Archive for September, 2009

Crossing the RSS Divide – making it simpler and compelling

September 18, 2009


RSS is a web technology for distributing varieties of content to wide audiences with minimal fuss and delay, hence it’s name “Really Simple Syndication”. However, I’m finding this core capability is less well understood and perhaps shares barriers among visually impaired and older adult web users. This article attempts to untangle some issues and identify good explanatory materials as well as necessary web tools. If, indeed, there is an “RSS Divide” rather than just a poor sample of web users and my own difficulties, perhaps the issues are worth wider discussion.

So, what is RSS?

Several good references are linked below, or just search for “RSS explained”. Here’s my own framework:

Think of these inter-twined actions: Announce, Subscribe, Publish, Fetch, Read/Listen/View:

  1. Somebody (called the “Publisher”) has content you’re welcome to read. In addition to producing descriptive web pages, they also tell you an address where you can find the latest content., i.e. often called a “feed”. These are URLs that look like abc.rss or abc.xml and often have words or graphics saying “RSS”.
  2. When the Publisher has something new written or recorded, they or their software, add an address to this feed, i.e. they “publish”. For example, when I publish this article on WordPress, the text will show up on the web page but also my blog feed will have a new entry. You can keep re-checking this page for changes, but that’ wastes your time, right? And sooner or later, you forget about me and my blog, sniff. Here cometh the magic of RSS!
  3. You (the “Subscriber”) have a way, the RSS client of tracking my feed to get the new article. You “subscribe” to my feed by adding its address to this “RSS client”. You don’t need to tell me anything, like your email, just paste the address in the right place to add to the list of feeds the RSS client manages for you. However, s
  4. Now, dear subscriber, develop a routine in your reading life where you decide, “ok, time to see what’s new on all my blog subscriptions”. So you start your RSS client which then visits each of the subscribed addresses and identifies new content. This “Fetch” action is like sending the dog out for the newspapers, should you have such a talented pet. The client visits each subscribed feed and notes and shows how many articles are new or unread in your reading history.

  5. At your leisure, you read the subscribed content not on the Publisher’s website but rather within the RSS client. Now, that content might be text of the web page, or audio (called podcasts), or video, etc. RSS is the underlying mechanism that brings subscribed content to your attention and action.

What’s the big deal about RSS?

The big deal here is that the distribution of content is syndicated automatically and nearly transparently. Publishers don’t do much extra work but rather concentrate on their writing, recording, and editing of content. Subscribers bear the light burden of integrating an RSS client into their reading routines, but this gets easier, albeit with perhaps too many choices. Basically, RSS is a productivity tool for flexible readers. RSS is especially helpful for those of us who read by synthetic speech so we don’t have to fumble around finding a web site then the latest post — it just shows up ready to be heard.


Commonly emphasized, RSS saves you lots of time if you read many blogs, listen to podcasts, or track news frequently. No more trips to the website to find out there’s nothing new, rather your RSS client steers you to the new stuff when and where you’re ready to update yourself. I have 150 currently active subscriptions, in several categories: news (usatoday, cnet, science daily, accesstech,…); blogs (technology, politics, accessibility, …), some in audio. It would take hours to visit all the websites, but the RSS client spans the list and tells me of new articles or podcasts in a few minutes while I’m doing something else, like waking up. With a wireless connection for my RSS client, I don’t even need to get out of bed!


This means I can read more broadly, not just from saving time, but also having structured my daily reading. I can read news when I feel like tackling the ugly topics of the day, or study accessibility by reading blogs, or accumulate podcasts for listening over lunch on the portico. Time saved is time more comfortably used.

Even more, I can structure and retain records of my reading using the RSS client. Mine arranges feeds in trees so I can skip directly to science if that’s what I feel like. I can also see which feeds are redundant and how they bias their selections.


So, RSS is really a fundamental way of using the Web. It’s not only an affordance of more comfort, but also becoming a necessity. When all .gov websites, local or national, plus all charities, etc. offer RSS feeds, it’s assumed citizens are able to keep up and really utilize that kind of content delivery. For example,>whitehouse.gov has feeds for news releases and articles by various officials that complement traditional news channels with more complete and honestly biased content, i.e. you know exactly the sources, in their own words.


The down side of RSS is overload, more content is harder to ignore. That’s why it’s important to stand back and structure reading sources and measure and evaluate reading value, which is enabled by RSS clients.

Now, about those RSS clients


After 2+ years of happily relying on the Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager RSS client, I’m rather abashed at the messy world of web-based RSS clients, unsure what to recommend to someone starting to adopt feeds.

  1. Modern browsers provide basic support for organizing bookmarks, with RSS feeds as a specific type. E.g. Firefox supports “live bookmarks”, recognizing feeds when you click the URL. A toolbar provides names of feeds to load into tabs. Bookmarks can be categorized, e.g. politics or technology. Various add-on components provide sidebar trees of feeds to show in the main reading window. Internet Explorer offers comparable combinations of features: subscribing, fetching, and reading.

  2. Special reader services expand these browser capabilities. E.g. Google Reader organizes trees of feeds, showing number of unread articles. Sadly, Google Reader isn’t at this moment very accessible for screen readers, with difficult to navigate trees and transfer to text windows. Note: I’m searching for better recommendations for visually impaired readers.
  3. I’ve not used but heard of email based RSS readers, e.g. for Outlook. Many feed subscriptions offer email to mail new articles with you managing the articles in folders or however you handle email.
  4. Smart phones have apps for managing feeds, but here again I’m a simple cell phone caller only, inexperienced with mobile RSS. I hear Amazon Kindle will let you buy otherwise free blogs.
  5. Since podcasts are delivered via feeds, services like Itunes qualify but do not support full-blown text article reading and management.

So, I’d suggest first see if your browser version handles feeds adequately and try out a few. Google Reader, if you are willing to open or already have a Google account, works well for many sighted users and can be used rather clumsily if you’re partially sighted like me. Personally, when my beloved Icon needs repair, I find any of the above services far less productive and generally put my feed reading fanaticism on hiatus.

Note: a solid RSS client will export and import feeds from other clients, using an OPML file. Here is Susan’s feeds on news, technology, science, Prescott, and accessibility with several feeds for podcasts. You’re welcome to save this file and edit out the feed addresses or import the whole lot into your RSS client.

Is there more to feeds in the future?

You betcha, I believe. First, feed addresses are data that are shared on many social media sites like Delicious feed manager. This enables sharing and recommending blogs and podcasts among fans.


A farsighted project exploiting RSS feeds is Jon Udell’s Elm City community calendar project. The goal is to encourage local groups to produce calendar data in a standard format with categorization so that community calendars can be merged and managed for the benefit of everybody. Here’s the Prescott Arizona Community Calendar.


The brains behind RS are now working on more distributed real-time distribution of feeds, Dave Winer’s Scripting News Cloud RSS project.


In summary, those who master RSS will be the “speed readers” of the web compared to others waiting for content to show up in their email boxes or wading through ads and boilerplate on websites. Indeed, many of my favorite writers and teachers have websites I’ve never personally visited but still read within a day of new content. This means a trip to these websites is often for the purpose of commenting or spending more time reviewing their content in detail, perhaps over years of archives.

References on RSS

  1. What is RSS? RSS Explained in simple terms

  2. Video on RSS in Plain English
    emphasizing speedy blog reading in web-based RSS readers


  3. Geeky explanations of RSS from Wikipedia

  4. Whitehouse.gov RSS links and explanation (semi-geeky)

  5. Examples of feeds
  6. Diane Rehm podcast show feed