What is RSS?

Nerding out on a rainy Sunday

RSS = Really Simple Syndication. Right… that doesn’t help much so this article will go into a bit more detail about what RSS is and why it might be useful to you.

To most people, a web browser is the internet. Email through Outlook and the web through IE. What else might there be? Well, there has been more for years, as long as there’s been an internet but most of the “side technologies” have not made it into the mainstream and have been used mostly by serious computer users and hackers (in the best sense of that word).

But, in the same way that iPods are changing what it means to carry a lot of music around and cell phones can do text messaging and web surfing, categories are changing and we ought not be stuck in only the paradigms that are familiar.

I started getting an inkling of this when I first installed the beta of OS X and saw the then crude but effective Sherlock. Sherlock reads database information from various sources out on the internet and displays that information in its window: stock quotes, phone numbers, maps, dictionary definitions. Yet, Sherlock is just a “reader,” it doesn’t have any dictionary definitions or stock information in it: it reads that information from sources out on the internet and it formats the information in a way that’s easier to look at than most web sites. So, dictionary.com on the web or the same data through Sherlock? No brainer. Sherlock wins every time.

What this meant to me was a paradigm shift: the information at dictionary.com was separable from the web site and could be subscribed to by applications like Sherlock. Wow, that was a huge revelation to me at the time.

If you get what I just said about Sherlock reading dictionary.com, then RSS will not be a hard concept to swallow. An RSS reader (sometimes called “newsreader” is simply an application for aggregating (collecting), displaying, and reading feeds. Just as Sherlock can display the content from dictionary.com’s dictionary database, an RSS reader can display the feeds from any web site with a public RSS feed.

I think it took building my own weblog a year ago to push me over the hump to start using RSS and because I was reading so many other people’s weblogs to learn about weblogs, I found the best way to keep track of them was with an RSS Reader. Later I added The New York Times and other, non-weblogs to my feed collection but it was learning about weblogging that pushed me over the hump and weblogs are the technology that has popularized RSS feeds more than any other.

But, as said in a great interview with Mac OS X RSS application authors at DrunkenBlog, there is going to be a time, relatively soon, when a lot of people are going to get it. The interview will really help as it makes basic concepts clear and is extremely well written.

You can now get RSS feeds on PDAs and smart phones and other, hand-held devices. So, the message, messenger, and way of interpreting the message are all changing at once. Yikes!

A dramatic statement
For me, using an RSS reader has been the biggest technological upgrade in the way I use my computer online in years. My RSS Reader (NetNewsWire) is the most important application on my computer for organizing, scanning, and reading news, articles, weblogs, online photograph collections, and more. Simply, if I had to use a web browser (I use Safari) to scan the sites I scan multiple times a day with the RSS reader, I would not have time to have a life. If you get into this, it will change the way you do things with your computer. I’m sure of it.

The key to this is aggregation: having all the feeds collected and displayed in one place. Just like google news is a great way to see news from many sources, an RSS reader can aggregate all of the things you want to keep track of every day.

Below I’ll go through a step by step process on downloading and setting up an RSS reader on your computer. But, let’s dig a bit first, just for the nerdy fun of it.

Okay, now what is it?
RSS is a way for web sites to publish a “feed” and for all of us to subscribe to it. Yes, sort of like an email newsletter but with much better technology minus the spam.

The “feed” is the information at the web site in a form that an RSS reader can read and display. When you click on either of the subscribe buttons on the sidebar of this site, you get an URL in your browser and a window full of what looks like unformatted text. That text, when fed to an RSS reader, will look great. Note, most browsers can’t display it correctly.

So, if you were already subscribed to this site with an RSS reader application (see below) when I publish this article you will immediately see a new headline in your RSS reader with the title of this article and a link to the site so you can then decide if you want to read more than the headline. You can decide at that point whether the article interests you and if it does, click on it to bring it up in your browser.

