Many of us are by now familiar with the term ‘Web 2.0’ technologies, which is essentially a collective term that refers to a myriad of on-line applications, facilities, sites and services which offer a high degree of interactivity, creative capacity and collaboration. While there are many facets and technologies in place to make Web 2.0 possible, most are very much ‘in the background’ and ones with which we (the average users) do not have much dealings.
However, one of these features is RSS and this is very much one that we can interact with. While a full and thorough description of RSS and the extent of its powers would take far longer than we have here, this short article aims to outline the basics of what RSS is, how it works, and some of the ways in which we can access and utilise it. The topic of how to enable and broadcast your own RSS Feeds will be dealt with in a later article.
What is RSS?
The term RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (and can also be found to mean Rich Site Summary). In a nutshell, it is a format for delivering regularly changing web content automatically to a user or users of the World Wide Web. The key word here is ‘automatically’, for it is this automation which offers so much possibility and capacity for the way we can seek out, collate and share information. Content which is made available using RSS is usually called an RSS Feed or an RSS Channel, and the applications used to access and/or subscribe to these feeds are called Aggregators.
Prior to RSS, if I wanted to check if there was new content available on my five favourite websites, I had to manually visit each of those sites and check for myself if there was new content there, I had to manually find it and bring it back. But with the advent of RSS came a new way of doing things; provided my five favourite sites are RSS-enabled (as more and more sites now are, certainly any created using dynamic technologies such as Blogs and Content Management Systems) then that content could automatically come to me. Usually, RSS Feeds don’t contain the full content of the resource they refer to, just a short summary (such as the title and first couple of lines) which can then be clicked on to access the full resource on it’s source website.
But RSS doesn’t just make it possible to subscribe to ‘text’ content. It is also RSS that makes it possible to subscribe to Podcasts; each time a new Podcast is uploaded, the RSS file is updated to include a reference to the new podcast and it is automatically downloaded to your PC when you log on. RSS makes it possible to aggregate content from blogs, mailing lists, social networking sites, News sites, wikis, social bookmarking sites, and many, many other Web 2.0 technologies.
In addition, an RSS ‘feed’ can be accessed in a personal capacity (ie: only I can read it) or we can also choose to ‘pass it on’ to others via our websites, blogs, etc…
Take for example the block to the left of this page entitled “CESI Mailing List”. This content does not actually reside on the CESI website, it is in fact content which exists within the CESI Google Group. Because this list is RSS-enabled, the CESI site can ‘tune in’ to this feed and route the most recent content to the front page of the site – automatically – and so any visitors to the CESI site can in turn read it. In fact, any of you who have your own personal, class or school blog can do the same and have this content appear automatically on your site. And if you don’t have a Web 2.0-based site like a Blog, VLE or Content Management System, there are many other ways in which you can ‘grab’ this content (see below).
Finding and Subscribing to RSS Feeds
You can tell if a site/blog/service is RSS enabled by looking for any of the following icons (or a similar derivitive of it):
To subscribe to that RSS feed:
- right-click on the icon and choose ‘properties’ from the menu that appears
- in the box that opens, copy the URL for the link
- then paste this link into your RSS Aggregator and click the Subscribe button. Depending on the aggregator you are using, you may be asked to specify a setting for how often your Feeds should be refreshed.
And that’s it*, the content from that site will now ‘flow’ automatically to your RSS aggregator. In the case of Web Browsers it is usually even easier (see below) to subscribe to RSS Feeds.
(*obviously there may be some slight differences in the way different aggretators work but the functionality is always the same)
How to access RSS Feeds
The following lists some of the ways in which you can access RSS feed.
Collaboratively (to share them with other people)
- If you have a Blog or CMS-based website, you most likely have a plugin or module to access RSS Feeds. If you don’t see one, there’s most likely a free one available for download and install.
- Similarly, if you have a VLE you are most like able to access RSS Feeds. For instance, Moodle has an additional block that can be added to each course for the purposes of streaming RSS feeds to that course.
- If you have a ‘static’ website and you want to add an RSS feed to it, there are several free facilities available to do so, such as http://rssfeedreader.com/.
Personal (for your viewing only)
- There are a number of web-based applications which you can use to access RSS Feeds in a personal capacity. Google Reader is one such application. You need a Google account to do so, but given the range of applications that this will give you access to (in addition to Reader) it’s worth having this account anyway. In a similar way, you can also use iGoogle (Google’s Personalised Homepage facility) to subscribe to these feeds and access the up-to-date content frequently. If you’d prefer a non-Google web-based application, there are of course others, such as Bloglines.
- Most Web Browsers will now facilitate the aggregating of RSS content.
– Mozilla Firefox: the most common way to access RSS feeds in Firefox is to use Live Bookmarks (more info available here) but there are also several addons which you can download to do the same job (more info avilable here)
– Microsoft Internet Explorer: further details availble here
– Apple Safari: further details available in the Help menu for Safari.
- A third option is to simply download a dedicated RSS Reader application to your PC. There are many available, such as FeedDemon, NewsGator (both for Windows) and NetNewsWire (for Mac).
- If you have a smartphone or 3g mobile device there is a good chance you can access RSS Feeds using it. For instance, here is some info for the iPhone and the Nokia N95.
Give it a Go
So now that we have covered what RSS is, how to recognise an RSS feed and how to subscribe to it, try it for yourself using the following three (very worthwhile being subscribed to!) sites which offer RSS Feeds :
Care to Share?
Have you any RSS Feeds that you’d like to share? If so, please send the details to the CESI Mailing list for distribution, it will be very much appreciated!