Idiot's Guide to RSS Needed
March 10, 2009 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I pride myself as being a pretty savy internet user. However, I am embarassed to say that I do not understand the RSS concept or even how it works. I have read about it and all but still my mind goes blank when I try to figure out how to use it in my day to day life online. Any suggestions for websites that explain it all so I can see if I can or should be expanding my use of it?
posted by cmh0150 to Technology (17 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
How you're supposed to use it in your day to day life online: put RSS feeds for all the sites you read or want to keep track of in an RSS reader (I like Google Reader). The reader lets you know when sites update and (usually) lets you read the updates. Therefore you save time by not going around to a bunch of different sites all the time.

How I use it my day to day life online: For me, sites that update constantly like Metafilter I don't put in my RSS reader. Things that only update once a day or less get put into the RSS reader so I don't have to constantly check on them to see if they've updated.
posted by zsazsa at 2:46 PM on March 10, 2009

RSS is small file that a website publishes that contains information about their content. That file is updated when their content is updated. These are called feeds.

You set your RSS reader to subscribe to these feeds. What it does is retreive a copy of that small file every so many minutes/hours, and see if it shows any new content since the last time. If it does, it shows that in its interface. Depending on the software and how the website has chosen to publich its information, you can either read the whole thing right in your RSS application, or click a link to go directly to the new content.

Its purpose is efficiency. You don't have to keep going to every 5 seconds to see if something new has happened, your RSS application does that and alerts you if there's any thing new. And you can almost always at least preview the content and see if it's worth looking at at all.
posted by gjc at 2:47 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Basically, the purpose of RSS is to it let the content come to you, instead of you going to it.

So, rather than go to ten different blogs and news sites in a day to see if they have any updates, you subscribe to RSS feeds for those blogs and news sites in your RSS reader (Google Reader, Bloglines, Feed Demon, what have you). Then, you just check your feed reader. It'll have all of the recent updates from all of the RSS sites to which you've subscribed. You can read them all right there in the feed reader. One-stop shopping!

It's very convenient, and especially helpful for handling blogs that update only once in a great while. No more checking every week and seeing nothing new nine times out of ten!
posted by ignignokt at 2:49 PM on March 10, 2009

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication". That might help you get your head around it. The best way to truly understand is to ask a friend to look at their RSS reader. Once I did that, even my most luddite friends begged me to help them set one up.

You need some kind of RSS client, whether it's Bloglines or Netvibes or Google Reader. And then it's just a matter of subscribing to RSS feeds from sites you frequent - go through your bookmarks folder.
posted by micawber at 2:50 PM on March 10, 2009

You can also add any site with an RSS feed to your portal page like My Yahoo or Google's ripoff of My Yahoo.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:52 PM on March 10, 2009

Just to add: it took me a long time (as a savvy internet user, I like to think) to become an RSS convert, and then I only did it when a long-term work project required a daily trawl through a large number of blogs and other sources. It was fantastic, but I haven't opened Google Reader again since that project ceased. For all its efficiency, RSS exacerbates a problem that's endemic still to so much web reading, which is that it feels like work. If the happenstance of reading the web for pleasure is part of what you like - following random things from site to site, letting your eye be drawn to parts of the page you hadn't expected to focus on, even being interested to remember and re-read a blog that hasn't been updated in some time - I'd urge you not to feel like you have to give in to the widespread RSS evangelism!
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:26 PM on March 10, 2009

Really Simple Syndication. One way to think of it is the decoupling of content from the website that it can be browsed at.

Let's say I have a blog. My blog is a combination of my design choices, layout, etc. but also my actual blog posts -- the content. If you're visiting my blog in your browser you're downloading a lot more information than the blog posts themselves (the links in my blogroll, my "about me" page, etc.), but maybe you only care about the posts, or the comments attached to some individual posts that you found interesting.

I know people may care about the posts, or the comments, so I decide to offer a site-level RSS feed (which describes new posts on the site), and an post-level RSS feed for every post on my site (each of which describes new comments on a particular post). My blogging platform is probably auto-generating these feeds for me, but I could certainly implement this functionality by hand if I wanted to. I can either offer a feed that contains the "full" data of these posts and comments, or truncated data (requiring the person reading my feed to click through to my site to finish reading the content). If I run ads on my site or in my feeds this may influence my decision about how much data is in the feeds I offer.

But what are these "feeds" exactly? How does a site create them? They're just XML files that adhere to the RSS standard. They describe the last N posts/entries/videos/whatever that are associated with the particular feed. The value of N is usually decided by the site providing the feed, and it's usually limited to the last "reasonable number" of items. When a new item is posted, the RSS file changes with a new entry added.

However, feeds don't typically grow in size indefinitely. While I could keep the full contents of my entire blog since the beginning of time in my feed, I'm probably only going to keep a sliding window of the last 10 or so entries in there. That way my feed's size is manageable for clients who wish to download it. For instance, I think Engadget's feed stores 40 entries at a time and currently weighs in at around 140 kilobytes -- pretty large compared to a lot of feeds I subscribe to.

