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What's RSS and Why Should I Care About It?
Author: Kirsten Jordan | December 7th, 2004

You may have noticed recently that lots of websites now contain little graphical buttons with the word XML on them. For example: XML button When you click on the button, all you see is a bunch of jumbled text and computer code. What's this all about? It's an RSS feed, and they're changing the way people access the Internet.

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a technical format that allows online publishers to share and distribute their content to other websites or individual Internet users. It's commonly used for distributing headlines on news websites. Bloggers use it to distribute summaries of their blog entries as well. RSS is written in the Internet coding language known as XML, which is why you see RSS buttons labeled that way.

If a website publishes an RSS page, commonly known as an RSS "feed," this feed will contain summaries of all the recent articles posted on that site. For example, Yahoo News publishes news related to world headlines, national news, sports, etc. These you can all read by going to the Yahoo website. But they also publish RSS feeds for each of these subjects. Each RSS feed contains a summary of the most recent news stories posted. Similarly, the Digital Divide Network publishes RSS feeds for our news headlines, events listings and other content on our website. I even have my own RSS feed for articles that I publish on my personal blog, Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth.

But why do RSS feeds look like a jumbled mess when I click on them with most Web browsers? It's because RSS feeds are meant to be read by machines rather than people. Software and websites can understand the data contained in RSS feeds and make it available to people on personalized websites, through software known as news aggregators, even through email. So when you aggregate RSS feeds, you're having a computer collect content from many different websites and organize them in a convenient place for you to read. Rather than going to a dozen different websites hunting for new content, you can then go to a single website or use a piece of software that brings the content directly to you. Think of it as a way of creating a collection of personalized news wire services that arrive at your doorstep multiple times a day.

If you'd like to try RSS for yourself, you'll need to start by getting yourself an RSS news aggregator. There are a variety of aggregators out there, including websites that act as news aggregators and free software you can download onto your computer. Here are a few examples:


My Yahoo. My Yahoo is a personalized Yahoo homepage that anyone can set up themselves. It contains a variety of features, ranging from news headlines to horoscopes, but the most interesting feature is the ability to add your favorite RSS feeds to it. Once you've signed up for a free Yahoo account, you can customize your My Yahoo homepage with RSS feeds you'd like to read. Once you've added the feeds to the site, each time you visit your My Yahoo homepage you'll see the latest content coming through these feeds. So if your RSS feeds are published by news websites, blogs, newspaper classifieds, etc, the latest information from each of them will appear on your personalized homepage.

Bloglines. Bloglines is a website dedicated to finding and aggregating RSS feeds. Using its search engine, you can look up topics that interest you and find websites that publish RSS feeds related to it. If you set up a free Bloglines account, you can begin collecting and organizing your favorite feeds.

Kinja. Kinja is a fairly recent addition to the RSS aggregation business. It's a free website that allows you to create your own Web page displaying articles from your personal collection of RSS feeds. For example, I've set up a Kinja page for myself that you can look at. It contains the latest content coming from several other websites that publish RSS feeds, including my personal blog, Jay Rosen's Press Think and DDN's own headlines service. So I can use Kinja to create a public collection of news feeds and share them with my friends and colleagues.

Topical aggregators. It's becoming fairly common to come across websites that aggregate a collection of RSS feeds based on a particular subject, producing a news digest containing content from all of those feeds. For example, ConventionBloggers is a digest of all the blogs that were reporting on the 2004 U.S. political conventions. And in January 2005, I created Tsunami-Info.org as a digest of news feeds and blogs covering the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Sites like these don't let you select your own feeds, but they serve as a handy place to follow particular topics of interest.


My personal downloadable software for reading RSS feeds is actually my email reader as well. It's called Thunderbird, and it's free software available from the open source initiative Mozilla. Like many other email readers, you can have all of your incoming emails automatically sorted into personalized folders, which isn't very unusual. But the exciting thing about Thunderbird is that you can do the same thing for your favorite RSS feeds. In other words, you can set up Thunderbird so that it will retrieve the latest content from websites that publish RSS feeds, and have that content sorted automatically into folders, just like they're incoming email. Right now this is my primary way of reading blogs and news websites. I don't have to go to their websites anymore; instead, article summaries now comes to me, and I can choose to visit the websites when the RSS feeds contain summaries that look interesting to me.

There's other news aggregating software as well. Some of the ones worth looking into are Amphetadesk, Radio Userland and NetNewsWire.

Hopefully these leads will give you enough of the basics to get started with RSS feeds. It may seem too technical at first, but once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder how you surfed the Internet without them.

Andy Carvin is director of the Digital Divide Network.

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