RSS – not just for geeks anymore

With all this hullabaloo about how neat and nifty web 2.0 technologies need to be made more mainstream, useful and practical technologies can often be forgotten. One of the things out there that I believe is a core part of web 2.0 is syndicated content, known variously as (thanks to competing standards) RSS, Atom, and XML (in the early days) feeds. What exactly do all these acronyms represent? Well, it’s complicated, but basically it’s a way to stay up-to-date on the newest content and information from your favourite websites – essentially subscribing to them, and allowing you to focus on quality content instead of having to weed out the junk. It’s a form of crack for tech news junkies who have to be “in the know” about everything new that happens.

A little background

The history of RSS is complex and coloured with many differing non-compatible standards all using this three-letter acronym. Of these, RSS 2.0 and RSS 0.91 seem to be the most popular, with perhaps RSS 2.0 becoming more popular with time. You shouldn’t have to worry about all of these differences, as anyone who makes a quality news reader/aggregator, the software used to subscribe to these feeds is probably aware of this and has made their software compatible with all these different versions.

To further add to the confusion, another syndication format, Atom was also developed back in 2003, in response to RSS not being an open format, such as XHTML. As a result, Atom was developed, and is the only format with the IETF’s backing, and hence the only format with a proper, recognized, MIME-type. It thus has a large following among the geeks and tech-saavy, who are perhaps the only people in the world concerned with such things – not that this is such a bad thing. However, most common folk only care “that it works”. (Note: WordPress offers Atom feeds as well as RSS feeds; I simply have not linked to them for brevity and so as not to create confusion with multiple feed links for the same content.)

So, how does it work?

In very basic terms, syndicated content doesn’t utilize any new web technologies, in contrast with, for example, BitTorrent. Instead, to create an RSS/Atom feed, a website will make another copy of regularly-updated content, except it will be formatted and marked up in a certain, XML-friendly way, so that it can be read easily by news readers/aggregators. This file is known as the “feed”, or its location as the “feed URL”. The contents of the feed have been formatted very carefully, and if you were to look at the source, it would look similar to HTML markup, except maybe a bit more complicated.

These feeds are almost always generated by software, and not by hand, thus they fit very nicely into most blogging and CMS software. They usually only contain content, and some useful metadata about it, such as publishing date, author and so forth, and thus allow the reader to get at what’s useful, without having to remember to visit that website.

How’s it helpful?

On their own, the feeds wouldn’t be very much use. But the other side of it is client software called feed readers, news readers or aggregators. These allow the reader to “subscribe” to feeds that they choose – in effect, making a list of sites whose content they are interested in seeing when it is updated with new information.

I hesitate to use the word “subscribe”, since although it’s useful to describe the concept (sort of like subscribing to a magazine you like), the process is not the same. Unlike subscribing to a newspaper that’s delivered to your doorstep (A “push” service), news readers actually subscribe by “pulling” the data to your computer. Thus, a news reader will check a feed to see if it’s been updated; if it has, it will download the new data. Thus unsubscribing is fully within your grasp; the act of “unsubscribing” merely means removing the feed URL from your reader, so there’s no real possibility of spam like with e-mail.

It’s useful since it allows you to dilute the vast quantity of new information on the web everyday down to what you consider to be useful. If you’re like me, you are interested in stuff like web design, development, technology and the like. Once I find a site or blog that I like, I subscribe to its RSS feed, and thus I no longer have to continually search the web to find interesting information, and can keep up to date on new developments.

So, how do I get started?

Syndication has been around for long enough that there are many mature news readers out there. Wikipedia used to have a good list, but it was deleted by the admins over there after an extensive discussion, because we all know how evil link lists can be and how they’re destorying Wikipedia and the moral fabric of America. However, they did link to this somewhat hard-to-read directory of RSS readers – the list is huge.

There are different types of readers, based on what you need. The traditional reader will install
onto your computer and provides an interface similar to an e-mail client. Popular ones include clients from NewsGator, and of course the built-in functionality offered by Mozilla’s Thunderbird client, and the “Live bookmark” option in Firefox. However, the built-in options in Thunderbird and Firefox are limited, in my opinion.

The other, newer breed are web applications that provide news aggregation. Currently, I’m using Google Reader, and am liking it. While it may not offer all the functionality of a regular software client, I like the fact that I can access it from any computer, and it’s fairly fast. Subscribing to feeds is also very easy; you don’t even need to entire the correct feed URL. If you enter a website URL (such as, it will automatically see if there’s any feed URLs linked from the site, and will subscribe to them. The layout is also decent, and I haven’t had any problems with it. Google Reader even provides a feed of its own, so you can subscribe to this feed to view your aggregated feeds!

Other options include “widgets”, either for desktop widget engines such as the Yahoo! Widget Engine, or online widgets for portal sites such as Google’s “I Google”, or Microsoft’s new Live service. These allow you to view your feeds in small boxes of information that are part of a personalized home page. I don’t really use these types of sites all that much, but they can be useful to many so its worth a mention.

Your world, your information

So, in conclusion, get out there, and start feeding! It’s easier to read and absorb useful information when its already been stripped down to what you care about, and syndicated content is allowing that.

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