RSS and Bloglines De-geeked

I received a request from our friend Ted (a.k.a. Knitterguy) for a de-geeked explanation of RSS and Bloglines; seems he’s been tapped to do a presentation to a local group about blogging technology and he’s interested in my perspective on it.

This is because he knows that I’ve learned a fair bit about RSS and other blogging/podcasting publication technologies in the process of getting K‘s podcasts (her knitting podcast Purl Diving and her movie podcast Cinéfolle) up and running, and also because I’m pretty good at translating technical topics into something understandable by a person who doesn’t have tape on the bridge of their glasses, which may be helpful to him in presenting it to a non-technical audience.

The simple answer is that RSS is a bit like the “crawlers” at the bottom of the screen on TV news channels like CBC Newsworld.  Except, with RSS you get to pick and choose what kind of items show up in your crawler.

And Bloglines is an example of one of the ways you do the choosing.  It’s an on-line service (free, no less…) where you can set up a personal page of all the “content” that you want to scan regularly for new items.  I put content in quotes to indicate that there is a wide range of things in addition to blogs that you can subscribe to using Bloglines, or more generally any of the tools that work with RSS — typically called aggregators or feed-readers (again, leaning on newsroom jargon as in: getting a feed from a wire-service).

Content can include news feeds from, yes, those same TV news networks — which makes the crawler analogy very apt.  It can also be used in the automatic distribution of digital media — audio or video — in the form of podcasts or videocasts.  And of course, it works with regular plain old text based blogs too.

As for what “is” RSS, well, the acronym itself is disputed — the most common interpretation is that it stands for Really Simple Syndication.  If you want the history, check out the Wikipedia entry on RSS.  Note that RSS is really just a standard (or more correctly, several versions of a standard — see the Wikipedia entry for the gory details) that allows content providers and content consumers to get together more easily.

In addition to RSS, there’s another widely supported feed standard (joke: the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from) that also enables this bringing together of producer and consumer — it’s called Atom, and is often provided in parallel with an RSS feed on a provider’s site.  Kind of like being able to get a particular news channel via either cable or satellite…

So the RSS (or equally, Atom) standard is a way for a content producer/provider to announce, in a “machine readable” fashion, that they have some new content available.  Now for the non-geek, machine readable just means that as long as the provider adheres to the standard and puts the right things (as defined in the standard) about the content in the feed, then a program (run on a machine, i.e. a computer) can read the feed and decode the information according to the standard.  In fact, the technology behind the feed standards is something called XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which is designed to be easily machine readable but is also fairly readable to humans too — provided you have lots of patience.

Computers are generally much better at boring, repetitive tasks than humans, so that’s how they get stuck with the job of keeping you up to date on what’s new, rather than you having to either pore over the XML in the feed or having to browse to all of your favourite destinations on the ‘net just to see if there’s anything new there to read (which there often isn’t…).

On the side of creating the XML for the feed, that can also either be done by a human or by a computer.  There are some sites that do still “hand code” the XML for their feed (often just as a geeky point of honour, but sometimes because they want to “fine tune” the details), but the majority either use stand-alone feed creation software or the content management platform (er, that’s just a fancy term for a blogging service…  Blogger, TypePad, WordPress — that sort of thing; although it can also apply to other types of web site management systems) provides a feed “automagically” (i.e. the computer hosting the blog, or other content source, does it automatically — as if by magic — whenever the content is updated).

Now, let say you’ve found a site (blog, news service, whatever…) that you want to keep tabs on for new content.  And it’s got some sort of a link for a feed — RSS or Atom or both — that will let you know when there’s something new.  This is where Bloglines, and other feed-readers or aggregators come in.  You subscribe to the feed using the chosen program or on-line service by entering into it the URL for the feed, or in some cases just by clicking on, or “dragging and dropping”, the link to the feed.

Depending on the reader, you’ll have some options that control how frequently it checks for updates on the feed — for Bloglines, the check for updates occurs once an hour; for an aggregator program running on your PC, you should normally be able to specify the interval or even set it to check only on demand.  In either case, at the appointed time the service/program will check the feeds you’re subscribed to to see if there are any items that are “new” — and new is generally defined as “since the last time the feed was checked”, although there can be hiccups in the process resulting in old items appearing again or new items not appearing at all.  Still, it generally works pretty well.

The way that a particular program or service will present the items to you varies — you may need to evaluate several to find one that suits your needs or preferences.  In any case, what they all do, fundamentally, is show you when there is something new at each of the sites you’re subscribed to.  Most provide a lot more info than that, but the main function is to relieve you of having to check sites manually for new content.

You can even subscribe to feeds in many browsers now — Firefox supports them through “Live Bookmarks”, and Internet Explorer has recently added support for subscribing to feeds in Version 7.

Apart from dedicated feed-reader or aggregator programs that run on your computer (and there are lots, both for PCs and Macs, and presumably Linux too — a quick search on the web will turn them up if you want to find one for your computer), I believe there are other programs such as e-mail clients that support subscribing to feeds but I have no experience with these (so you’re on your own if you want to know more about subscribing in your e-mail program).

There you have it — RSS and Bloglines de-geeked… I hope.

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4 Responses to RSS and Bloglines De-geeked

  1. Kim says:

    I came over from knitterguy, and I enjoyed reading your blog. I am a software developer (I can help you with that Java thing) and I’ve recently decided I’m too young to be “left behind” all these new-fangled online communities. I don’t have to join them all, but I would like to know how they “work”. Even the technical parts I don’t quite understand.

    So – pertaining to RSS, the next step in questioning to me is, can you explain the various types of “reader”-like things versus “link sharing”-like things? I’m talking about Technorati vs. Digg, vs. a feed reader like Bloglines (and does it make sense to blog about blog entries within bloglines?). Do you have a feel for how people are reading their favorite blogs? Out in the boondocks (both literal and technology), most people I know still type in URLs and view my blog directly rather than using feed readers (I added email subscription through FeedBurner). My husband and I use Yahoo! and/or Google portals.

  2. Rob says:

    Hi Kim,

    I’ll see if I can put together something to answer your questions.

    But to get the ball rolling, a quick response to one of your points: I suspect there are still lots of blog readers (particularly outside the hard-core, bleeding-edge techy types — who probably have a permanent information jones and need to get their next fix within a few nanoseconds of someone publishing on a blog) who just have their faves bookmarked and check them out (more or less regularly, probably based on experience with each blogger’s posting habits) that way for new posts, rather than using an aggregator or feed-reader.

    It’s basic human psychology at work — I know from experience that the Change Management effort on the user acceptance side of a major software implementation is often a much bigger deal than the actual implementation, and getting a blog reader to change their habits is probably a similar challenge; even when the benefits should be obvious.

  3. Kim says:

    I see what you mean. I even find the portal a bit clumsy. I keep going back and forth between Yahoo! and Bloglines – Bloglines seems to pick up changes quicker, but I am frustrated that an errant click will make Bloglines think you already read everything. And I’m really discovering more of these RSS-like services by finding who is linking to my blog and who is visiting it. I look forward to your future columns.

  4. Ted says:

    This is good, Rob, thank you. Could I suggest “Part 2” where you use screenshots to show how you “copy” the XML feed thing-y into an aggregator? I found a couple of aggregators listed on the CBC/podcast webpage, with instrcution for use, but they aren’t toally clear.

    (Keep this up and you’ll have the start of a con.ed course for your local school board’s night school offeriengs.)

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