What if someone had sat you down in 1994 and told you, "There's this new thing called HTML, and it's going to change how we get much of our news and information"? (Maybe you were lucky enough that someone actually did this for you. It happened to me -- though it took more than one introduction for the message finally to get through.)
You would probably have thought, "'HTML'? Sheesh, couldn't they come up with a better name?"
But of course, they had: The name was the World Wide Web, a term that instantly conveyed a rich metaphor for the global orgy of linking that was about to commence.
RSS, a similarly opaque name for a similarly important technology, is at just such a moment in its history. This much-argued-over but basically elementary technical standard allows you to subscribe to blogs -- or any other source of information.
What's the big deal in that? Bigger than it looks. The simple combination of blogs and RSS presages a whole new model for personal publishing and communication online that's already taking shape.
Think for a moment how many of us have come to use the Web as part of our daily rounds. I've been assiduously keeping a roster of bookmarks for years now. Browsers (even my beloved Opera) have never made this as easy as it could be, but the real problem with bookmarks is that they're dumb -- they can't tell you whether there's anything new on a site.
Bookmarks and blogs seem to be the perfect couple, but they work well together only with those blogs that are feverishly updated around the clock. You don't really need to ask whether Boing Boing or Dave Winer have updated their blogs, because the answer is nearly always yes, and a click on a bookmark to their sites is nearly always rewarded with new stuff.
Where bookmarks break down is with those blogs that are irregularly and infrequently updated. Who wants to keep reloading those Web pages only to find there's nothing new on them? This is where RSS comes in. If you're consuming your blogs not through a browser but through an RSS "aggregator," or reader -- there are dozens out there now, many of them free -- the aggregator will tell you which of the sites you've subscribed to has new material.
That single, simple interface upgrade changes everything. Suddenly, it becomes easy to subscribe to dozens, even hundreds of feeds from pundits, friends, organizations, companies you're interested in. You'd never, ever be able to keep up with so many under the browser/bookmark model.
"Who has time to read hundreds of blogs?" I hear you objecting -- "I can't even keep up with InstaPundit!"
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the blogging phenomenon arises from the sheer volume of postings in the highest-profile blogs. We tend to think of these as the models for all blogs -- but they're not the rule. Most bloggers don't update around the clock. Many of my favorite bloggers post relatively infrequently, once a week or less. Some high-profile ones -- like Lotus Notes creator and Groove founder Ray Ozzie -- allow months to pass between posts.
With RSS, it doesn't matter. The next time Ozzie drops an important posting -- like his presentation of prior art evidence in the Eolas lawsuit against Microsoft -- I'll know.
The beauty of RSS is that it lets you build an ad hoc network of experts and friends whose postings you want to tune in to. Then you don't have to think about it again. Along with blogs, RSS fulfills the Internet visionaries' prediction that we'd all find a set of "human filters" to help us navigate the new information seas.
For those with long memories of the Web industry, RSS is what was once called "push" technology, but done right this time, from the grass roots up. It's a level playing field shared by individuals and big and small publishers. Salon, the New York Times and many other publications have long offered their headlines in RSS form. All you need is any one of a multitude of blogging tools (like Radio UserLand, which we use here for Salon Blogs) to begin distributing your own.
I started seriously using RSS to read my blogs in the last couple of months. I'm now closing in on 100 subscriptions in my Bloglines aggregator -- and instead of wasting time clicking on bookmarks, I'm finding it's getting easier and easier to keep up with a wider set of subjects. (Bloglines is a free Web-based application; you can find a list of many other flavors of RSS reader here.) Every day, some new resource I enjoy or depend on has begun offering an RSS feed. That's where the RSS explosion really makes it feel like 1994 all over again.
Like HTML before it, RSS is neither especially elegant nor hugely complex. Like HTML, it has been the subject of a certain amount of high-profile bickering. (Here's one survey of the technical story from Mark Pilgrim, and here's Dave Winer's take on some of the issues that have divided RSS developers.) And like HTML, it has achieved wide adoption, in spite of some version incompatibilities, because of its essential simplicity and eminent usefulness.
But unlike HTML, it does not have a good name yet, a label -- like "the Web" -- that quickly conveys to a nontechnical person what it's all about. RSS's initials have stood, at various points in its evolution, for "Rich Site Summary," "RDF Site Summary," "Really Simple Syndication," and probably other phrases I'm forgetting. None of these does us much good.
RSS needs a better colloquial name. And easier, more intuitive interfaces for aggregators. And a simpler method for subscribing to feeds (right now you need to copy the URL from one of those increasingly ubiquitous orange "XML" buttons on a site -- if you click on the button, you'll just get raw XML in your browser, which confuses novice users no end).
Once those barriers are overcome, and I don't doubt they will be, I don't see anything else in the way of RSS becoming a vast tide in the affairs of the Net. RSS isn't going to replace e-mail, as some have suggested; but the ravages of spam make it an increasingly attractive alternative for many kinds of one-to-many communication. Some publications are already experimenting with ads in RSS feeds. Microsoft says it's building a ton of RSS support into its next-generation Longhorn operating system. And, since RSS is a format for structured XML data, there's a lot more that programmers can and will do with it beyond the simple subscribe-and-aggregate model that has put it on the map.
Like so many other online innovations, RSS found its first avid users in the world of software developers. But it has already leapt out of that subculture and developed avid followings in politics, law, medicine and other fields. As the lines between "publisher" and "subscriber," "producer" and "audience" get increasingly blurred and decreasingly useful, RSS will be at the center of the action -- helping deliver on the Internet's promise of personal publishing for all. If, as the saying in the blogosphere has it, "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 people," RSS is how your 15 readers will keep up with you -- and how you will keep up with as many others as you want.