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What's RSS (2005 version)?

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a technique for offering Internet-delivered subscriptions to information including website contents, news headlines, content-summaries or other data, especially information that is frequently updated.  RSS "feeds" can deliver links to newspaper stories, lists of the latest hit tunes, weblog postings or podcasts of audio and video programs.

Users subscribe to RSS feeds with computer programs called "news readers" or "aggregators," or with similar features incorporated in Web browsers, e-mail readers and other programs. A feed is simply a file on a server. When it is updated by its owner, all subscribed aggregators will download the new version the next time they visit the site. Visits may be daily, hourly or at some other interval chosen by the user. Feeds usually include Web links to their originating sites, putting the reader a mouse-click away from additional information.

Subscribers usually are given permission to republish, as well as read, the contents of RSS feeds.  Such republishing is similar to the syndication of newspaper features and television series, hence the "Really Simple Syndication" name.

The RSS file format, generally invisible to users, labels the contents of a page into areas for "items," "descriptions," links and other information. Websites display an orange icon with the letters RSS or "XML," or some other indicator that they have a feed available. (Some page designers use the words "feed" or "subscribe" or a small orange square with a series of curved lines suggesting broadcast waves.) Click here to see an XML representation of the content of this page's parent weblog. The RSS format is based on XML, the Extensible Markup Language, just as a webpage is written in HTML, the HyperText Markup Language. Clicking the XML icon displays the source code of the latest XML file at the feed's Web address. It's not a pretty sight -- the XML code is intended to be processed by aggregator programs, not read by users.

Some aggregators, including My.Yahoo and Bloglines, provide special icons that sites can display to allow one-click subscription to their sites. Meanwhile, increasingly-sophisticated aggregators can "auto-discover" website feeds without requiring visual cues, orange or otherwise.

(The name game: The RSS abbreviation's early definition quickly became obsolete. "RDF Site Summary" referred to another abbreviation -- for Resource Description Framework, a  more heavy-duty XML "metadata" file format that was abandoned by the first popular version of RSS. Later, RDF was used in one of two competing versions of RSS. Some developers adopted "Rich Site Summary" as a general name, although RSS can deliver more than summaries. By late 2005, the name "Really Simple Syndication" and the non-RDF version of RSS seem to have caught on, being used by major newspapers and broadcast outlets. Meanwhile, "Atom" is another RSS-like format with its own devotees.)

RSS feeds often make available not only summaries, but the full contents of weblogs, documents or other computer files, such as podcast audio and video.

Aggregators may present the contents of dozens of subscriptions in a single window on a computer screen, giving text articles a uniform look, minus animated advertising banners and other features of the originating websites, which are just a mouse-click away.

Some aggregators present a single chronological "river of news" from all subscribed sources. Others sort items by source (,, by category (news, sports, etc.), or both. They may simply download items, such as audio files, to a folder on the subscriber's computer, or pass the contents to additional software, such as Apple's iTunes or other multimedia players. (See What is podcasting?)

For more information, my earlier attempt at explaining RSS focused on weblogging, the first widespread use of RSS, and went into more technical detail.

Click here to visit the Radio UserLand website.
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© Copyright 2009 Bob Stepno.
Last update: 7/27/09; 3:57:37 AM.