Really Simple Syndication (RSS) will be for this decade what HTML was for the 1990s. I knew that RSS had arrived when a couple months back no less than Yahoo News began offering its news content in RSS format. Now it seems everyone is jumping on the RSS bandwagon. I’m no exception: both my forum and this web log are exposed as news feeds. (Click on that link on my main page titled “Syndicate this site (XML)” to see an example of a raw news feed.)
If you clicked on that link you are probably wondering why this RSS stuff excites me. It’s just text, for crying out loud you are likely thinking. RSS is nothing but another basic standard for wrapping data, but this time it’s wrapping categorized data, which means that this data is not just data, it’s data on steroids. It is truly information. If the author categorizes an article as Philosophy, for example, it is very likely to be an article about philosophy. This cannot be done with HTML. HTML is only used to instruct a browser on how to present the content. HTML requires a human being to read the page and a human being must infer its categorization, if any.
Like HTML, RSS is a format that has developed critical mass because enough people have agreed to follow it. It has now taken flight. Aided by web sites like Bloglines and lots of easily downloadable desktop newsreader applications like FeedReader it becomes possible to put news that matters to you in one virtual space, aggregated and filtered from numerous sources.
Why is this important? Consider what you have to do now. If for example you want to read Salon.com regularly you have to explicitly decide to go to that site. And while you are there, you may have no interest in the Politics section, but only care about the Life and Entertainment sections. It’s really a waste of your time to go there every day and to drill down to get the content you need. And frankly even with high-speed Internet access it’s still a pain just to wait for pages on the site to load. And then there are other sites you might want to hit on a daily or weekly basis. To get there you have to remember their URLs, or have them book marked. Regardless you must explicitly go there.
It’s like driving to every store you want to go to. How much more convenient life would be if the stores would come to you, at a time that you choose, and show you only things that you are interested in. On the information level, this is what RSS is all about and why it makes geeks like me more than a little giddy. It is also why eventually everyone will use it and wonder how they lived without it.
To a Webmaster like myself this is a bit of a paradigm shift. One of the joys of web mastering to me has been presentation: making my web pages look nice and pretty and inviting. But in reality most people don’t care about pretty web pages. They want content. You probably don’t pick up The New York Times because you admire the pictures or the font type that was used. As a Webmaster the onus now goes back to me to put in place content of value to other people. The format will be streamed as text to RSS newsreaders and web sites. It the content is good enough the user may choose to hit my web site for the full article or similar articles and become more involved in my corner of cyberspace.
We’ve seen things like RSS before. My Yahoo, for example, let’s you organize a web page to show you only the Yahoo content that interests you. These portals though tend to limit the scope of tailored news to a particular domain. RSS provides a generic means to integrate any content from multiple content providers into one tailored presentation space. To make it work though content providers must routinely expose their content as RSS.
On my forum I’ve been playing with RSS for more than a year now. Jim Goldbloom (who runs his own forum called Access Denied BBS) and I have agreed to exchange and present each other’s news feeds. He shows the most recent topics on my site on his site, and I show his most recent topics on my site. This is convenient to both communities of users because some inhabit both sites, and people who routinely hang out on one site might well start hanging out on the other. But I also integrate news feeds that I think are relevant to a forum that strives to bring together a geographical community. So I have a Washington Post Metro stories news feed, and a news feed for local Craigslist discussions, and I even found a site called LocalFeeds.com that allows me to locate blog entries that are geographically close to the Washington area.
The virtue of RSS, like HTML, is that it is really simple. Most web content that is dynamic in nature is stored on a web server in some sort of database. In my case, the content is stored in a MySQL database and rendered on demand via engines like PHP and Perl. It doesn’t take a genius programmer to write a program or two to turn this information into an XML compliant RSS news feed.
It won’t be much longer before people who routinely read my forum and my web log will see it in their newsreader or newsreader website first. They may not actually visit my site for months at a time. There is no need to do so if the content is delivered to their electronic door for them.
With Yahoo News exposing its news as RSS we can expect other large media companies to join in, if they haven’t already. It is still frustrating at times that more of content is not exposed as RSS. Washingtonpost.com, for example, appears to be RSS free, although there are companies like NewsIsFree that parse their content and turn them into RSS news feeds. I’ve contracted with NewsIsFree for headline news for my forums and it works great. But their business model is I think ultimately doomed. With the cost of providing an RSS news feed rapidly dropping, people will get the news feeds they need directly or through online RSS directories, rather than through intermediaries that parse HTML into RSS.
RSS will need to continue to evolve. Content providers will need to find ways to provide more flexible news feeds. For example, I might want a customized news feed from WashingtonPost.com of any article with the words “President Bush” and “national security” in it posted over the last 24 hours. Again, this is not difficult to do. Arguably content providers may eventually figure out there is money to be made and offer these features as a subscription web service.
But it’s exciting technology. I like the idea of news I care about pushed to my desktop, or centralized on one web site I can hit at my leisure. RSS provides a means for busy people like me to get more relevant content from the web more quickly. It should minimize my web surfing and make my time spent on line much more efficient.