I recently wrote this article for a website I’m involved in and thought I might put it up here. I did have the idea of starting a series of articles on my website of which this would be the first one. But then I though that the blog does the same job. So here it is:
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and is a lovely, wondrous thing that is transforming the web. Simply put it means that the content (text, images, articles, poems, blog entries etc) from a site can all be added to one handy file on the website that is freely accessible by anyone. This handy file uses the miracle computer language known as XML, which has revolutionised the storage of information, particularly on the web.
The file, for example one can be seen at http://www.wiblog.com/geektimes/wiblog.xml, is in such a format that although it looks a bit confusing to the human eye, machines can read it easily. Not only that, but they can format the text in it. So this means that using a handy RSS program (known as a “feed reader”, RSS files are known as “feeds”) you can view the latest information put on your favourite websites without going to them at all. And the titles, text, images, links etc can all be laid out in pretty much any way you want.
The feed reader I prefer is called Bloglines, and is actually a website at www.bloglines.com. I like it because it keeps track of what I’ve read and what I haven’t, so I don’t have two lists of feeds I read at work and at home. I can, if I want, start reading an article at work and finish it at home, and Bloglines will rememer what bits I’ve read.
Using Bloglines, or indeed any other feed reader, you “subscribe” to the feeds you want to read, and the software takes care of going to the website to see if any new information has been posted. So for news sites I see headlines with links to the articles within minutes of them being posted, delivered right to my desktop. For Amazon I can keep check on the most popular selling items in any category. And of course I can keep up to date with dozens of weblogs very easily.
Wiblog.com has the power of RSS under it’s belt – there’s a link on each menu (near the bottom) to the RSS feed so people know the address to subscribe to. In fact the blog at stillbreathing.co.uk is powered by the RSS feed of my Geektimes blog on Wiblog.com, so I only have to write my articles once and they appear in both places.
In case someone says “RSS, ugh!” to you, there are several different formats of feeds available. We think RSS is the best (which is why Rhys kindly collected information about it for me a couple of years ago), but there are also other formats such as RDF and Atom. Different blog websites use different, or sometimes multiple, feed formats. It doesn’t matter – most feed readers are capable of reading pretty much anything. That’s one of the great advantages of using the XML language, it’s universal.
For the curious: XML.com has a good introduction to the syndication phenomenon.
For the technical: Here is the specification for the RSS format.
For webby types: This article will, if you let it, blow your mind as to the possibilities of data sharing on the internet.
Information syndication is fast becoming indispensible for many people. Just think – it’s like having pay-per-view on the web, but without paying. Fantastic.