Some hints on how to use technology to save time and increase effectiveness when reading blogs.
This post is the result of a conversation during the UK Methodist Bloggers Meeting help 4 & 5 January 2008.
Blogs are web pages and so many of us read them normally within our normal Web Browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera etc). This works well and is of course the default for most of us when we end up at a blog page after a search on a search engine such as google. It also works well when exploring blogs (for example by following links within a blog post or when looking at a blogroll).
However, for regular reading of your favourite blogs this has a major flaw. The only way to discover if a blog has new content is by viewing it, very time consuming and inefficient (especially for both very active and very quiet blogs). Using this technique it is typically only possible to monitor a small number of blogs and even then it can be hard to feel part of the community.
The solution is at the heart of what makes a blog a blog. All blogs (essentially by definition) produce "feeds", sometimes called "newsfeeds". There are two main alternative formats for these which you may see mentioned "atom" and "rss". You will also see an icon for feeds such as . In simplistic terms a feed contains a list of new posts on a blog.
Feeds are of no (or very limited) use on their own, they are not designed to be human readable but to be read by computer software. So you use feeds in conjunction with a Newsfeed Reader. If you have not tried one before then I recommend that you start with either Bloglines or Google Reader. Both are free, both are web based (which means there is nothing to install on your computer). When you use either of these you can subscribe to any blog (or indeed any website with a feed) and the newsfeed reader will then track new posts for you.
Using either Bloglines or Google Reader (or one of the 1,000's of alternatives) saves hours. When you login you will see a list of all the blogs that you have subscribed to. All the blogs with new posts will be clearly marked (it is very like seeing your email organised into folders and seeing which folders have unread messages in them). You can then read the new posts within that browser window (much quicker as for example I can see all the new posts from UK Methodists in a single list and just page down through it). You can also open any post in a new window or tab (for example if you wish to leave a comment, write your own post, or view the complete original formatting).
All newsfeed readers offer other facilities as well (searching, marking etc).
Beyond using a newsreader to read/monitor blogs (and currently I have subscribed to 230 in bloglines) the other big help in reading blogs is Blog Flux Commentful. You can see when I discovered it via a helpful comment from Dave Faulkner on 42: Do blog comments work? Commentful makes it simple and practicable to contribute to discussions on blogs knowing that you can tell when extra comments are added. No more randomly going back to see if someone has replied to your comment. It is a huge time saver.
As with any well behaved web application commentful can provide you with a feed to monitor in your newsfeed reader (or you can use the plugin for Firefox). Other applications that can do this include facebook (all the notifications without cluttering up your email).