RSS is cool

WEB | Tired of checking your favourite news sites and blogs? Ahmad Humeid tells you about a technology that can do that for you

Here’s an acronym for you: RSS. No, I am not talking about the Royal Scientific Society! I am talking about Really Simple Syndication. If you’re a news junkie or a blog addict then RSS is something you need to look at. Next time when you’re visiting a news site (like the BBC’s for example) or a favourite blog, look for a little icon on the bottom of the page that says ‘RSS 1.0’ or ‘RSS 2.0’. You could also look for an icon that says ‘Atom’.

OK. By now, you’re probably thinking “That’s just great! As if I needed another tech acronym to stuff in my brain!”. Well, I guess you have realized that tech acronyms are inescapable so you might as well continue reading. And reading is all that RSS, or Really Simple Syndication is all about.

An RSS or Atom enabled website publishes, behind the scenes, its content in the form of chunks of data that an RSS reader software can read. “Big deal,” you say. Yes it is. RSS has established itself as a standard, which means it is now one of the major ways commercial and personal sites can ‘syndicate’ their information to other sites or to your very own desktop.

‘Syndication’ is a term that newspaper editors and publishers like to talk about (I sure heard about it when I first started my working life at The Star). Open your copy of the Jordan Times or any other newspaper. Look at the cartoons (Peanuts, Dilbert, etc). How come these cartoons and other pieces of content (like opinion columns) appear in so many newspapers around the world at the same time. The secret is syndication. Specialized media companies are responsible for distributing such content to the largest number of newspapers possible. We might have gone off on a tangent here, but now you know what syndication is.

RSS, applies the same concept for web content. Except, of course that there is no ‘media company’ that does all the distribution. RSS enables every site to distribute itself.

An RSS reader, sometimes also called a ‘news aggregator’ (a news gatherer in plain English!) is a piece of software which you can tell to always check you favourite RSS enabled sites to see if they have published any new chunks of information. Usually every chunk consists of a headline and the first paragraph of an article. Your RSS reader, neatly displays a list of new headlines that it ‘aggregated’ from all the sites it checked. You can click the headline to display the first paragraph within the reader itself. Click again and you’re sent off to the actual web page where the news appeared.

You only need to tell your RSS reader which sites to check once. This saves you from browsing from one site to the other looking for updated news.

Good RSS readers let you sort you news according to site or according to time of publishing. You can group similar sites together. Advanced users can set up so called ‘smart feeds’ which aggregate news headlines based on certain criteria, such as the presence of a certain word in a news piece (enabling you to monitor dozens of sites for news about ‘Watermelons’ or ‘Elvis’ if that’s your kind of thing!)

There are many RSS and Atom compatible news readers out there. For Windows there is NewsGator for example. But the one I recently tested is called NewsFire, available only for the Mac. It’s a great piece of software that changed the way I read news sites and blogs. Even web browsers (such as FireFox, see mozilla.org) are starting to integrate RSS readers.

A good news reader will automatically ‘discover’ if a the web page currently open in your browser has RSS or other kinds of feeds and allows you to ‘subscribe’ to it with a click of a button. This saves you from the hassle of finding out the URL of the feed and manually pasting it into your reader.

All of this reminds me of the late nineties, when, seemingly out of the blue, something called ‘Push’ technology was touted as the next big thing. Push technology’s primary premise was that instead of the user going to web sites to ‘pull’ information, the content should simply be ‘pushed’ to the user’s desktop (along with advertising and animation). The ‘secret plot’ was to turn us into web couch potatoes. Well, push technology failed and burned billions of dollars of investors’ money with it (remember PointCast?). Now, RSS is achieving the promise of ‘push’ but without turning us into complete vegetables.


One Response to “RSS is cool”

  1. Ammar Ibrahim Says:

    Firefox has a great RSS reader called Sage.

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