Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A quick intro to RSS

I was writing a quick comment about this for a friend on Facebook, and it kept getting longer and longer - also, not being able to add pictures or formatting seemed a bit limiting.  So here goes my first blog post in several years!

RSS (Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication, depending whom you ask), is just a way to see the most recent posts/articles from your favorite websites/blogs/webcomics/whatever, all in one place and at one time.  When this was first invented, one group of developers came up with a way of doing this and called it RSS, and another group came up with a similar-but-incompatible way and called it Atom.  Both standards still exist; most readers can handle feeds in either format, and a lot of websites provide feeds in both formats, just in case.  You really don't need to know which is which - it'll work either way.  Also - and this probably chafes the Atom guys no end - it's all called "RSS".

How it works on the publishing end

An RSS "feed" is just a file that contains a summary of of all the new or updated items on a specific website or blog.  Sometimes the website generates and publishes that file itself; sometimes it's done by an outside service (the biggest of these is called "FeedBurner".)  A site can have one or more feeds, devoted to various topics or blogs; for instance, Slate has a bunch of different feeds (plus one GIANT feed for the whole site), but I only follow a couple of them.

How it works on your end

First, pick the program you're going to use - called an RSS "reader".  There are hundreds if not thousands of them; lots of them are free (or at least free to try), so feel free to kick the tires on a few.  Once you get hooked on RSS, though, it's a bit of a pain to switch (one of several reasons why so many people are complaining about the imminent death of Google Reader), so make sure you're comfy before you really settle in for the ride.  I'll talk about differences between programs a bit later on.

Next, start creating a list of feeds you want to follow.  This is called "subscribing"*. Your RSS reader simply visits each site on your list, comparing the site's feed with a local database of stuff you've already seen.  Anything new gets added to the list on your screen - which, in a confusing bit of terminology, is called YOUR "feed".  What, we couldn't invent two words?

Click on the "Subscribe" or "Add" (or whatever your reader calls it) button; here's what the Google Reader button looks like:
Your reader can find feeds for you, but it's usually easier to specify just what you want (think of Slate's bajillion feeds, for example.)

Most websites/blogs provide links to make it easy to find their feed(s); for example, at the bottom of this very page there's a link that says "Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)"; on a lot of sites there will be an orange icon like so:

somewhere near the top right of the page.  Sometimes that link will take you to a page with instructions or a one-button wizard, but more often it just takes you to the feed itself - which is a page of apparent gobbledygook:

Just copy/paste the address into the "Subscribe" field in your reader.
Your reader will read that nightmare page of nonsense and add it to its database, and all of the articles it contains will pop up in your feed as "unread".  From now on, your read will go back and read that file periodically and see whether there's anything new for you to read.  Lather, rinse, and repeat with each website you like to check in on.  Once you get going, your feed will look something like this (in Google Reader; your mileage may vary):

The sheer number of headlines can be a bit daunting, depending on how many sites you're subscribed to; there's no way I could read the full text of every article that pops up in my feed.  No sweat - nobody ever said you had to read everything!  I just click through to the articles that look interesting, which still comes out to well over a hundred per day.  (Yeah, I skim most of those, too.)
Different sites have different policies about just how much they put into the summary file for each article; since most sites make their money from ads, and it's very hard/unappealing to put ads in the RSS feed, many sites hold back the text of the full article and just post a teaser in their feed.  Same goes for webcomics: some post the day's comic in the feed, and some just post the title.  Either way, you can click through to see the full article/comic/whatever.

Choosing an RSS client

As I mentioned before, there are lots and lots of choices available.  Probably the  fastest-growing segment is RSS clients for smartphones and tablets; I don't have a tablet and I don't like the Web experience on a phone-sized screen, so I really can't make any recommendation if this is your thing.  I'm also a Windows guy, so I can't really speak to either the Mac or Linux markets.

Within the Windows and cross-platform worlds, though, there are still several types (and I think these apply to the other markets as well): 
  1. standalone clients that show the RSS feed, but open the full story in your system's default browser
  2. standalone clients that include a built-in browser
  3. clients that run inside your regular browser, either as a plugin or as a web page
Of these, my favorite approach is #3 (my late beloved Google Reader, Feedly, and a few others), and my very LEAST favorite is #2 (I shall name no names: you know who you are). The built-in browsers are never quite up-to-date with Web standards, so pages never seem to render correctly; several of the ones I've tried also hide the address bar, so cutting and pasting a link into Facebook is a huge hassle.  #1 is not a horrible option, but switching back and forth between windows can be annoying.

Here's a nice roundup of a few Google Reader alternatives; the author has some of the same biases I do, but not cripplingly so.

One last note:  you might already be using RSS without knowing it.  Podcasting is built on the same foundation, just delivering audio files instead of web pages as the "click-through" item.  iTunes is probably the world's most popular RSS reader.

* "Subscribing" is a bit of a misnomer: when you subscribe to a paper or magazine, they mail it to you.  By contrast, RSS is like hiring a servant to run around to a bunch of publishing houses for you every morning.  However, the effect is the same: you get the headlines delivered to you.

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