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Why are RSS Feeds so complicated?

Those of us in the social media business have done an awful job explaining them.  We make it worse with a mishmash of terms for the exact same thing (RSS, XML, syndicate.)  I think we should set an industry standard to just call them "feeds" and drop all the other terms, and use this symbol: feed-icon-14x14

I had an really painful flight recently listening to a software engineer try to explain them to very nice, patient, and interested couple for 2 hours. (It didn’t help he was trying to show them how it worked on his computer that was offline because we were on a plane. Grrr.)

The next day my dad asked me about them.

Here’s my attempt at a clear answer to: "What are RSS Feeds?"

  1. Many web sites publish updates whenever they have a new post or story. This is the "feed."
  2. You can use a program called a "feed reader" to automatically collect all those stories so you can read them in one place.  Think of it as an inbox for news.
  3. It’s quite handy–all your favorite stories come to you, instead of you having to go check a bunch of sites all the time looking for new stories. When there’s something new, it shows up in your reader automatically.
  4. There are also feeds for things like eBay searches or Craigslist posts. You could have your feed reader automatically track any new eBay listing for a particular item you are looking for.
  5. You know if a web page has a feed if you see this icon: feed-icon-14x14.  It might also be near the top of your browser. 
  6. If you see these terms, they are all the same thing: RSS, XML, Syndicate This Site.

To get started:

  1. Get a feed reader.  My favorite is the free Google Reader.
  2. When you see the icon, click it to subscribe.
  3. Start reading.

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  1. Kevin Burke September 26, 2008 at 8:30 am #

    Well done. RSS, so useful, yet so under-utilized. Likely because as you point out, so misunderstood. This helps.

  2. mike corso September 26, 2008 at 10:21 am #

    Nice work. I’ll post it to
    Mike Corso
    Owner & Publisher
    Cool Site of the Day TM
    On the Web Since 1994. Over 4,000 Sites Served!
    Join my LIVE call-in webcast, Cool Talk, every Thursday at 1:30PM EST

  3. Lisa Spengler September 26, 2008 at 8:18 pm #

    Excellent, easy-to-understand description of RSS. I’ve always had a hard time explaining it to coworkers and friends. I’ll make a note of your definition.
    Lisa Spengler
    MSIMC ’07

  4. Pat September 26, 2008 at 8:55 pm #

    Why are you making this hard?
    Going to a website is like going to the grocery store to get a monthly magazine. You have to remember which day of the month the new issue shows up. If you check too early, you waste time only to discover last month’s issue is still displayed. If you go too late, you missed an issue because the following month’s issue is already being displayed.
    RSS is like home delivery. When the new issue is available it shows up in your mailbox without you having to do anything. And without worrying about missing an issue.
    Focus on the benefit, not the technology.

  5. Maddie Grant September 28, 2008 at 9:35 pm #

    Totally agree- I posted on the same thing!
    I really think if organizations “got” RSS, the door to a whole new world would be opened…

  6. John K September 29, 2008 at 12:20 pm #

    Another feed reader to try (if you don’t mind a download) is illumio. While not as popular as Google Reader, it actually filters your RSS feeds based on your interests to show you the most important stuff first.

  7. barak October 3, 2008 at 1:34 pm #

    i like this Ready for Some Stories explanation too:

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