I'm going to list some terms and I want you to raise your had if you've ever heard of them. Raise two hands if you understand their meaning. RSS, Podcast, Web Feed, XML, Syndicate. Anybody? Hopefully by the time you finish reading this, you will not only understand them, but be excited about using this one more thing that makes the Internet so cool.
How do you get your information? By information I mean news, updates, rumors, comics, columns, editorials, deals, stories, etcetera, etcetera. Do you subscribe to a newspaper? Magazine? TV? Radio? Tabloids? Web Sites? Blogs? Do you really need one more method? Well, maybe, particularly if it could take the place of one or more of the other methods by receiving exactly the same content. It would be nice if it were free. When you read/listen/watch something, do you like to read a back-up source? So, what if it could show you stories from many sources of your choosing all at once? Ads are kinda irritating, so maybe it could give you the information ad-free. It would have to be searchable, so if you forgot who published something you could find it later. (Do you see where this is going?)
Let me introduce you to RSS. An abbreviation for "Really Simple Syndication", RSS is a method of receiving information that has the potential to do all those things and more.
Imagine, if you will, your favorite newspaper, which publishes many many articles per day. Do you read all of them? How do you decide which ones you want to read? You probably scan the headlines and maybe the first paragraph or so. To do that, you have to flip through pages and pages of newsprint and dodge advertisements along the way. You may be surprised to know that your newspaper probably publishes at least the biggest stories in a list format, and (often) ad-free. This type of RSS is a web feed, a single computer file located on the newspaper's web site. It's a list of headlines and usually a short description of each story, and it is continuously, automatically, and usually immediately updated to reflect the most recent stories that source has to offer. Similarly, blogs are frequently published via RSS feed, as well as deal sites, magazines, and many other types of web sites. All using the same standard of computer file format.
This computer file format is an XML file, an open standard so it's free for anyone to publish one. If you have a program that can read RSS files (some web browsers, like Safari and Firefox, as well as other stand-alone programs) you can "subscribe" to the web feed. That program will watch the feed, download new headlines, and, if you want, let you know when new updates are available.
Well, that's kinda cool, but the real power of this comes from the fact that Firefox, Safari, and the like are more than RSS readers, they're RSS aggregators. You can subscribe to as many feeds as you choose and view all of the headlines together in a single list, sorted by date (some programs let you sort by other stuff too). The headline and description display in a consistent format, pleasing to the eye, and usually they're ad-free. If you decide you want to read the whole article, a click on the headline will take you there.
Wanna give it a shot? If you have Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" or newer, you're probably reading this blog using a web browser called Safari. If you're not, you should. If you're not using 10.4, or if you're unlucky enough to use Windows, don't fret, you can still subscribe to RSS feeds using Firefox. I'm going to focus on Safari first because it's the best RSS aggregator I've ever used. Look at the toolbar at the top of this window and you should see a blue icon labeled RSS on the right side of the web address box. Click on that icon. See what happened? The look of the site changed. Bookmark this new page. You have now subscribed to my blog's RSS feed. In Firefox, you'll see an orange icon that has a series of quarter-circles presumably representing a broadcasting radio signal. If you click on that icon, you will bookmark the RSS feed, and then you'll see the list of articles in your bookmarks menu. Not quite as elegant, but it works. If you want a better RSS experience in Firefox, I recommend installing Sage, a free Firefox extension.
Wherever you browse on the web and see the blue or orange icon appear, that site has an RSS feed available. You may also see other icons or links on the web page itself, perhaps labeled "RSS", "Atom", "XML", or "Syndicate". Firefox and Safari are supposed to see them and give you their own icon, but sometimes they miss.
You'll find that RSS feeds are updated with varying regularity. For instance, I only post to my site once or twice a week, while the SF Chronicle updates several times an hour. In both cases, though, the new articles are immediately available on the feed. Another thing you may notice is that my entire article, not just a short description or intro, is posted in the RSS feed. This is less common, but I like doing it that way. Because of this variety of sources, you're not stuck getting news from only one source, which is dangerous in my opinion.
One of those words is still undefined: podcasts. This word came from "broadcast" but inserted a reference to Apple's iPod, though you don't need an iPod to listen to one. A podcasts is an RSS feeds with one major difference; it also contains an audio portion. Any audio for which the publisher has copyrights can be syndicated through a podcast. Examples of this are radio talk shows, tutorials, live music events, (sometimes) studio recordings, and more recently, people's own audio blog.
So, if you like to listen to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday on NPR, but are never near a radio when it's on, you can subscribe to the podcast, and download the entire show. Your computer will even tell you when there's a new one available. You can use Safari or Firefox to subscribe to podcasts, but the best program to use is iTunes. Freely available for Mac and Windows, iTunes even lets you search for podcasts through its podcast directory. From there, you can listen to the shows on your computer, burn a CD, or even better, put them on your iPod and listen to it at your leisure. Podcasts usually refer to an audio portion, but recently video podcasts have been appearing, as well as PDF files.
You see, any type of media can be syndicated... freely... quickly... all you have to do is subscribe.
To give you a bit of a head start, here are some of my favorite RSS feeds: