RSS is a simple, easy technology that allows you to stop opening 30 tabs in your browser to check the news sites you care about. RSS unclogs your inbox of all the newsletters you subscribe to. RSS puts you in control. RSS is simple, distributed, ubiquitous, and free. You should be using it. But what is it?
RSS is way for computers to read websites.
RSS is one of many ways websites can be made easier for computers to parse. Separating content from form is at the core of CSS. But content itself can contain markup that gives computers clues about what kind of content it is. Microformats are designed to provide exactly that kind of metadata.
RSS takes things a step further, providing a simple format the strips away all the style and layout information, and just provides raw structure, metadata, and content. An RSS parser examines the structure to identify given entries in an RSS feed. For each entry, the parser examines the metadata, like the title of the entry, the date the entry was made, and the author of the entry. Finally, the parser examines the content itself. Using this basic methodology, the parser can build a database of the website.
But what is gained by parsing RSS and building the database? To answer that, we should look at how people use the web for both search and discovery.
Search and Discovery
The decentralized nature of the web makes it difficult to jump directly to what you’re looking for, so search engines sprang up to solve exactly that problem. By having computers follow all the links on all the pages and store what words are on what pages (and what those pages link to), users can quickly jump to content related to keywords they enter.
But what about data you don’t know exists? News is an obvious example, and has at least three aspects.
- News from people you don’t know but from sources you may trust, like the BBC (actual news)
- News from people you are interested in, but aren’t necessarily your friends (blogs, social networks), and
- News from friends (social networks),
There’s also non-news sources.
- A wiki that covers a topic you’re interested in. What’s been updated lately?
- Blogs, either personal or professional, updated frequently or not. How do you find out when they’ve changed?
- Questions posed about a particular topic in a Q&A forum. How do you discover new questions?
Search engines address none of these use cases, since search engines handle search, and these issues are about content discovery.
The Flawed Model of Email-Powered Discovery
The most common way to address these issues is via website newsletters, wherein a reader submits their email address to the website and gets notified about interesting stuff via email.
There are three problems with this approach:
- It gives the reader’s personal information (their email address) to a site needlessly.
- Rather than the website acting as a passive source of information, it now takes control, deciding when a reader gets notified about new content. This leads to the oft-cited problems of email overload.
- Unsubscribing becomes an error-prone transaction that puts the reader at the site’s mercy. If the ‘unsubscribe’ link doesn’t work for any reason, the reader is left little recourse besides email filters and the ‘Mark as Spam’ button.
The whole system is much more complex than it needs to be, and it dilutes the importance of email, since messages from your bank about your account being overdrawn carry the same importance as the latest web-comic from a friend-of-a-friend.
Introducing the Feed Reader
We can avoid the problem of email dilution and email overload by moving non-actionable content away from email and into a feed reader. A feed reader is a lot like a second email client, but rather than being a gateway to communication with humans, a feed reader is designed to be a gateway to the web.
Remember that database of information the computer gathered by parsing RSS? It’s essentially a one-stop shop for all the data from web pages you care about, stored in a single location, much like email. Unlike email, though, it is non-urgent content, so you can treat it more like a magazine than an email client. A feed reader maintains a list of all the sites you’re interested in getting updates about and automatically fetches new entries from them regularly, storing them in the database, and presenting you with a stream of updates.
This approach puts you back in control, but alleviates the burden of checking many sites manually. The browser becomes much less cluttered: rather than a tab for each site that may have interesting content, tabs are opened by the feed reader if a particular entry looks interesting enough to read through in its entirety.
Besides the reduction in email noise and enhanced organization offered by RSS, it also allows you to enjoy content that was previously inaccessible. Consider the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology. It’s simply not updated often enough to warrant visiting it every day, but when it is updated it has some great content. With RSS, updates magically appear in the same place you get all your information on the web: in your RSS reader. There’s tons of content on the web produced by amateurs that is excellent, but because they’re not paid to write, updates can be sporadic. RSS opens the door to enjoying that entire category of content.
So, if you see an interesting site, you don’t have to worry about bookmarking it, signing up for a newsletter, or remembering to visit it again. You simply click the feed icon and content from the site magically appears in your usual news stream. It’s like teleporting information directly into your brain.
RSS is a Way for The Internet to Know Itself
In his 1980 TV series Cosmos, Carl Sagan said “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” The internet exists on a unimaginably smaller scale, but RSS gives the internet a way to read itself. RSS brings a beautiful publishing, aggregating, filtering, and analyzing platform to regular people, making the vastness of the web just a bit more manageable. If you’re not using it, you’re spending a whole lot more time absorbing a whole lot less information.