Why would you want to do this if you already have a browser running and scan many sites daily?
Good question and there’s a good answer: Because an RSS reader is a single place that keeps track of all the sites you’re subscribed to and only shows you the new stuff, not the old. For those of you still stuck in the stone age of email mailing lists, RSS is a better way to find out about updates and news, all in one place, easily.

I would argue, and I am, here I go, that RSS, while not built as “assistive technology” is more accessible than a large, graphics-heavy web page that has ads and other distracting stuff on it. Why? Because access is more than just reading, it’s also visual organization and filtering. An RSS reader only gives you the headlines to skim (it will read them aloud for you too if you need that kind of support) and only the headlines you’ve not read yet.

Scan the New York Times web site vs. scanning the same headlines in an RSS Reader. Less distraction, and everything is neatly organized.

Read more about RSS
There are lots of good sources to read more. Here are a few for those of you who are interested:

Some modern web browsers are now starting to include the ability to track RSS, there are web sites that help in the tracking of RSS and then there are client applications for doing it.

Some RSS Reader Client Applications

I’ve stuck with NetNewsWire but each RSS reader application has it’s own personality and you should try them all to see which one feels right for you.

Setting up and using an RSS Reader
1. Download and install an RSS reader client from the above list. If you’re running Windows I’ve given you less choice, not because there is, but because I know less about that OS. There are undoubtedly many more Readers for the Windows platform. Search. Ask.

2. Run the RSS application. Many of them come with feeds for popular sites installed already. Poke around and see how the application works.

3. Switch to your browser, either hiding the RSS app temporarily or quitting it.

3. Here are the RSS feeds for this site:

RSS feed for all content

RSS feed for all comments

You can find them on the sidebar as well on any page of this site.

When you click on “RSS feed for all content” you are presented with, as said above, a screen full of seemingly unformatted text. Ignore that text, that’s not what you’re after.

4. Find the url in your browser’s address space:

5. Copy that url onto the clipboard.

6. Run the RSS application if you had quit it, or bring it to the front.

7. Find the button or menu that allows you to “Subscribe” to a new feed.

8. Paste the url from the clipboard in. NetNewsWire will do some of this for you so don’t be alarmed. The feed should self-identify as LD Resources and you should see a list of recent posts (the last 20).

9. After you have scanned and dismissed each of the items from this site you’re all up to date. The next time you run the RSS Reader it will check the feed from this site and if there is something new it will show it to you. You can then click on it to bring it up in your browser if you’re interested or just click on it to tell the RSS reader that you’ve looked at it.

As you accumulate more feeds you may want to categorize them: news, weblogs, computer, discussions, etc. I have over 100 feeds in my RSS reader and they’re all categorized in a way that makes moving through them fast and easy, much faster and much easier than visiting those same sites through a browser.

Here’s some more reading to get you fired up
I had no idea that NPR has rss feeds. Now we can track Fresh Air and all our other shows much more easily.

Life Interrupted looks at the balance between being connected (mobile phone, wifi, rss feeds) and trying to lead a more contemplative life. This article gets right at the heart of the two “plates” (ideas, lifestyles) rubbing past each other. I like to look at my feeds and then cut firewood. Somehow that works for me. Or does it?

The bottom line is that I learned that NetNewsWire can search for any syndicated weblogs that contain key words, any key words. In the case of the above experiment, the blog pushed out “bug report on netnewswire” and Brent Simmons, the author of the program had said program set up to automatically find any syndicated blogs that mentioned “netnewswire.” Oh man… this is deep.

10 x 10 is an array of 100 words and images that is built from a scan of RSS feeds.

Every hour, 10×10 scans the RSS feeds of several leading international news sources, and performs an elaborate process of weighted linguistic analysis on the text contained in their top news stories.

WIRED News has a story on RSS Attracting Really Serious Money in the form of early VC investment and growing public interest in both RSS and the blog world.

RSS Feeds from AppleThe New York Times RSS Feeds

I’ll post most site and feeds here from time to time and you all should look on sites you frequent for “RSS Feed” links and check them out.

I am sure that some of you will not get this (don’t worry, next month, year, decade) but those of you who do, let me know what you think by replying to this post.

Have fun.

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