Once a feed is available, any client can download it, but I think the overwhelming trend these days is for end users to trust some 3rd party such as Google Reader to handle the downloading of the feed and the identification of new posts. If you trust the 3rd party to do this for you, it can be more reliable than doing it yourself (e.g. you only download a 10-item feed once per day, but the site usually publishes 20 items per day... you'll miss out on some due to the sliding window!).

Since a feed is just a web-accessible file, it has to be downloaded again and again by clients to get the current data out. The site isn't pushing data to all of the clients, the clients have to come get it. So how do the clients know when to download it? Some clients may re-download feeds on some fixed schedule, perhaps using knowledge of how frequently a feed tends to have new entries in it. A more reliable way is for the site to "ping" its clients. This ping is a lightweight message that tells clients "HEY! I updated! Come fetch the latest data!". The client can then decide whether it wants to go fetch the data or not.

Things get further complicated by the fact that the site publishing the feed has to know which clients to ping, but luckily some of the primary ping recipients (Google, etc.) publicly share data about who has been pinging them with smaller companies/clients/etc who wish to be informed of these pings. The aforementioned list of ALL PINGS that people have sent to Google is available here but it's not for the feint of heart. Seriously.

Once a client knows that a feed has been updated, it can go grab it, and your feed reader contains the latest and greatest content from your favorite sites without you having to browse to them by hand.
posted by adamk at 3:29 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I use Google Reader In Plain English to introduce the concept to my students - it's similar to the video misha recommended, but even shorter and simpler.
posted by oulipian at 4:03 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know how when you're looking at the table of contents in a magazine and there's some little blurb from the article? Like Awesome Weight Loss Tips on page 153?

RSS atom feeds tell you a little about it "Awesome weight loss tips!"
Regular RSS feeds throw the whole article into your reader "Awesome weight loss tips: eat only possums!!!!!"

You pick an RSS reader, like Google, and it compiles all that assinine material into one, easy to ignore page.

I'd love to know what works for you metaphorically, because I love RSS feeds and I have never found a way to explain them to anyone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:04 PM on March 10, 2009

It is kind of like Pointcast, though not as well organized, yet with far, far more content. I am with zsazsa, it is not so useful with sites like MeFi because it is better at notifying you of change than actually presenting the changed information. That was where Pointcast was better.
posted by caddis at 5:47 PM on March 10, 2009

It's like a subscription to a magazine's table of contents fed to you as articles are completed and posted.

That table of contents could be just title and author, or could be the first paragraph, or could be a whole article, depending on the site from which you're requesting content.
posted by desuetude at 7:09 PM on March 10, 2009

Basically, RSS is like Facebook where your only friends are websites.
posted by oulipian at 8:07 PM on March 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I read your question in Google Reader, amongst dozens of other bits of content from other sites, and only visited AskMeFi to post this comment.

If you follow more than a few sites that offer feeds then it's an efficient way to keep track of things. The best way to understand it fully is to go into Google Reader, add a few sites, and play around with it for a few days.
posted by malevolent at 1:20 AM on March 11, 2009

RSS is the TIVO of the internet
posted by billtron at 4:43 AM on March 11, 2009

How to explain RSS the Oprah way

"The technical acronym for RSS is “Really Simple Syndication”, an XML format that was created to syndicate news, and be a means to share content on the web. Now, to geeks and techies that means something special, but to everyday folks like you and me, what comes to mind is, “Uh, I don’t get it?”

So, to make RSS much easier to understand, in Oprah speak, RSS stands for: I’m “Ready for Some Stories”. It is a way online for you to get a quick list of the latest story headlines from all your favorite websites and blogs all in one place. How cool is that?"
posted by timepiece at 3:12 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know what drives me crazy? These days I can NEVER figure out what time stuff is on expanded cable. If I want to watch something on HGTV or Food Network or, saints preserve me, Speed when I go to sit down they might have changed their lineup AGAIN. I've given up on ever knowing when things are on Adult Swim. I would set my old school VCR to record my favorit shows but this week Thursdays at midnight might be Venture Brothers and next week it might be Xavier: Renegade Angel and I'd have to burn the tape afterward. Fortunately, I have a DVR and that DVR is smart enough to just know when stuff I'm interested is on and find it for me. It's beautiful.

A DVR is a ridiculously smart VCR for the modern era.

The web is a lot like, well, Adult Swim. Maybe my favorite web comic will update regularly, or maybe it will update whenever the heck the artist feels like it. I could keep a set of bookmarks and quite frankly waste a bunch of time reloaded Anders Loves Maria to see if she's updated. Or I could put it in my RSS reader and know there's a new comic when it happens.

An RSS reader is a ridiculously smart set of bookmarks for the modern era.
posted by mrmorgan at 10:05 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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