Updated: We've created a video that explains this concept much more effectively. View it here.
RSS is often discussed in very technical terms- so my hope with this post is to describe RSS in plain language using general terms.
First, the "RSS" acronym itself isn't that important- in fact, there is disagreement on what it actually stands for. The front runners are: Rich Site Summary and Really Simple Syndication. But again, don't clutter your brain with that.
Here's what you need to know about RSS: It allows you be notified when a web site has been updated.
How does RSS help me know when a web site has been updated?
A growing number of web sites are adding an RSS "feed" to their site. Most of the time, you'll find the feed(s) by looking for a little button or link that says "XML", "RSS", or "Syndicate this site".
When you see the button or link- you've found the feed for that site. An RSS "feed" is the website's way of alerting subscribers that the website has been updated. It feeds subscribers the latest updates that have occurred on the web site.
How do I use RSS? What do I need to "subscribe"?
When you find an RSS feed for a site you like, you will subscribe to the feed in order to be notified. You *must* have a tool that can read these RSS feeds- they swallow what the site is "feeding".
These tools are often referred to as "News Aggregators", "RSS Readers" or "News Readers". There are an abundance of tools out there. I use NewsGator (www.newsgator.com), because it works inside MS Outlook. Bloglines (www.bloglines.com) is web-based and very popular too. List of them here: LockerGnome's RSS Resource
How do I subscribe to an RSS feed?
First- you need an aggregator as described above. Then, the single thing you'll need is the URL (link) for the site's RSS feed.
Usually, you can click the little "XML" or "RSS" button and it will display a bunch of code- don't worry about the code. What you need is the web site address that appears when you click the XML button.
It usually looks like: http://www.sitename.com/index.rdf or
http://www.sitename.com/index.xml . Once you have that address, you add it to your aggregator and you're all set as a subscriber. Aggregators make the subscription process easier in varied ways.
Why would I need RSS? What is the advantage?
Remember- the big deal is it allows you be notified when a web site has been updated. Normally, you would have to proactively visit the site or subscribe to get email as updates occur. RSS alerts you without email. RSS prevents you from having to be proactive. You just subscribe and watch the notifications roll into your news aggregator. Also, RSS is unspammable because you control your
subscriptions- the site owner never has your contact info.
That's great, but what would I use if for?
OK, this is going to get a little philosophical. The nature of "news" is changing, partially because of the growth of weblogs. There will always be CNN-type news, but weblogs have added a personal dimension to "news".
These days, there are thousands upon thousands of independent news niche's that are being served by webloggers (a vast majority of which offer RSS feeds). What is considered "news" is now a very personal thing. When my friend Anthony posts to his weblog- that is news to me. RSS (and an Aggregator) allows me to keep up with many, many news sources using a single tool.
OK, but I don't like weblogs- what can RSS do for me?
Now we're getting to what's causing the buzz. Increasingly, all kinds of web sites are adding RSS feeds. For instance, I get notified when iTunes adds a new artist in the genre I like. In the future, more and more people will browse the web subscribing to RSS feeds for their favorite sites.
Further, many think that the days of email newsletters are numbered because people will eventually use RSS instead.
Examples of non-weblog RSS feeds:
In looking at these various uses- think about all the ways these RSS style notifications could be used- in company Intranets, when your item sells on eBay, when a reply has been posted to your discussion in an online community, etc. The uses are limitless.
I hope this has been helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions or take issue with my descriptions. :) Of course, my weblog has an RSS feed and the address is: http://www.commoncraft.com/index.rdf
Updated: Dave Winer, "inventor" of RSS, has posted a version history of RSS that describes how RSS came to be in its current form.
Also, I recently posted: What is Atom? How does it Compare to RSS?