Giving thanks to RSS, the most unappreciated technology of the decade

In the ten years since Real Simple Syndication (RSS) has been invented, it has been one of the most significant technologies that Rodney Dangerfield would say “got no respect.” Providing the connective glue behind most social media, linking various Web sites for automatically posting content, being able to Webify various other protocols — RSS is the tech that most of us now take for granted.

I am not a big fan of the best of the decade type of stories (especially as the decade isn’t really yet over for another year). But as I was thinking about how far we have come in the past ten years, I thought I would take a moment of appreciation for RSS and all that it has done. It is one of those stories of unintended consequences. And what is ironic is how many of us use it every day without realizing it, or even knowing what it does to help better our online lives.

Back at the end of 1999, a few computer scientists at Netscape (talk about underappreciated companies, at least for those of us that weren’t part of their stratospheric IPO), Apple and Microsoft put together the beginnings of the protocol. Aided and abetted by pundit and programmer Dave Winer, RSS began to show up in a variety of odd places, including early Web server software. The early days of RSS spawned a series of specialty software tools called RSS readers that enabled some of us to keep track of new content that was added to our favorite Web sites without having to cycle through them in our browsers one by one. And that is where things stood for most of the time, until the blogosphere and the social Web took off.

Well, those RSS readers were probably the biggest pile of mostly unused software. A few geeks used them, but mostly they were oddities. I recall giving a presentation in 2007 at the New Communications Forum to explain RSS to public relations people, and some of the things that I mentioned then still apply to the technology, such as a way to quickly scan information, be the first on your cubicle block to find out something, and supplement email as a way to send information to a lot of folks quickly.
I will post these slides to Slideshare.net/davidstrom so you can take a look for yourself if you are interested.

Just as a side note: the site Slideshare.net is an interesting outgrowth of RSS itself: you can notify various people on your LinkedIn and other sites when you put up new content such as this slide deck.

I still have my collection of RSS feeds somewhere on my hard drive, and I stopped looking at them a few years ago when I realized that I could Google just about anything that actually showed up in these feeds.

The early blogging tools had one big thing going for them: they automatically generated their RSS feeds without any additional software. This made it easy to integrate their content into a wide variety of places, and before you knew it, RSS feeds were an intrinsic part of online software.

Indeed, it became easier to just review my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts and see what people have posted there than mess with RSS directly. So we can thank RSS first all for making the concept of a data feed popular in these social networking sites. Now most everyone knows what “post to my Wall” means or “take a look at my feed” – terms that became popular from Facebook but owe their origins to how RSS was constructed.

Thanks to RSS, I can post my content to my WordPress blog, and within a few minutes (or hours, depending on how things are going out on the Interwebs), that content will magically appear in my Twitter feed, my Facebook profile, on LinkedIn status, and more. I have tools such as Pixelpipe.com and TubeMogul.com that can send out content to dozens of different places. While with many of these tools there are other programming interfaces that are going on to enable all of this fun and fascinating connectivity, it really got started with RSS and its series of very minimal standards to publish and subscribe its data feeds.

So let’s start off 2010 with thanks to those early RSS pioneers!

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2 thoughts on “Giving thanks to RSS, the most unappreciated technology of the decade

  1. Finally – acknowledgment that RSS is alive and well! Thanks, David, for a very reasoned look and how much RSS brings to all of us and cutting through the “RSS is dead” rabble rousing.

  2. Paul Bonner writes:
    We’re finally getting around to implementing RSS on my company site and I agree with you that anyone who pushes content that way owes a debt to the inventors of the protocol.

    But I think you’re short-changing RSS’s value as a consumable asset. I’m a Google Reader user, and I use it to monitor approximately 350 feeds — many of them amalgamation sites themselves, covering everything from the Android Developers newsgroups to various web comics, political commentary sites, and Boston Celtics fan pages — on a daily basis. Often I’ll just scan the headlines. Other times I’ll dive in and spend an hour or two reading everything available on a topic. It’s become an invaluable tool for me — I can’t imagine a better way to stay current on all the topics that interest me. In fact, Google Reader has become my major entry point to the web, and the chances that I’ll return to any web site or blog after my first visit decrease to almost zero if it doesn’t offer an RSS feed.

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