Tools to Organize Your Digital Life
Everyday we find more and more online sources of news and information that we would like to connect with to stay informed. The challenge is keeping up with our favorite news columns, industry journals, and blogs as well as our friends, family, and colleagues … not to mention maybe a few celebrities, tv programs, and products. While bookmarking sites like Yahoo! Bookmarks and Delicious make good reference tools, they don’t actively notify us of updates. Most websites provide the option to sign up for updates and newsletters by email, but this can make your inbox more difficult to manage (and you still often have to visit the individual websites to see the full content). If you are an email subscription junkie, you should use Filters to organize your mailbox. In most mail applications, you can setup filters to automatically sort your incoming mail into folders based on email address, subject line, etc. This keeps lower-priority emails out of your inbox, but easy to find.
Almost any person, place, or thing you may have an interest in following has a presence on Facebook and Twitter these days. Many professional, educational, and industry organizations have pages or forums on LinkedIn. There are also numerous other niche communities for specific interests including music, photos, and recipes. While these sites enable you to connect to a large number of people and organizations, the downside of most of these networks is that you have to continually monitor your real-time information streams and filter through them to find the items of most interest to you, which can be time consuming. One solution is to use an application called NutshellMail which will provide you with Digest Emails of your network updates from many of these networks at a schedule of your choosing. Conversely, a useful tool that lets you send updates to all of your networks at one time is Ping.fm.
One of the oldest ways of consolidating streams of information is using a News (or RSS) Reader. The news reader has been around as long as the internet itself. It is simply an application that let’s you “subscribe” to sources of content that you are interested in. It lets you read all of your updates in one spot, and it will mark the items you viewed as “read” so you know what you have and haven’t yet seen.
Almost every source of information that you might like to keep track of (including social network sites) has an “RSS feed” link (stands for “Really Simple Syndication” and is the feed format standard most commonly used today). And most browsers will auto-detect if a website has a feed, allowing you to easily subscribe by clicking on the orange RSS icon (). For instance, the feed address for this blog (link on top right) is http://feeds.feedburner.com/technologymaven. You can get a nice desktop news reader like Feeddemon, although an online newsreader like the popular Google Reader provides more flexibility in that you can access it from any computer. There are also versions of these news readers for most mobile PDA phones and devices, which let you monitor your feeds on-the-go and keep them in sync.
My favorite way to organize my online information is using a Start Page. My Yahoo is arguably the father of the start page (known as a “portal” in the 90’s). It provides a customizable “dashboard” type of interface with a huge number of modules to choose from that you can add to your page. There are modules not only for most news sources, but also ones that add functionality like calendars, email, stocks, weather, and even your facebook updates. If a particular feed you’re looking for isn’t built-in, you can add it yourself using “Add RSS Feed”. What’s even nicer is you can create multiple pages, each with its own tab, and organize your content by topic such as “Finance”, “Technology”, “Entertainment”, etc. Google also developed its own start page called iGoogle which offers much of the same functionality, plus it also will track your “read” and “unread” items much like a news reader.
Another popular start page is Netvibes, which has an attractive and easy-to-use interface as well as both “reader” and “widget” style views. By allowing you to organize your information the way that best works for you, a start page lets you monitor all of your news and social network activity with only a glance!
The immense volume of information available on the web is both the blessing and the curse of the internet age. There will undoubtedly continue to be tools developed to help us manage our digital lives.