September 9, 2003

Keep it Real Simple, Stupid: An introduction to RSS

- by Lee Schlesinger -

E-mail was the first good way to exchange ideas on the Internet. E-mail is fine for one-to-one or one-to-many distribution, but as a communication medium it's limited in many ways. The World Wide Web revolutionized Internet communication by providing a forum for widely publishing content, but it forces you to sift out the nuggets you want amid a ton of dross. A more recent innovation can deliver the content you want right to your browser, or make your own work available for others. If you haven't tried it yet, get ready for RSS.RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending upon whom you ask. It's a Web content syndication format, meaning you can use it to send, receive, and aggregate Web content from a variety of sources. RSS was originally designed for news sites (like us) to make their content available. Nowadays it's also heavily utilized by bloggers.

Using RSS is, well, simple. There are several RSS reader applications for
Linux, including AmphetaDesk, HotSheet, Peerkat, clevercactus, Straw, and BottomFeeder. The
upcoming Mozilla Firebird browser even has an RSS extension.

Hosting your own blog

Of course a reader is no good without published content, or feeds. All of the major blogging services make their users' blogs available as feeds automatically; check the service for the proper URL to access its blogs. If you host your own blog and want to create an RSS feed, you can
program the process yourself, or, if you're not technically adept, you can turn to sites like myRSS to "scrape" your blog and turn it into a feed. Follow the instructions at RSSify first to make the process smoother.

RSS didn't come out of nowhere; in fact it came out of several different places, but today the RSS project is led by UserLand Software CEO Dave Winer, who pioneered the format in 1997. In July UserLand transferred ownership of the latest version of the spec, RSS 2.0, to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. The specification, which was previously copyrighted, is now licensed under terms that allow it to be customized, excerpted, and republished, using the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike license, according to the Berkman Center's site.

The RSS 2.0 specification is an evolved version of RSS 0.9x. RSS 1.0, a different branch, depends upon resource description framework (RDF) files, which define metadata. RDF files includes resources, which are any objects that can have a URI. Named resources are called properties (Author and Title might be properties, for example), and statements give properties a defined value. RDF files look a lot like XML but differ in important ways that developer Tim Bray expresses better than I can.

Extending RSS's capabilities

As RSS became more popular, developers wanted to do more with it. Some wanted to extend its capabilities using modules defined in XML namespaces, which define names whose scope extends beyond the documents in which they're defined. This lets developers define elements in one place and use them in many. RSS 2.0, which debuted in the fall of 2002, allows RSS feeds to contain elements defined in namespaces.

If that's more technical information than you want to know, just remember that RSS is XML code written with certain elements that all RSS reader applications understand. Unless you're developing a program to manipulate them, you as a user don't need to know anything about the plumbing, because you can rely on applications to handle that for you.

Who publishes RSS feeds? All your favorite publications (including our own NewsVac and NewsForge Reports), plus numerous individuals, including both the famous and the obscure. Syndic8 has a huge list of available feeds, while Daypop can search feeds for a particular topic or string.

You can find more RSS search engines and directories, along with a good assortment of other RSS information, on librarian Robert Teeter's RSS page.

While RSS is now widely used, it's not the final evolution of content distribution. Lately a project called Echo has been proposed as a replacement for RSS. Echo would unify blogging formats with a common syntax, making it easier for users of programs and sites like Blogger, LiveJournal, UserLand, and Moveable Type to take advantage of each others' content and to change blogging providers. However, Echo has no plans to be backward compatible with RSS, which may slow its adoption, as there is already a huge RSS installed base.

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