Hundreds of millions of people use the Internet, but only a tiny minority of them are really into it. For most folks, the Internet is still a nebulous computer-related thingamajig obscured by too much useless information and cryptic jargon. Worse, it’s infested with spam email, viruses, spyware, pop-up advertisements, and other nasties.
How can you filter out the bad and useless and focus only on what’s good and useful? A lot of super-geeks have been asking the same question, and they’ve come up with some excellent solutions. Even better, a lot of those geek-built solutions are now available for free, and they’re not hard to use. You just have to think a little bit differently about how you interact with your computer.
Let’s start with your Web browser. That’s the program you use to access the World Wide Web. If you’re reading this article, your browser is probably a program called Internet Explorer, made by Microsoft. It came with your computer, it seems simple enough to use, and it’s absolutely chock full of bugs and security holes. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you already know that – the newspapers seem to announce a new “vulnerability” of Internet Explorer every few weeks, and there’s a whole industry built around selling you software that fixes those problems, one at a time, for a lot of money.
Instead, let’s fix all of those problems at once, for free. Click here, and follow the instructions to download and install a new Web browser called Firefox. When it asks if you want to import your bookmarks from Explorer, say yes, and you get to keep all of the useful information from your old browser. You will, however, have lost some features of Explorer, namely the bugs and the security holes.
Play around with Firefox for awhile. Look at the “Preferences” menus, especially the ones labeled “Privacy” and “Content.” Notice that “Block Popup Windows” is checked by default. No pop-up blockers to buy, nothing to configure – the browser just stops those annoyances automatically. If you visit a site where you actually need to see the pop-up boxes, just uncheck that preference.
Next, look in the “File” menu. Choose “New Tab,” and this page will disappear … but not really. Like a call-waiting feature for your browser, you can actually click between this page and the new one you just opened, up at the top of the screen. Cool, huh? It’s especially handy when you’re shopping for something online, and you want to read some unbiased reviews of the product. Just open a new tab, read the reviews over there, then tab back to the ordering page when you’re ready to decide. You’re not limited to two tabs, either, so go nuts.
Speaking of searches, I’ll assume you already know about Google, the greatest research tool ever devised for lazy people. Notice that in Firefox, there’s a little box at the right-hand end of the top bar, where you can enter search terms directly into Google, hit return, and get your results. A drop-down menu on that box lets you pick another search engine if you prefer.
I knew all that already, now what’s RSS?
Glad you asked. Let’s grab another excellent piece of free software here. Choose Firefox Add-Ons and browse around a bit – there are lots of very handy things you can add to your new browser, all free. Search for one called “Sage,” which is an RSS reader. Follow the instructions to install it (about three mouse clicks in most cases), and let’s try out this RSS thing. This will be easiest if you open this page in one tab, and the Firefox Add-Ons page in another tab, so you can flip back to this explanation as you proceed.
RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is like TiVo for the Internet. Instead of checking a dozen different newspapers and TV stations for the latest news, we’re going to let a piece of software monitor everything for us, then tell us only what’s new and interesting.
If your favorite news outlet has a Web site, it probably already has RSS feeds. By “subscribing” to these feeds with the Sage plug-in, you’ll get the headlines and first sentences of all of the stories that have been updated since the last time you checked. Click on a headline, and you’ll get the full story. Play around with Sage for a few minutes to see the general idea. If Sage isn’t visible immediately after you install it, check in the “Tools” menu of Firefox, and you should see “Sage” as an option.
A few feeds come already installed in Sage. To add more, just look for Web sites that have links saying “RSS,” or “XML,” often with an orange icon. On the CNN Web site, for example, you click the orange “XML” icon at the bottom of the front page. On the page that comes up after that, click the icon next to a category of news you want to subscribe to. Seconds later, you’ll be looking at … a page full of gibberish.
