News Aggregators

Take note: a post that isn’t topical! I want to talk about news aggregators for a while. I am hooked. I’ve always been a gearhead and info junkie, and this concept really has changed the way that I blog. For those of you who don’t know, a news aggregator is a program that grabs XML/RSS feeds from websites (usually blogs) and puts them into an interface that collects them all together. A lot of them are set to check a list of feeds regularly, and let you know when there is something new.

Morgan Wilson has a good post on what a news aggregator is. The thing to remember about an aggregator is that it really isn’t doing anything complicated. Your choice of aggregator comes down to what you want to use it for. I was using Wildgrape’s Newsdesk for a while on my work laptop. It was convenient at work, because it ran all the time, and I could check a little toolbar click-let to see what was new. One drawback, though, was that it was a little bit of a pain to add blogs to it, but I tend to add them in spurts. I’ll either add one because someone else linked to a site that I liked (I tend to browse the main page after I read an article), or I’ll go digging through blogrolls, and subscribe a whole bunch at once.

The problem that I had with Newsdesk was that it was tied to my laptop. I don’t use my laptop at home unless I am working. I have a PC at work, but I use Macs at the house. That meant that since I blog mainly via commenting on links, I ended up doing a lot of blogging at work. (This is a bad thing, since I should be doing more working than blogging at work.) I like to blog at home, but you get hooked on an aggregator very quickly. The answer was a server-side aggregator.

Aggregators are, after all, just a collection of links. Some of the bigger aggregators, like Amphetadesk live on your computer, but use the web browser for display. There is no reason that you can’t put the catalog on a server and access the server via the web. That is what server-side aggregators do. One of the aggregators I looked at was Bloglines. It is a server side setup, but the problem that I had with it was that it was their server, not mine. I ended up using Feed on Feeds.

It is ugly. It isn’t especially user-friendly. It is itch-ware. That means that the author of the program had something that he wanted to get done, so he bashed together a program that does just what he wanted, and nothing else. I love itch-ware. I don’t care that it is ugly. I might look into putting in the things that itch me about it (and call it VA-Feed on Feeds — VA for Value Added) since it is a GPL app. That is the great thing about open source. It is perfect for what I want it for. I don’t have to worry about someone else’s server flipping out and hosing a bunch of stuff (are you listening, Blogger?) If I can’t connect to my server for this, then I can’t blog any ways (my blog sits on the same machine.) It does what I want, and the price is right.

That brings me to the other half of this story. A long time ago, when I first started blogging, someone told me, “I wish you had an RSS feed, so I could keep up with your site.” My thought at the time was, “you lazy bum, just check in every few days!” Now I realize how naive I was. I would do the same thing everyday. I would check out Instapundit, Best of the Web, and LGF (links on the side) every day, and about once a week, I would dig through a list of bookmarks. If you weren’t on the Trinity, I didn’t see you. If I hit your site a couple of times and didn’t see something that really grabbed me, you rotated off the list. When I am tackling it all at once, it gets too big to handle.

Then I got an aggregator, and I could keep up with all the little sites. If you had a site that only got updated once in a while, like USS Clueless or Eject! Eject! Eject! that I really liked reading, I could keep up with it, because I didn’t have to keep checking it. I could start keeping up with Texas blogs, like The Fat Guy and The Brazos de Dios Cantina.

The other thing that I realized was that I was hitting that bookmark list even less. I had so much info categorized that if you weren’t sending out a feed, you were below my radar. That was when I realized that I was below my own radar on Blogger. That was when I decided to move to Movable Type. Sure, Blogger was buggy, and it was crap on archives, and it didn’t have the best interface, but it was free and it worked. But I couldn’t get a feed without paying for it.

I didn’t mind paying for a feed, but that was all I was going to get. I could put the same money into a domain and get my own server running the same software that gets the Puppy Blender to go sacrifice a hobo and give you a link just for changing to it, and make everyone think that you know what you are doing. The automatic RSS feed was the killer app for MT, for me.

That is really the moral of the story. There are some sites like Rachel Lucas’ site and Insane Antonio that I really like to read, but they slip below my radar. If you are thinking about getting serious about blogging, get an aggregator. If you use one computer, I recommend sticking with one that lives on your computer. Then make sure that you are sending out an RSS/XML feed. It doesn’t even have to be a good feed. Mine sucks because I screwed it up trying to strip out the links in the titles that used at blogger (I never did succeed.) But just having it helps.

Update: Troy Hakala at emailed me to point out his service, and discuss possibly GPLing and releasing thier source code. I really like the service-oriented “give the software away and charge for hosting/support” model, and it is definately a server-side to look at if the ugliness of FoF puts you off.


  1. I’ve been poking around with News Monster running under Firebird for a week or two now. My problem is common: the damn dial-up at the ranch. Since I am a man of habit, I can’t do one thing at home, and another at the ranch. But I love the aggregator.

    PS I changed my feeds to send the whole entry. Does that matter to you, as a user/reader? I’m seriously interested.

  2. Phelps says:

    Not really. I usually go ahead and hit the page. There are a few more blogs that do that, like configsys.boy, and Jeff Jarvis, but that tends to bother me with the longer articles because I use it to filter and they take up a lot of screen real estate.

  3. So next question: if you’re hitting the page anyway, why bother with an aggregator, vs. just using a blogroll?

    Be gentle and patient with me — I’m just getting into the aggregator Cool Guy scene.

  4. Phelps says:

    Because I can use the aggregator to read the titles and first few lines, and filter it. CNN, Wired and some of the lefty sites I keep up with are the worst about having lots of crap to filter through.

    For most blogs, it gives me an idea of what to read first and what to save for later if I am short on time.