What Is RSS and Why Should I Care?

Author's Note: This entry from my archives was written on March 18, 2007 and has been sitting in my drafts folder ever since.  Not sure why I didn't publish it at the time.  I think I was going to add more, but never got around to it.  At any rate, this was back then RSS feeds were a trendy, new-ish thing and this article was supposed to be a less technical discussion of what they are and why they're good.

These days, of course, RSS is passé, and when people refer to a "feed", it's usually coming from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever vendor-locked service the kids are using this week.  I find this sad.  The idea of the open web was so promising, but not that much really came of it.  Instead of being spoon-fed our information and entertainment by big media companies via broadcast and print media, we're now spoon-fed our information and entertainment via the internet by big tech companies.  And this time, the content is not selected by gate-keeping editors, but by AI algorithms that are tuned to feed us whatever will keep us clicking, with little to no regard for whether it's true, useful, or even remotely good for us.

For the record, I still use RSS feeds all the time.  I use the Tiny Tiny RSS aggregator, which is quite nice, to read the various blogs and news that I'm interested in following.  I have accounts with a few of the big social media platforms, but I rarely ever read them and never post anything.  I find them to be a huge time-sink and not especially conducive to good mental health, and so better off avoided.  Of course, your mileage may vary, but just keep in mind that you don't need to look at these sites - if anything truly important happens, someone will tell you about it.  I mean, unless you're a shut-in with no friends or family.  In that case, maybe social media is a good thing for you.  

At any rate, these were my thoughts in 2007.  Perhaps they'll be interesting or enlightening.  Or perhaps entertaining in their naivete.  Enjoy!

If you frequent tech sites or weblogs, you've probably seen the RSS icon RSS feed icon or the XML feed icon XML feed icon.  You may also have seen other icons or text links referring to XML feeds, RSS, or even podcasts.  In fact, if you're using a web browser other than Internet Explorer, you may have seen one of these icons pop up in the address bar or status bar.  In this article, I will try to explain, in layman's terms, what RSS is and why it is so useful and important to the future of the internet.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication.  As this name suggests, it is a syndication format.  

By "syndication," we mean essentially the same thing as when we talk about syndicated television shows.  A syndicated TV show is one that is shown on multiple independent channels at the same time, as opposed to being exclusive to a single network.  So for example, a syndicated show in the United States might be broadcast by NBC, Fox, the Sci-Fi channel, and USA all at the same time.

RSS works the same way.  An RSS file, usually referred to as a feed, contains a list of recent updates to a site.  The site operators publish this file on the web site and allow other people to subscribe to it, which is really just a fancy way of saying they automatically download it on a regular basis.  These people can then "republish" the information, either by incorporating it into their own sites or simply reading it into a desktop application.  The idea is that if the site's operators update the RSS feed every time they update the site, anyone who subscribes to it will automatically get the next "episode" the next time he downloads the file.

But what would I do with it?

If you are not already familiar with RSS, you may be wondering why anyone would bother with this.  After all, if you just want to read the updates of a site, isn't it just as easy to read the home page?  

At this point, you may be thinking that this doesn't sound much different from just visiting the web site in question.  After all, why would you want to bother with this RSS thing when you can just go to the site's home page like you've been doing for years?  

You wouldn't be wrong to think that.  If you're talking about just one site, with one set of updates to track, then RSS doesn't make any sense.  It would just be a different way of doing the same thing.

The beauty of RSS is that, unlike a web page, you can easily write a program to break up the information and organize it in a useful way.  For example, you can have a script on your web site that takes RSS news feeds from CNN, the BBC, and others and puts them all together in a news ticker on your home page.  You can also have programs such as RSS aggregators, which pull together news items from multiple sites and display them together so that you can browse them quickly and easily.  

I will discuss some other uses of RSS, including the trendiest of them all, Podcasting, later in this article.  (Note from the future: I never actually did that.)  But before that, we need to cover why RSS is useful and separate the fact from the hype.

A brief technical digression

What makes RSS so useful and so widely applicable is that it is a standard format.  It is an application of XML, the eXtensible Markup Language, which is an industry standard markup language for use with structured information.  I won't bore you with a description of XML, but the upshot of this is that RSS files all contain a certain set of standard information which is always marked with the same standard tags.  This means that a program can easily go through the file and pick out particular pieces of information, like the title of a particular news item, without having to pay any attention to what the title actually says or how it is formatted for display.  And because RSS is based on XML, there is already a wide array of programming tools that can be used to create and manipulate the files.

This is in stark contrast to web pages.  Although HTML, the markup language used to build web pages, has a standard set of tags, there is no standard for how a page is structured.  So while there are fixed ways of defining lists, tables, and paragraphs in HTML, there is no agreed upon way to say, "This is a news item, this is its title, and this is the link to its page in the archives."  (Note from the future: With the advent of HTML 5 this is no longer technically true.  However, semantic markup is not universally or consistently applied, so it's still close enough.)  So while a human being can easily look at a page full of items and determine where one ends and the next begins, there is no simple and general way for a computer to do that.  Because everyone is free to pick how they want to denote those things, a program would have to analyze the content of the page and figure out what the author of each page was thinking.  Needless to say, this kind of mind-reading is not something computers are particularly good at.

Getting past the hype

You know what the computing industry is best at producing?  It's not software, hardware, or anything else you can buy in the local office supplies store.  It's hype.  And to really appreciate how good RSS is, you have to get past the hype generated breathless pundits who seem to think it will cure cancer, feed the starving, and bring peace to the world.  (Note from the future: Nobody gives two hoots about RSS or XML anymore.  Hype has a very limited life span.)

From a technical standpoint, there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about RSS.  It's just a standard way of formatting a text file.  You could even create an RSS file in Windows Notepad if you really wanted to.  

And when you think about it, using RSS feeds is just a fancy name for putting a text file on your web site and then letting people download it and mess around with the information it contains.  How is that revolutionary?  We could do that 20 years ago.  

However, it is important to remember that "revolutionary" and "innovative" are not the same as "good."  RSS is good because it provides a standard way of transmitting certain kinds of information in a way that puts all the power in the hands of the consumer, not the publisher.  It's not the technology itself that's revolutionary, but rather the way people have chosen to apply it.

The real reason RSS and the whole "Web 2.0" thing are important is not because of the technology, but because of the paradigm.  That paradigm is: the user is king.  In an era where Hollywood and the music industry are trying to tell you when and where you're allowed to use the music and movies you paid for, open standards put that power in your hands.  (Note from the future: People have forgotten about that aspect, so now "Web 2.0" means "the site uses AJAX."  Also, substitute "Hollywood" for "big tech companies.")

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