Week 3: RSS

This week we’re looking at RSS. After you’ve read the background reading below, have a go at this week’s activities. You’ll see there are 3 activities listed, but you only need complete the first 2. If you get time, have a go at the optional activity.

What is RSS?
There is some discussion as to what RSS stands for, but most people opt for ‘Really Simple Syndication’. In techie terminology, RSS is an XML file format for delivering regularly updated information over the web. In other words, RSS is used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines, and podcasts in a standardized format.

You will find RSS referred to as “feeds” or even “news feeds”. You may have seen one of these icons whenever you’ve surfed the web:

So, what does RSS do? Well, just think about all those websites you visit every day. It takes a lot of time to visit each & every one of them, doesn’t it? Now imagine if you could visit all those web pages in just one place and all at the same time, without having to search for new information on the page you’ve already seen or read before, and without having to consume a lot of time visiting each site individually. Would that be valuable to you? Well, it’s available through RSS.

If any of your favourite websites publish an RSS feed, you don’t have to keep visiting it to find fresh content – you can just subscribe to the RSS feed and wait for that fresh content to come to you. And RSS is free! If you’d like to have a look at what a ‘raw’ RSS file looks like, click here.

It looks like a bunch of meaningless code, but the good news is you shouldn’t ever have to look at that code, because that’s what RSS aggregators do.

What are RSS aggregators?
RSS aggregators are applications that read RSS feeds. Aggregators are also known as ‘news readers’ or even just ‘readers’. These readers take an RSS feed (like the one linked above) and convert all that coding into something that is readable: it will have a title, formatting, and hypertext links that you can click on. An RSS reader is kind of similar to Internet browsers such as Explorer or Firefox: just as browsers present HTML coding in a readable format, so RSS readers present XML coding in a readable format.

But the other important feature of a reader is the built-in update function that checks the feeds you’ve subscribed to for new content. If new content is found, your reader delivers that to you.

There are different types of readers/aggregators:

  • Desktop: these are software applications that require downloading and installation on a computer.
  • Web-based: online aggregators are availableon the web and require users to set up a username and password to access them. To access a web-based aggregator, you go to the site, login, and read your feeds online. The advantage of web-based aggregators is that you can access them from multiple computers (home, work, Internet cafe, etc.). Two popular web-based aggregators are Bloglines and Google Reader. One of this week’s activities (Activity 1) looks at setting up both a Bloglines and a Google Reader account for yourself so as to bring your feeds together.
  • Browser-based: the latest versions of many browsers (like Firefox and Internet Explorer 7) include the ability to subscribe to and read RSS feeds right in the browser.

So, how does all this work, exactly?

Take a look at this clip created by the CommonCraft team and made available via YouTube. It explains RSS really well. Plus it’ll give you a break from reading! Please note: You’ll need headphones to listen to this clip.

How do you find RSS feeds?
If a website publishes a feed, it is usually indicated on the site in at least one of the following ways:

  • a hyperlinked orange icon (three examples are at the beginning of this post).
  • a link called “RSS” or “XML” or “Subscribe” (or some variation thereof).

You can also add a feed to your aggregator even when a website doesn’t publish a feed. We’ll look at how this works in this week’s optional activity.

How else can you find feeds?

  • Directories & Search Engines: there are search engines and subject directories devoted to RSS feeds. For example, take a look at Feedster, Technorati and/or Search4RSS. Both allow you to do a keyword search and bring up results with easy-to-grab links to RSS feeds that you can subscribe to.
  • Serendipity: chances are, you probably won’t remember how you found most of the feeds that end up in your aggregator because most of your subscriptions will probably result from just generally surfing the web and stumbling on a website you really like. When you’re on a website and you’re wondering if they publish an RSS feed, remember to look for the orange RSS icons or for a link labeled “RSS”, “XML” or “Subscribe”.

As always, if you have any questions, contact Jenny, Katharine or Lawrence.

And enjoy the world of RSS!

Further Readings (entirely optional!)

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