RSS Intro - saturday 2003-01-11 0843 last modified 2003-10-28 0750
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I briefly looked for a quick explanation of RSS, but didn't find one I liked, so here's my attempt. This is meant for you non-geeky, non-technical people who quail at the sight of my nerdier journal entries!

Introducing RSS

Three things make RDF Site Summary (RSS) one of the more popular technologies used on the web, and two conceptually come straight from the printing world: publication and subscription. The third is standardisation, that wonderful bedrock of the web; in this case, the RSS standard.

Publication & Standards

The publication portion is usually referred to as a news feed. The feed itself is basically a file following a standard format to describe whatever a web publisher considers 'news.' This format is known as RSS (sometimes redefined as Rich Site Summary), and if you want a subscriber to understand what's inside the feed, you'd best follow the standards (unfortunately, the world of RSS publishers is a little fractured, and there isn't just one standard out there; if you want my end opinion, I recommend RSS 1.0).

How does this benefit anyone? As organisational psychologists will tell you, the collective hive is greater than the sum of its individual drones. Add in subscription, and now you've got something.


To use an RSS feed, you don't really want to look at it in its bare form - some snippets of text might make sense, but it wasn't made to be pretty. As a standard, it was made to be understood by another computer. News feed aggregators allow their users to specify which RSS publications they want to keep track of. Depending on how the aggregator functions, it will periodically (usually an hourly basis) go out on the web and retrieve all of those news feeds, then redisplay them together as a more human friendly web page.

Instead of surfing to every news site you care about to check if they've added stories, you can simply tell your aggregator where to look (hopefully your favorite news sites publish a feed!), and then all the news that you consider fit to read shows up in one place.

Of course, the web community has adapted RSS for its own purposes - why should news sites be the only publishers who can use this stuff? Bloggers publish feeds so their readers will know when they've updated, allowing readers to compress their surfing down to one quick glance at their feed aggregator. And bloggers who take comments on their entries and aren't obsessive about checking those comments (rare, yes) can toss commenting information into the feed to see if anyone's talking.

Wrapping Up

RDF Site Summary is a great example of cool and useful things the web has produced. You can check out my Newswire aggregator (you'll have to register to customise your own) as well as an example of what my feed file actually looks like. But you'll do better if you can find the results in Newswire's main page.

I'm no authority on RSS, though, so here are some other places you can look for information. As I mentioned earlier, if you're a Xanga user, I've created simple a way for you to generate feeds through

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