Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Use Google Reader to Consume Efficiently

Google Reader
One of the principles of digital literacy is learning to consume information intelligently. That means finding worthwhile sources and effectively filtering; it means structuring and channeling sources so they can be readily accessed or found later.

Enter Google Reader.

Google Reader (available to anyone with a Gmail or Google account by just going to is a feed aggregator.

It's a what?

Yes, a feed aggregator. That means it can collect designated information streams and bundle these together for efficient browsing, reading, and research.  Too many people either rely on destination sites to pull sets of information together (like newspapers or major media outlets). Or, they have a set of favorite sites or blogs which they make the rounds to (when they remember to do so). Google Reader (as other aggregators) makes it possible to be highly selective in one's information sources, and to have this richer stream pushed to you automatically and across different devices and platforms. There are social benefits, too, that I will get to.

My four suggestions for using Google Reader to maximize your information consumption:

  1. Find and subscribe to feeds.
  2. Figure out how to read the feeds.
  3. Mark, tag, and share items of interest.
  4. Review tagged items and feeds.
1. Find and Subscribe to Feeds
I've made it easy on my students by putting together a "bundle" of all the feeds from each of the individual student blogs. By subscribing to one feed (here), they are automagically subscribing to all 18 blogs in the current course. 

In general, however, I suggest that students inventory the websites that they regularly visit. Go to these sites, find the feed link, and paste this into Google Reader (in some browsers, you just have to click on the feed link and it will give you the option to subscribe within Google Reader if you are logged in to Gmail).

Google Reader has an "Explore" panel on the left pane that will suggest recommended feeds (based on feeds you've already subscribed to). And if you use Google Reader socially (by following others' shared items from Google Reader), this supplies you a social filter that can lead to new sources for feeds. 

There are more advanced ways of discovering feeds that I will put off explaining until I get more into the topic of using blogs for academic research. But in short, you can subscribe to blogs and websites, to update streams from favorite people, to social bookmark streams, to saved searches, and to media content (images, podcasts, videos). More on that later. 

2. Figure out how to read the feeds.
This means figuring out where and when you will regularly consume this curated information, and it also means having a strategy for moving through a lot of content. First -- and this is very important -- you must make a habit of reading feeds. Now, I say this with due caution and several qualifications. It is as easy to be overwhelmed by a few feeds coming into your reader as it is to do general searching on the Internet. You have to let go of the idea of reading everything that comes in, and you must feel comfortable with hitting the "Mark all as read" button near the top when items have piled up in your reader. 

Not everyone has a smart phone, but if you do, it is an excellent way to consume feed content. Something about a portable device says "I'm not going to spend hours on this, and I can sample and skip a lot." I suggest that people make a habit of reading feeds before they sit down to participate in social networking or in creating content. This helps people get past being isolated. There are far too many people who blog a monologue into the ether, never bothering to see what others are saying, even about their own subjects.

It's possible to read items in Google reader in a "list view" and in an "expanded view." I suggest scanning things in the list view and only going to the expanded view of items of real interest. Let the rest go. Make sure that after your session you click on the "Mark all as read" button at the top so you don't feel like you are getting behind.

As you scan down articles, or skim them quickly, use the little star button feature on the top left of each item and click this if it looks like something you might like to return to. Then, after having gone through all of the titles of items in the reader and clicking the "Mark all as read" button, go to the top left of Google Reader and click on the "Starred items" icon. This will bring up just those posts that you thought deserved a bit more attention. Give them that extra attention now. But as always, don't let yourself get stuck feeling as though you must read every word of every post or item that you starred. 

I should note that there are many different news readers or feed aggregators besides Google Reader. Interestingly enough, most of those give you the option to pipe in your Google Reader feeds directly. As for myself, I use at least three different feed readers on my iPad and iPhone -- partly because I enjoy the different design layout for these. And the beauty of it is that all of these stay magically in sync because they communicate two ways with Google Reader. So, something I star when reading my feeds through Fliboard on my iPad will show up as starred when I pull up starred items on the Byline app on my iPhone, and if I add a note to an item in MobileRSS on my iPhone, this will appear when I use Net News Wire on my desktop computer. Often, though, I simply use the Google Reader interface itself. But I love the flexibility, and the fact that I can always get info I want pushed to me on all my devices and from any web browser, and that I can always find items I've marked or tagged from previous surfing.

3. Mark, tag, and share items of interest.
Part of consuming is not just selecting, filtering, and marking things for later closer reading; it includes marking up important content by using tags, and sharing content with others that you find important from your reading. At the bottom of each pane of content in Google Reader can be found a place where you can tag content. These tags then appear on the lower part of the left pane in Google Reader and give you another way back to the content later on. Along that same bottom pane where the tags feature can be found in each post, there are numerous choices available for sharing. These include "email" (not recommended, since this is private), "share" (meaning that items you mark like this will appear in the feeds of those who are following your Google Reader account); "share with note" (allowing you to annotate your thinking about a given item), and "like" (much like the same feature in Facebook). There are settings available to send shared items to other services like Twitter, Facebook, or Evernote, too.

So, if you've learned the art of consuming information through Google Reader, you are constantly adding value to a personal reference and research resource (by starring or tagging items), and you are adding value to your social graph (by sharing items of interest). This is where CONSUME and CONNECT combine nicely.

4. Review tagged items and feeds.
It is all too possible to mark a lot of items but never review these, or to keep accumulating new feeds without pruning duds. That's why it's important periodically to review one's tagged or starred items and to chop out feeds that are just not doing it for you.

I must end with a caution. Google Reader can become just another way to feel overloaded, overwhelmed, and burdened by information. I've gotten to the point where I have hundreds of feeds that result in literally thousands of items left unread in my reader. I have to tell myself I do not have any obligation to read all of this material, or even to pay very much attention to most of it. I have to tell myself to be ruthless in rooting out feeds that are "meh" and attentive to the ones that are pay dirt. There is a tool you can use after awhile called "trends" (in the top left panel of Google Reader). This gives you stats about your feeds and your reading of them. Use that tool to decide what to toss out as you continually refine your input stream. 

These are excellent habits for consuming info. If you've been following these suggestions, it will not be long before you will have accumulated a lot of things you are glad you can easily find or search. Google Reader allows you multiple ways of finding items that have gone through the aggregator. In the top left panel one can click on starred items, shared items, items with notes, or on any of the tags accumulating down the left pane. And best of all, one can search the full text of saved items (again, one can limit this search to shared items, starred items, etc.). Take it from someone who has been searching the Internet and researching dozens of topics for years. One always forgets what one has looked at, and later it is very helpful to have done some minor tagging and sorting along the way. Google Reader can make you a much smarter consumer of information.

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