Geek Chic of the Week: RSS, Part III

This is Part III of a three-part series. The first post covered why you should care about RSS and how to use basic RSS readers. The second post explained more sophisticated RSS aggregators. This final post will go more into the mechanics and history of RSS for those who are really interested in knowing more.

Okay, so we’ve talked about two different ways to subscribe to RSS and I hope everyone’s been experimenting with it. (And if not, come on ladies — get clicking!) For those geeks among us who also like to more about the hows, whats and whys, I present the following abbreviated FAQs about RSS:

What does RSS stand for?
Depends on who you ask and what version you’re talking about. RSS version 2.0 (the current version) is known as Really Simple Syndication. Earlier versions were known as Rich Site Summary (v 1.0) and RDF Site Summary (v .90). One site claims it stands for Real Site Summary but, they seem to be the only ones saying that. So, if you want to sound smart I’d say Really Simple Syndication.

So, how does it work?
In really simple terms, a web site publishes a file in a format known as XML. Your feed reader (or aggregator) that we talked about in Part I and Part II reads that file and displays it to you. Think about it like this: when you create a file using Microsoft Word. it saves the file in a DOC format, which other people can also open up using Microsoft Word. And Word knows how to display all of your fancy formatting like headlines and italics and highlighted text.

If you want to know what an XML file looks like (one that’s not being displayed in an RSS reader), you can see an example here. Your feed reader sees this and then displays it to you with nice, fancy formatting. Just like our Word example above.

This video is also a pretty sweet description of the whole system; I wish I would have found this when I wrote the first post!

The cool thing is that — like we talked about in Part II — just about anything can be syndicated via RSS: books you’ve checked out from the library, the date your garbage man is going to show up, photos you’ve posted to a photo-sharing account, whatever. It’s pretty sweet.

How did this all happen?
It’s a long story. And honestly, kind of boring unless you’re a programmer or a nerd history buff. But, you can read the gorey details on Wikipedia or a shorter version on the Harvard Law site.

How many people use RSS?
I have no idea, and no one else seems to know either. I can tell you is that it’s millions (according to this post, Feedburner —  one of many RSS feed publishers — has 65 million subscribers), but is still a pretty small percentage of overall Internet users (this site says that North America has somewhere around 237 million Internet users and Wikipedia claims there are 1.2 billion people online worldwide). So, this is your chance to be an early adopter. Take advantage of it!

This is the shortest of my RSS posts, and probably the least helpful (aside from that awesome Common Craft video). But, I promised I’d do a little bit about the boring details of RSS so there it is. Next week, I’ll be back with some sexier Geek Chic. I don’t know what yet, but I’ll come up with something!