In the comments to my Note to New Webloggers (both here and over on Mattville) there’s been some suggestion that RSS is something that’s “good for people addicted to weblogs” (my paraphrase) but that regular old folks don’t need it.
I want to describe why that’s not true. But to do so means starting with a primer on RSS. So here goes.
The atom of the weblog is the post. This is a post you’re reading now. It has a title, a date, and some content. A weblog is a collection of posts, arranged chronologically.
RSS — there are various definitions of the acronym, but I like Really Simple Syndication the best — makes all of the posts on a weblog available to others in a structured format that allows each post and its components to be sliced and diced and examined and indexed and sorted and searched.
Why do we need something like RSS for that?
Well, let’s take a Matt’s blog as an example. This particular post has a permalink, which is to say it has a web address that, if called up in a web browser will take one directly to the start of the post. But the text of the post appears on a page that also contains a lot of other posts.
Because that post is simply a needle in a haystack of other material, it’s relatively hard (i.e. hard enough that few would bother) to train a computer to figure out where one post starts and another starts. In other words, for most intents and purposes, the post is painted on a wall with a bunch of other posts, and loses its identity as a post. To a real person, with a good memory, Matt’s weblog appears to be a collection of posts; to a computer program trained to juggle posts into interesting other things, Matt’s weblog appears to be a mass of amorphous text.
Well, on a personal, practical level, people like Steven and I do because we don’t read weblogs in a web browser, we read them in a specialized tool called a newsreader that eats up the RSS versions of weblogs, and presents them in a structured, useful, centralized fashion.
Other people use RSS versions of weblogs to feed news aggregators, like Radio UserLand, which allows them not only to read weblogs in one place, but also to easily comment on what they read, and to link back to the original post on the original weblog.
Weblogs.com is a constantly updated list of new posts, on thousands of weblogs around the world. It is, in a sense, the heartbeat of the blog universe.
Technorati takes the RSS versions of weblogs and automatically determines the relationships between posts from different blogs, and thus the relationships between blogs, and makes this information available in a variety of formats. It’s a excellent tool for exploring the social life of the blogosphere.
Feedster is a blog search engine. It slurps in the RSS versions of thousands of weblog posts and makes them keyword searchable, Google-style. For example, here’s a Feedster search for ‘Zap Your PRAM’ that shows references to the Zap Your PRAM conference from all over the blogosphere.
And those are only three tools of hundreds.
When you blog using a tool that doesn’t support RSS, your words are left out of the blogosphere. Indeed there are some who would say that these days if you blog without RSS, you’re not actually blogging at all.
Whether that is true or not, it remains that RSS affords the opportunity to have your words participate in a social system rather than simply sitting motionless on an isolated web page.
In other words, RSS-free blogging is kind of like masturbation, while blogging with RSS is like group sex. Or, at the very least, sex with an interesting rotating collection of partners.
I recommend it.