Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wanted: A Prescription for a Case of Information Overload

In June I signed up for my first RSS aggregator--Google Reader. Since that time, I have subscribed to several feeds. Some of these feeds are blogs that I read for my professional development and some are news feeds from organizations that I like to read. This new daily intake of information has led me to feel somewhat overwhelmed at the amount of items crossing my screen each day. How does one use RSS feeds effectively without suffering from information overload?

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RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. It began as a means for readers to receive updates from their favorite bloggers. Since that time many other sites have began to offer readers feeds--everything from job search sites to news organizations. D'Souza discusses the evolution of RSS from blog feeds to feeds such as vidcasts, podcasts, social networking sites, watch lists, peer produced content, productivity tools, and search agents. RSS feeds were designed as a way to quickly and easily gain access to new information. The video entitled What is RSS? does an excellent job of describing the purpose behind the creation of RSS.

In order to view your RSS feeds, you need to subscribe to software called an aggregator. Aggretators store the information from the feeds and allow you to view them easily. I have signed up for Google Reader as my aggregator but D'Souza has compiled a list of others. These include:

Web-Based Aggregators
Bloglines -
NewsIsFree -
Newsgator -
Desktop Aggregator
Fuzzy Duck -
FeedReader -
CITA RSS Aggregator -
Vienna (Mac OS) -
Extensions and Toolbars
Wizz RSS (Firefox) -
My RSS Toolbar – (Internet Explorer) -
Attensa (Outlook) -

My case of the RSS flu

As I stated previously, I signed up for an RSS aggregator (Google Reader), in June after reading Will Richardson's book. Signing up was no problem as I already was using iGoogle and this feature came with the account. All I needed to do now was sign up for some feeds. I decided to do a search on Google Reader for guided reading, as this is an area of interest of mine. My search returned a ton of items. I chose a few of the more popular ones and I was well on my way. I also did a search for Canadian news and subscribed to a couple of feeds. I added my colleagues' blogs in July and, voila, I now was subscribed to 15 feeds in a matter of moments. This is where I soon became ill with information overload. With no real dedication to regularly check my Reader account, I soon had hundreds of unread feeds. One guided reading feed, in particular, was sending out about 20 feeds per day and when I would try to read them, they would make no sense. I felt very overwhelmed by this large amount of information that I needed to read through and began searching for a cure.

In search of a cure

With 1000+ unread feeds in my Google Reader aggregator, I was in desperate need to find a plan with regards to how to handle all of the information coming at me in a meaningful way.

Tara's Plan for RSS success:
1. Cull the amount of feeds you receive. I decided to cull the feeds I was receiving to only those that I would read. I know that 15 feeds was not a lot, but in my case I needed less information until I became used to using the aggregator. I eliminated a couple of feeds that were not providing me with interesting material, the feed that was sending 20 pluse messages per day and the news feeds. The news feeds were responsible for a good portion of my daily feeds and I was already receiving much of the same information via Twitter.

2. Set aside a daily time to read the feeds. I have decided that I need to make reading the RSS feeds a part of my daily routine, just like checking e-mail is. In fact, I have decided that when I check my e-mail in the morning, I will also check Google Reader.

3. Don't feel obligated to read everything. Initially, I felt a need to read everything that came across the screen via RSS. I quickly realized that this is not realistic and have now decided to opt for the skim and scan technique and only read items of interest.

4. Sort usable information. Google reader has several features such as starring items and marking them as read which help to sort information. Louis Gray suggests using the share or share with note option to leave comments on interesting items. If these items are public, you may even start an interesting conversation around an item.

5. Be choosy when adding new feeds. The temptation is always there to add more and more feeds as you travel through the Internet. Some bloggers such as Om Malik have raised concerns with RSS feeds becoming spam like in the content that they are sending through as feeds. Therefore, it is important to be selective with what you sign up to view or you can quickly become overwhelmed.

Using RSS feeds in education

While it may seem as if I am down on RSS, I do see some value in using these feeds for research purposes, whether as a student or as a teacher. RSS is great for receiving up to date information on the latest trends. They can be used for students as a way to gather information on a particular topic or for teachers who are engaging in professional development. As an administrator, I can see value in RSS helping me to be able to share current information with my staff.

RSS does have the capacity for helping readers collect a large quantity of information on any topic in a simple fashion. However, like any tool, users need to be purposeful in how they use the tool so that they don't suffer a bad case of information overload. If this happens to you, take a dose of my prescription and you'll be feeling better in no time.


  1. Thanks for sharing and so early! I will be taking any organizational tips seriously from you Tara, and plan to consider sharing some of your tips in my upcoming post on the topics of RSS!

    ~:) Heather

  2. Tara, you have shared a wealth of information on blogs, aggregators, RSS feeds. I like your plan for RSS success. I, too, must make a point of weeding out that which I will not be getting around to, otherwise, I will have only an information overload.

  3. Hi Tara,

    My post has been published and I shared your five tip plan for RSS success, in a slightly condensed format! Thanks for your insight.

    See my post if you want to see your handy work in action - for me pd is really all about seeking best practices and using them for the betterment of our programs work - thanks for making it so easy!

    ~:) Heather Kennedy-Plant,