Introduction to RSS and News Feeds

What is RSS?

Depending on the time of day and direction of the wind, RSS officially stands for “Rich Site Summary”, “Really Simple Syndication”, or “RDF Site Summary.” What it refers to is a number of different formats for delivering content as a set of individual items. An RSS feed is usually a kind of machine-readable web page that delivers a document in one of these formats.

So much for definition: why should you care about RSS? RSS was designed to deliver only the content of a web page in a format that your computer can process. For example, news sites and web logs (“blogs”) often offer feeds that let you check on the latest headlines or blog entries through a feed reader, without constantly having to check back to that site for the latest information. The combination of powerful feed reader software and RSS makes it possible for a person to go through a lot of information in a short time. An entry in an RSS feed typically consists of a title, summary content, and a link to a web page that provides the full content associated with the entry. Some RSS feeds also deliver the full content of the entry as part of the feed.

The main use of RSS is for syndicating the content of news sites and blogs, since the information on such sites is generally ordered chronologically and naturally breaks up into distinct items. However, nearly any item-oriented information can be presented as RSS: Google’s GMail service, for example, provides the option to deliver the contents of your email in-box as an RSS feed.

The Art of the Feed Reader

While most RSS feeds can be viewed directly in a web browser, that’s generally not the intended usage. Consuming RSS effectively requires feed reading software; feed readers are also known as “aggregators,” since they provide features for managing subscriptions to a number of different feeds. Which feed reader software you should use generally depends on idiosyncrasies, such as the number and type of feeds you subscribe to and the way you use internet software. One of the key differences among feed readers are the different views they provide of the content in the RSS feeds.

A feed subscription is, in its basic form, just like a bookmark in a web browser. Most feed readers allow you to group subscriptions into collections of your own choosing. Most feed readers can be configured to automatically update subscriptions at set intervals, or when the feed reader is started, etc.

Something to Whet Your Appetite

Mozilla Firefox 3.x

Mozilla Firefox added in-the-browser support for RSS in version 1.0. The “out of the box” feed-reading capabilities of Firefox include a visual indicator when there is a feed or feed associated with the web page you’re currently viewing, and the ability to add “live bookmarks” (feed subscriptions). Firefox’s live bookmarks can be managed through its bookmark manager, which lets you group your feeds the way you’d like. When viewing a live bookmark in Firefox, it creates a set of virtual bookmarks that link to the full content of the entries in the feed. As the feed is updated, the virtual bookmarks associated with that feed change.

Sage Extension for Mozilla Firefox 3.x

Generally, Firefox’s “native” RSS capabilities are fine if you only subscribe to a few feeds. Once you start collecting subscriptions, you might want to try out Sage, a Firefox extension that adds more feed reading features to Firefox. One important such feature is the ability to present the contents of a feed on a special web page that lets you read the summary contents (or, if the feed provides it, the full contents) of the entries in the feed. Sage also lets you search through your feeds.

Where to Go From Here

There are too many different feed readers available to list all of them here. Instead, we have provided an overview of some of the more common feed readers. Another reader you may be interested in isĀ Mozilla Thunderbird’s built in RSS capability. If you’re new to the world of RSS, don’t be afraid to experiment with different readers With so many options, there’s sure to be one that matches your particular style. Start reading, and stay informed!