Thursday, December 15, 2005

What's RSS anyway?

I can't tell you how many people I talk to about RSS. Just like people asking me "what's a blog?" two years ago, now I can barely make it through a day without someone asking me what RSS is. So here we go. My attempt at a definition of RSS.

RSS means "really simple syndication" -- it's a format which turns anything written or recorded on the web -- blogs, websites, audio files, video -- into a little newswire of sorts. It syndicates content. It publishes content all over the web and is a distribution method a bit like cable TV which broadcasts many stations of many varieties of content.

The original newswires like AP, Dow Jones and Reuters had syndication figured out a long time ago. They sent their news to paper printers in newsrooms. They sent their news to the news ticker banner in Times Square, running across the top of their buildings.

RSS sends all kinds of news to all kinds of places -- to your email, to a news reader, to another website.

For instance, my weblog, Halley's Comment has an RSS feed which you can sign up for and instead of reading my blog on my site you can read it sent directly to your email or a news reader, also known as an "aggregator".

What's an aggregator? It's a piece of software that lets you read RSS feeds. You can think of it as a little digital newsstand on your desktop. You click on it and you can read lots of feeds from well-known sources like Reuters, The New York Times, Le Monde, MSNBC, together with feeds from weblogs like this one, feeds that have audio interviews, feeds that have graphics or video. Some of the best known aggregators are Newsgator, Bloglines, FeedDemon.

Read this for more about who invented it and the roles that Dave Winer and others have played in its development. It's a hot topic in tech circles, but mere mortals might be more interested in just USING this great technology.