Okay, so this is where the Sage project’s user-friendliness crew still needs to do a little work, but until they’ve fixed this “feature,” you have to use a somewhat cumbersome procedure:
- Select and copy the feed’s URL (that’s the “http://…” text that’s now displayed at the top of the browser) with your mouse and the “Edit” menu.
- Go to the Sage sidebar, choose “Options,” then “Manage Feed List,” then “New Bookmark.”
- Paste the feed URL into the “Location” box.
Now you’ve subscribed to that feed, and you won’t have to go through that procedure again – until you want to subscribe to another feed.
There’s no fee to subscribe to an RSS feed, there’s no limit to the number of feeds you can subscribe to simultaneously, and you can cancel any subscription anytime. No salesman will visit your home.
Now, when you want the latest news, just open the Sage sidebar in Firefox and click on the different feeds. Unless you subscribe to hundreds of feeds, you can see most of the interesting developments in your world in a few minutes. That should tone down that annoying information overload we’ve all been experiencing.
Yeah, yeah, but you said you’d explain blogs
Everything in its time, Grasshopper. We needed to get RSS configured to really appreciate blogs. A blog is a very easy-to-edit Web site that allows its owner to “post” new entries to the top of the page. Whenever you visit someone’s blog, the latest post is right there on top, and reading down the blog takes you backward in time (not literally, of course). It’s like reading someone’s diary in reverse.
In fact, many blogs are personal diaries. When I said “easy-to-edit,” I meant it: if you can peck at a keyboard and click a computer mouse, you can be the master of your own professional-looking blog. Seriously. Visit Blogger, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Google, and check it out. Or try setting one up yourself. Like everything else I’ll mention in this article, it’s free, so don’t feel inhibited.
Other than teenage angst and raving lunacy, what can you find in blogs? All sorts of neat stuff. Many companies and magazines now run corporate blogs, and a lot of nonprofit groups find blogs useful for keeping their members informed. That’s because blogs are easy to edit, easy to link to each other, and easy to keep up with.
Virtually all blogs (including the one for this site) are RSS-enabled. Subscribe to a blog’s RSS feed, and you’ll be able to read any new entries whenever you check your other news feeds. When the blog isn’t being updated, you can ignore it.
Okay, so what’s a Wiki?
Wiki is a Web design concept named for the Hawai’ian word Wiki-Wiki, meaning quick. With a Wiki, people can collaborate on large, complex documents, linking and editing individual pages quickly. The original and most famous use for this technology was in creating Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia written by volunteers around the world.
One great thing about Wikipedia is that if you see an error in it, you can fix it, even if you have no technical skills whatsoever. As with blogs, if you can peck on a keyboard and click on a mouse, you can edit the site. Of course, the Wiki concept is well-covered in its own entry in Wikipedia. For thorough instructions on editing Wiki pages, see Wikipedia’s tutorial.
That’s a nice idea, but can a million primates banging on keyboards around the world really produce a useful encyclopedia? Well, yes. A pretty good study recently found that Wikipedia is now about as accurate as the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, and another project showed that even controversial topics, which some people are likely to vandalize in Wikipedia, tend to be corrected within minutes.
Because of its success and usefulness, the Wiki approach has now filtered into other sites, including this one. Companies commonly maintain Wikis on their corporate intranets, as a sort of collective knowledge base. Instead of going back and forth over email to hash out a topic, losing and repeating bits of information along the way, people working on a project together can simply edit the appropriate pages on their shared Wiki to reflect each new piece of information. The Wiki then becomes an evolving description of everyone’s best current understanding. Here at Dovdox, the same software lets us edit the site quickly and easily, while keeping all of the page formatting uniform.
Not every organization needs a Wiki, but it’s good to understand the concept anyway. If you’re not a computer expert, you’re probably an expert in something else. Some day soon, somebody may ask you to contribute that expertise to a collaborative Web site. When they do, just don’t ask whether Wiki is a Jedi or a Sith.