Why RSS is important…

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.

Who cares?

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.

Then there are tools like Feedster and Technorati and Weblogs.com that read in the RSS versions of weblogs and do interesting things with them.

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.


Matt's picture
Matt on November 12, 2003 - 12:14 Permalink

I guess it depends on the group…

Good points, Peter. I guess I’m just trying to figure out whether a cost (no matter how small) is warranted for a fair-weather blog hobbyist, like I… and whether the actual setup of typepad is better. Like I said, I played with it for a few minutes last night and enjoyed it but I’m not certain it offers me more as a user. I liked the look of Nils’ blog and will make sure to talk to him over the next few weeks, while my free trial ticks down.

If I keep using blogspot… will I go blind?

Alan's picture
Alan on November 12, 2003 - 12:35 Permalink

Perhaps, Matt, you will just be happy. There are always downsides to technologies and aggregation has its own. It depersonalizes the personal web page to be a collection of posts. It induces tendencies to value the new. It also isolates, limits you to the list and the listable.

I do not think the atom is the post, but either the author or the idea. Feedster is the most promising in this respect as it can, as Peter says, keyword search as opposed to post search. Should RSS ever move to a practical purpose, it would want to be organizing the ideas you are interested in automatically, not just tell you of the next appearance on an already known and noted location. An interesting propect, for example, were each site to be broadcasting keywords would be a central tree of folders where I could go and see updates wherever on the web about automated biometric surveillance rather than updates on simply what has been altered on the face of certain sites or what has been placed on known sites last. Dave Winer is working through something like this now over at www.scripting.com though only at the level of personal folders for now. It will mean the end of the word blogosphere but that will be a good thing.

It sounds like better Google  — not just the present course dump that places Peter in the vangard of shipping container knowledge or me as highly placed spokesperson for any number of things I know little about.

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on November 12, 2003 - 12:37 Permalink

First — thanks Peter for a start in the bloggers compendium — “An idiots guide to blogging”? — This is not put down. There is no easily found reference that helps a newbie get going.

Second Matt — TypePad rocks. Very stable lots of really easy features and great support. Designed for people like you and me who are not that strong technically but who want a blog that can do neat stuff

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on November 12, 2003 - 13:38 Permalink

Well fate seems to have stepped in and helped me see the light. Last night, I noticed that the address to my blog has changed. It now requires a www to be entered as well.

So my choice is to tell everyone about the change of address to a blog that nobody is able to find anyway… or change the blog service entirely, and go with TypePad, only to make Peter happy :)

I choose the latter. New blog will be up soon over at TypePad. I won’t like the look of it as much, but it does have some cool things. Besides, when you look like me, you quickly realise that looks don’t count for much anyway.

Matt's picture
Matt on November 12, 2003 - 15:46 Permalink

Bart: “But Dad, you’re giving into mob mentality!”

Homer: “No, I’m not. I’m jumping on the bandwagon!”

Since people I greatly respect have all agreed, I’ll likely make the switch too (that way when I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll have peers to call upon).

I like that TypePad has the stats log… nice to know who’s dropping by and from whence they came.

I do like Rob P’s site very much and it’s TypePad, and his recommendation means a lot.

And I like having Peter and Steven as readers, so I’d prefer to make it easier for folks like them to check in.

I’ll likely make the switch in the next few days.

Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on November 12, 2003 - 17:24 Permalink

The more I use TypePad the better I like it. I’m only beginning to play with the toys, but I find it every bit as easy as Blogger and has some cool features — for example, I like being able to give a thumbnail description of my favourite blogs, so that people might be further encouraged to go have a look.

Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on November 12, 2003 - 17:25 Permalink

And as for the group sex thing .. dibs on Cyn …

Cyn's picture
Cyn on November 12, 2003 - 17:51 Permalink

My knees have never been so close together as they are right now. Yikes-a-roo.

Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on November 12, 2003 - 18:00 Permalink

What do bloggers use for birth control?” “Umm .. their personalities?”

Matt's picture
Matt on November 13, 2003 - 13:26 Permalink

The moving boxes are unpacked and I’m now in my new TypePad home. It’s a fixer-upper right now, but you’re all invited over.

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on November 13, 2003 - 15:13 Permalink

Yeah, Peter, your shares in TypePad are surely rising, because I too have made the switch.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 13, 2003 - 17:46 Permalink

Okay, next steps: wire $674 to my account in the Cayman Islands, email me your bank account card and PIN numbers, and meet me on the corner of Queen and Pownal Streets on Sunday morning at 6:32 a.m. Bring plenty of sphagnum moss, a machete, and at least $12 in Brazlian currency.

Ken's picture
Ken on November 13, 2003 - 20:34 Permalink

My web log thingy is the perfect example of what you call masturbation, promiscuity isn’t my thing, especially with the web at large. Maybe someday I will blog with the world, but that exposure would unsettle me right now.
Being Googled doesn’t thrill me.