Misc: Automated notifications through RSS

RSS 101 - Feeds in a nutshell

In various places throughout the wiki here (and all over other web pages on teh intertubes) you'll see those orange-colored RSS "chicklets". For example, on all the forum pages you'll find them at the top or bottom, depending.

On a lot of sites, the chicklet itself is a clickable link that will take you to an .xml page that is "the feed" for that page. Here on the Wikidot pages, however, the chicklet itself isn't clickable. Instead, just to the right of it will be one or more text links that offer you different flavors of the RSS feed for that page or area of the wiki. For example, on all the forum pages of the site, you have a choice of grabbing a feed either for new threads in the forum or for new posts in the forum.

Now, you don't really want to actually click the chicklet (on other sites) or the links (on our wikidot sites), because all that will do is try to open the feed in your browser, and browsers like Firefox will ask you whether you want to add the feed to "Live Bookmarks" (a Firefox thingy). This isn't really what you want because these types of things are passive: you still have to go look at the live bookmark to see whether any new items in the feed have shown up since the last time you looked. That's not very user-friendly, is it?

There are some services out there like FeedBurner and Feedblitz that can watch a feed for you and send you a daily email digest of all the new things that have shown up in the feed that day. But of course the problem is that this happens only once a day, so that's not very user-friendly either.

The best approach is to download and install a dedicated program that can watch the feeds you tell it to and actually alert you (like your mail client does) when a new item comes in. There are many of these, but the one I'd recommend is FeedDemon. Here is a good article that explains why FeedDemon is good: Why FeedDemon is Better Than Google Reader and Bloglines

To read more about FeedDemon and to get the free download: Official FeedDemon page

RSS 102 - The ugly truth about private feeds

There are a lot of web-based feed readers. Most browsers have some type of built-in feed reader functionality (like Firefox's Live Bookmarks). You can even configure Outlook to grab your feeds and treat each new item like email (but this is a pain in the ass to do, IMO).

All of these methods work great for public feeds, but a lot of feeds are private and require the feed reader to authenticate itself with a username and password to the server that produces the feed. For example, our Karma Lab wiki is a public wiki, so you can use any of the feeds from that wiki in any of these various feed readers.

But our KLW Admin wiki for admins and moderators is a private wiki, so anything trying to access feeds from that wiki must authenticate itself to the wiki. This is a problem for two reasons:

  • For security reasons, your normal Wikidot username and password won't work. Instead, you must use a special encrypted version of your Wikidot password available from your My Account page here on Wikidot.
  • The other problem is that many feed readers, especially the web-based ones, cannot do authentication to private feeds. They're only good for checking public feeds.

The basic list of feeds

Not all of the available feeds for a Wikidot wiki are easy to find on the wiki itself. There's only a few places those chicklets appear, such as in the forum pages, your own Wikidot My account > Watched pages and discussions, etc.

A good listing of other available feeds can be found in this Wikidot Community how-to article: Be Notified - RSS Feed Guide

For example, one of the feeds listed in that article sends you an item any time any page on the wiki is changed. This might sound overwhelming, but you can scan the item headers quickly and it's pretty obvious what types of changes you might be interested in looking at. For example, when I see that the "source changed" on a page title that I'm interested in, you can follow the link from the feed reader and then at the bottom of the page click history to get a list of the changes and the ability to see each version, compare versions, etc. This can be very handy if you like to stay abreast of changes to the wiki content.

The specific feed that does this is http://karma-lab.wikidot.com/feed/site-changes.xml

The basic process if you have a desktop feed reader like FeedDemon

Note: This procedure assumes that you've already downloaded and installed FeedDemon, and that you have FeedDemon open and running on your desktop. (You can adapt this procedure to work with other feed readers too, if you don't like FeedDemon.)

Note: This procedure also assumes that you're using Firefox as your browser, so if you're using IE or some other browser you might need to adapt some of the instructions accordingly.

  1. In a browser window, go to the Karma Lab wiki and find one of those feed chicklets for the part of the site that you want to create a feed for. (You can also do this in the Notifications area of your My Account page.)
  2. Right-click the link for the feed you want and choose Copy Link Location to put the URL of the feed on your Windows clipboard.
  3. In the FeedDemon window, in the toolbar, click Subscribe. A popup appears with the copied feed URL already pasted into it.
  4. Click Next.
  5. If this is a secure feed from your My Account page, you're asked to specify the username and password needed to authenticate to the wiki, which is in the Notifications area of your My Account page.
  6. Click Next and choose the folder into which you want to place the feed.
  7. Click Finish.
  8. Now click Tools > Options, go to the Desktop Alert tab, and set the properties of how you want to be alerted for all the feeds that are configured for desktop alerts. (You can make it so that some feeds alert you and others don't).
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