What is RSS, and Why Should I Care?

This post is the first in an ongoing series, “Geek Decoder Ring.” If you’re not a geek, have no desire to become a geek, but would like to understand what the heck the geeks in your life are talking about, this series is for you.

We’re going to start out with the decoding basis of web 2.0 geekery: RSS.

What is it? RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication,” and that’s pretty much what it is–a really simple way to broadcast regularly updated content across the web.

Who needs it? Any kind of website that has regularly updated content can use RSS to make the content simpler for people to subscribe to and read regularly.

Wouldn’t it just be simpler to let them come to my site and read it?  Or as a reader, wouldn’t it be simpler just to visit sites I like on a regular basis? In short, why bother with RSS?

It might be simpler in the “it doesn’t require any work at all for me to do nothing differently” sense.  However, what’s your #1 gripe with surfing the web?  For most folks, it’s that it takes so much time to wade past the junk to get to the good stuff, partly because the web is chock fulla distractions.

If you’re willing to learn to use an RSS reader, sites you really like you can subscribe to, just like you subscribe to your local newspaper or favorite magazine.  And it has all the same advantages.  Sure, you can just buy your local paper or magazine at the store or the newsstand whenever it comes out.  But you have to think about it, plunk it on the counter, and pay for it separately every. stinking. time. And you might miss an issue.

If you spend the short time it takes to set up an RSS reader (and I’ll be breaking down how to do that in a post soon), it takes seconds to add a new subscription, and you can be sure you won’t miss any new good stuff.  Instead of having to think about visiting 20 or 30 websites to check and see if they have anything new, you just check your feed reader.  No distractions, and no wasting time.

Or let’s say there’s a story that you immediately NEED to comment on.  But you picked up your paper three days after it came out, and you’ve missed the deadline for letters to the editor.  It’s the same thing with a blog or podcast.  If you subscribe, you get the opportunity to comment and participate in discussion. If you don’t, you sometimes miss that boat.

Do I need to know how it works?

Not really, any more than you need to know how your microwave works–you just need to know how to work the microwave. (Or in this case, a feed reader and/or a blogging software).

I will say that if you hear geeks talking about “RSS 2.0” or “XML” or what have you, they’re talking about basically different ways to code or format a feed to be read by feed readers.

A few years ago, geeks debated different kinds of feeds because different readers sometimes didn’t understand all of the ones that were available.  But now, most feeds are created automatically, and most readers understand almost all of the different kinds of feeds–so it’s not as big a deal as it once was.  You may earn some bonus points with your geek friends or coworkers if you know this, but that’s about all.

img courtesy lusi on sxc

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