sounds is "syndication," which means making your output streams detectable by others who are interested in your subject, and available to them the moment you publish, without necessarily visiting the site where you publish.
RSS is a web format that allows users to create standardized web feeds that anyone can read with a single aggregator program, or "feed reader." Instead of visiting different websites to see what has been posted recently, users can automatically see the headlines, first paragraphs, or entire posts from a menu of many websites via a one page dashboard (either a web page or a page on a standalone application known as an "RSS aggregator.") RSS feeds are used to syndicate regularly updated websites, such as blogs, video, news sites, and all kinds of other data. Through RSS, users no longer need to refresh many websites individually, looking for new posts or articles, or follow a host of links just to stay current, but can monitor a wide range of sites and data from one browser tab. Aggregator/reader programs can be web-based, a desktop app, or integrated into another program such as an email client or web browser.
Blogs are one example of a web page that is updated. By adding a little code to each blog post, it is possible for people who subscribe to the syndicated stream to be alerted upon publication, through their feed reader. Podcasts are a more currently popular form of publication that provides a syndicated stream. But a huge variety of publishers emit information streams: robots on mars, buoys in the middle of the ocean, "Internet of things" devices. Persistent news searches for specific keywords can be followed with RSS, creating what Robin Good calls "news radars."
RSS sounds simple and technical, but it's also a fundamental building block that will remain useful as a kind of user-generated pipeline that can be combined with other pipelines to provide incoming and outgoing information streams about specific subjects. I asked each of my students to set up an RSS reader and tune it to their interests, selecting and tuning an incoming flow of information about specific topics through blogs, social bookmarking feeds, and directed searches. From this stream of incoming information, students learned to harvest, contextualize, and use significant findings as part of their blogging. See the orange RSS icon image at the top of this post? There's a snippet of code behind it. Right-click (Windows), Control-click (Mac) to copy that code: this is what you paste into your RSS reader to set up a stream.
Watch RSS in Plain English: graphic explanation of how it works, in less than 4 minutes.
Netvibes (my favorite because you can set up pages for topics, tabs for subtopics, arrange and prioritize feeds in tabs according to your preferences)
Inoreader: web-based feed reader
Feedly feed reader.
Feeder.co feed reader
The Old Reader feed reader
Newsblur feed reader
Feedbin feed reader
RSS search engine: discover feeds about your specific interests
RSS Search Hub RSS Search
Queryfeed: search social media, return RSS feeds
Create RSS feeds from Twitter: Twitter changes their API all the time, so this might not work
Publicate: another way to pull RSS feeds from Twitter
Setting up RSS feeds for Reddit subreddits: "you can make any section of the site you are on into an RSS feed.For instance, if you wanted to get all the content that reaches the #1 spot in the subreddit /r/Futurology, then you would simply grab the Futurology / Top URL and add ‘/.json’ and turn it into a working feed. https://www.reddit.com/r/Futurology/top/.json"
NetNewsWire: Free and open source RSS reader for MacOS