Reader email: What Is this RSS Thing?

Email from a reader: “Perhaps you could answer a quick question: What’s this RSS/XML thing? I’ve often wondered how blogs get known, and it seems this is part of the deal, but I am clueless on this “syndication” model and how it works. Is there some way to automate the process of cranking the code to put your blog in that format, on top of the HTML? Or have I really misunderstood the whole paradigm?”

Since this seems like a general interest question, and certainly one I’m interested in exploring further, I thought I’d tackle it here in my weblog!

RSS is Really Simple Syndication, and it’s basically the first tool that demonstrates the promise of XML as a machine parsed language. That is, when you come to my weblog, it’s a “push” mechanism and you’ll probably come back more and more sporadically over time, even if you find my content fabulously compelling.
If you were to subscribe to my RSS feed via an RSS program like NewsGator (Win) or NetNewsWire (Mac), however, the entire paradigm is flipped about, because that software will check for new postings automatically (or “pull” the data) and highlight when something new arrives for you.

I have about thirty different RSS feeds I track with NetNewsWire, mostly weblogs from friends and colleagues, and it frees me up from having to step through a list of bookmarks in my browser (which I wouldn’t do) while still letting me stay right on top of what they’re all saying.

Here’s a screenshot of how it looks when there’s news in a variety of venues:

netnewswire screenshot

The RSS feeds I currently track can be found in this OPML file (OPML stands for Outline Processor Markup Language) (don’t ask. it’s all just geektalk!) In the screenshot above, there are new entries for Inside Gretchen’s Head, Joel Comm, Lockergnome Bytes, MacCentral, Slashdot and Wired News. Indeed, you can see the new headlines from Wired News displayed, and the actual RSS entry for the article entitled Notaries try Electronic ID kit displayed in the main window.

In terms of generating the code, most weblog applications automatically generate at least the .xml if not the .rdf (newer format) files each time an entry is made. Movable Type, at least, does a very nice job with that, though I did tweak mine to include support for basic HTML to improve the visual appearance of my feed data.

I hope that’s helpful and answers the question. If there are more questions about RSS feeds and how it all works and what it means to the future of the Internet, both good and bad, ask away!

One comment on “Reader email: What Is this RSS Thing?

  1. Thanks for the prompt and thorough reply, Dave!
    I do get the paradigm now, even if my eyes glaze at all of the data in that screenshot. I used to be a CompuServe sysop, and it’s sorta like we’ve flipped that model around (many to one vs. one to many), spread it all over the Net, and used RSS to aggregate the content permitting a customized personal interface.
    Remembering all the energy of our early-wave online communities, I can also imagine how much fun it is for people who get involved. But I’m going to have to resist any urge to get more into it myself, or my books will never get finished!

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