RSS & Atom: The Rebirth of Web Syndication

Syndication is back, and this time it is fulfilling its original promise of reshaping the way content is read online.

As weblogs have proliferated, it has become harder and harder to keep up. While some blogs are updated frequently throughout the day, others might not be touched for a week or more. The 'transaction costs', so to speak, of visiting and keeping up with a thousand different weblogs tend to increase existing power distributions: i.e., the already established and well-known bloggers get the bulk of the traffic, while other voices just talk to themselves.

Syndication, via RSS or Atom, is changing this clustered distribution of attention.

What is Syndication? 

Syndication simply means that each weblog produces a "feed" which can be read by a simple program called a "news reader" or "feed aggregator." A user simply downloads a feed aggregator or news reader (Amphetadesk, SharpReader or any of a hundred others) and "subscribes" to the feeds of the websites or blogs he or she is interested in.

The news reader shows only headlines (the titles of the blog posts, essentially) which can then be clicked on to read the content of the post. Thus the user, instead of visiting a hundred different blogs, visits only the ones most important to him/her, but is able to keep track of what is happening in the blog world as a whole by seeing the hundreds of headlines from the various feeds they are subscribed to. These feeds can be organized, searched and filtered, allowing users to manage information flow from hundreds (or for the more ambitious, thousands) of different sources.

These technologies and changes in use patterns make the content reading interface begin to look more like an email program.

Two Standards for Syndication

There are two competing standards for syndication: RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, and Atom, an open source standard which some bloggers argue is more robust and useful. From the users perspective it doesn't really matter which standard ultimately prevails because most programs will read feeds in either standard.

The important thing to understand is that by subscribing to RSS or Atom feeds, people can stay up to date with far more websites than they could if they had to visit each one individually.

For example, the site I contribute to - The Blogbook - has a feed at the following URL: http://www.blogbook.org/rss.xml. If a user were to copy and paste that URL into his or her news aggregator or feed reader, they would then be subscribed to the Blogbook feed. Rather than visiting our site, they would have our headlines and content in their news aggregator; and when a particularly interesting post came up and they wanted to comment, our actual site is only a click away.

With several million blogs in the United States alone (and an almost equal number overseas) and growing rapidly, syndication via RSS or Atom goes a long way to making the chaos manageable.

Another great thing about syndicated feeds is that they will be read by the newest generation of PDAs and smartphones. People will get texts to their mobile devices that will either be an email, a message from another mobile device, or an RSS feed, and the device will keep it all organized like an email program.

For more on this new wave of syndication, you can check out RSS and Atom search engines like Feedster or Syndic8, or simply do a search for RSS or Atom or syndication and check out all the new companies starting up in this field.

Expect to hear a lot more about RSS and Atom in the coming months, and if you have a blog, by all means, add a feed.