Putting the Really Simple part back into RSS

RSS feed icon, via Wikipedia.

WASHINGTON, January 27, 2014 — Business communications have never been easy, even on the Internet. Take, for example, RSS. Rich Site Summary (RSS) has been popularly referred to as “Really Simple Syndication” for at least the past ten years. Wikipedia briefly defines RSS as “a family of standard web feed formats to publish frequently updated information: blog entries, news headlines, audio, video.”

To oversimplify, RSS is a way for individuals and companies to get their messages out and for interested users and consumers to receive the information they want automatically by subscribing to RSS “feeds” or news and data streams.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but let’s face facts. Since when does anything in the world of technology stay simple for more than six to twelve months? Maybe RSS started out simple, but it’s not simple now. That’s especially true if you’re not one of those millennials or Gen Y types who have apparently been programming since infancy.

As early as 2007, we noted online this representative RSS complaint by Julia Vakulenko:

“Well I finally figured out what it is and how it works and how NOT Really Simple it is. Along the way I ran into terms like widgets, chicklets, category slugs, and blogroll.”

Not Really Simple. The imagination runs wild if you happen to be the sort of person who tends to dwell on the real meanings of words. Syndication? Doesn’t that have something to do with the Mafia? Even if it doesn’t, has the word “syndication” ever in your life sounded Simple?

In the good old days when print newspapers reigned supreme, syndication meant that your column, your comic, or your single panel cartoon ran not only in your home newspaper but also in newspapers across the country as well that chose to pick up your work. How much you got paid for it depended on how many different places it was published.

All the newspaper contracting, information exchange and, of course, your bigger and bigger paycheck was usually handled by a trained professional—your syndicator. Old comic page fans, for example, are still likely familiar with King Features Syndicate, which placed many of their favorite cartoons and cartoon characters in hundreds and hundreds of newspapers.

You: A Really Simple Syndicator

Many of those old tried and true media syndicators are still around, but their dominance in the Internet Age appears to be fading. Now we’re all syndicators. The Internet syndicator’s go-to tool is RSS. And RSS is defined as being Really Simple. At least that’s what you’ve learned about RSS on the Internet, and they can only put this on the Internet if it’s true, right?

You’ve been hearing about RSS for a while. So useful! So, well — simple. Ready to become a True Believer, you decide to give RSS a try. But if you’re not to the computer engineering profession born, depression will quickly set in as you try to grapple with RSS.

Perhaps there’s no point in even beginning to describe, upon your first search, the endless overflow of information available about information that will end up scalding your brain cells. The ruthless, relentless, remorseless tsunami of fact and opinion engulfing your mind, body, and soul from additional searches using words like RSS “tutorial,” “beginner,” “newbie,” and even “for dummies” will stop your quest cold.

For knowledgeable knights who no longer are nimble, the analysis paralysis that results is Real, and it’s not Simple. But we’re here to help. We’ll start with the most basic of the basics. Here we go.

Your best quest? The bare bones of RSS

While there are a seemingly infinite number of ways to work with information over the Internet, let’s limit today’s data dump to RSS and limit that to only its most basic forms.

What can you do with information? You can send it, or you can receive it. You can do one, both, or nothing at all. Let’s take a look at what’s behind Door Number One: Receiving information via RSS.

To receive information via RSS you need hardware, software, and the information itself.

  • Hardware. You already have a computer, a smartphone or some other handled device that’s connected to the Internet. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this article.
  • Software. You need to find a “feed reader” by searching on “best free RSS reader” and the name of your device (MacBook Pro, Android, iPad, whatever you’ve got). Then follow the instructions to install it. If the one you install looks like it will be too hard to use, just trash it and install a different one.
  • Information. Use the reader you downloaded to receive information by adding subscriptions to information sources that interest you.

That’s it. Within those three steps, you can get as complicated as you want in terms of obtaining information. Or you can really keep it Really Simple and work with the bare bones functionality of your feed reader.

Really Simple Clarification of Terms

People tend to use language in strange ways on the “InterWeb.” Sometimes the same word means many different things. Other times several different words mean only one thing.

RSS feed readers and news aggregators are roughly equivalent. The only difference between them is that news aggregators are intended to be used for news-related feeds, but can actually be used to read any kind of feed. Maybe calling it a “news aggregator” sounds tonier, who knows?

There are also feeds call “podcatchers.” They are — surprise — to automatically download designated podcasts, although by the time you read this, even podcasts may have become obsolete. The only limit on informational feeds happens to be, as always, your own imagination.

But wait! There’s more!

Our next column will cover the general features of feed readers and how to actually use them. The goal will be to show you how to get the information you want to come your way without a lot of effort. We’ll discuss Simple [read: easy-peasy, easy-as-pie to use] feed readers. We’ll also provide plenty of Really Simple resources for those who like to supplement their self-training by watching educational videos.

(Note: No syndicate of the Mafia or print newspaper variety will participate in your RSS education.)

Future columns will provide Really Simple instructions about how to send information out via RSS. Don’t try to learn everything about Really Simple Syndication at once. Unless you happen to be one of those aforementioned infant prodigy programmers, of course.

Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language) She provides training in business presentations and interpersonal conversation skills for native and non-native speakers of English. Her company, Leadership English™, offers communications skills, training and coaching for non-native and native English speakers, as well as award-winning writing and editorial services for businesses large and small.

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