25 August 2005

What’s the big deal about blogging, XML and RSS?

My friend Richard Black, Technology Strategist, answers that question eloquently in his email, below, which I share with his permission. I am sharing it for two reasons:

1) It was helpful to me, and could be helpful to others who are new to blogging, and:

2) When people ask you “What’s so great about blogging/RSS?” you can send them this link and save yourself the time and trouble of explaining it.

(I made minor edits to add emphasis, and “Americanized” the spelling)


Let me try to explain why I think RSS is so important (at the end of my story, I'll add why the BBC think it's important).

WARNING: I've told this story many times, but I've never written it down before. Welcome to my first draft.

I have a habit born from a fear. I feel uncomfortable operating, working, creating (maybe even living) without some assurance that I have some wisdom, some “anti-ignorance.” Some of my most spectacular learning opportunities (a.k.a. mistakes) were made whilst I was operating in complete ignorance. I wrote software without understanding the first thing about UNIX, I went bicycle racing without understanding about preparation, I went car racing without understanding technique, etc.

The web was made for me; a sort of modern replacement for spending hours in libraries figuring things out. At least that's how it seemed in mid-1990s. But the web rapidly became very very large. No longer could I read all the new web pages everyday. No longer could I even find all the new pages everyday. Actually, I started to have trouble finding anything on the web any more. And so, it seems, did a lot of people.

People like Dave Winer and Tim Berners-Lee recognized that the web could be improved with a simple but far reaching shift: namely, giving computers the ability to understand more about the information presented on web pages. Instead of just plain-old text, they introduced ‘smart text;’ XML-encoded text that computers understand.

So what? This turned out to be just about the smallest possible change that could produce the greatest possible effect. Maybe some of you have heard the butterfly-flaps-its-wings story from complexity science. In the space of about a year, the web has been transformed - mostly because of XML, specifically one type of XML called RSS.

What happened next?

  • Firstly: in a great many areas I'm interested in, people are aggregating and editing the ‘best of the web’ into wonderfully useful, cutting-edge sources of knowledge. My computer (well, my feed reader) automatically brings in all that is newly of interest to me (all the time). It surfs the web so I don't have to.

  • Thirdly: RSS and other forms of XML will soon ‘fix’ some huge knowledge management problems for corporations. Much corporate memory and knowledge is stored in plain-old text documents, which in turn are stored in shared (or unshared) directories. This way of storing knowledge is broken; the assets sit un-discoverable and un-read. Soon, documents will become XML-enabled, and the knowledge will become discoverable, and read.

  • Fourthly: Microsoft, Apple and others are building RSS and XML inside everything they're working on. This technology is about to become part of the everyday fabric of computing.

In short, this piece of technology has now passed the “go/no go” test for adoption. It has become so easy to use my Dad uses it.

And now, I'll let the BBC have their say on RSS:

What is RSS?

In a world heaving under the weight of billions of web pages, keeping up to date with the information you want can be a drag.

Wouldn’t it be better to have the latest news and features delivered directly to you, rather than clicking from site to site? Well now you can, thanks to a very clever service, RSS.

There is some discussion as to what RSS stands for, but the majority plump for ‘Really Simple Syndication.’ Put plainly, it allows you to identify the content you like and have it delivered directly to you.

It takes the hassle out of staying up-to-date, by showing you the very latest information that you are interested in.

Not all websites currently provide RSS, but it is growing rapidly in popularity and many others, including the Guardian, New York Times and CNN do provide it.

For more information, including details about:

Richard also shared another link with me: an article from the breaking point blog called Why we need RSS. This article made a business case for blogging, pointing out that while a small number of web surfers use RSS feeds, a high proportion of them are decision-makers, because of their need to aggregate information from a variety of sources.

Overall Richard’s summary was so compelling that I had to get started right away. I asked him: “What news reader did he prefer?” Here’s his reply:

Good question. I've tried a few, and these two are the ones that madeit into my daily routine:- Firefox with Sage extension. (you'll find Sage here -> http://sage.mozdev.org)/.- Google's new personalizable home page (http://www.google.com/ig).

Of course, being an “early majority” as opposed to an early adopter, I had to get a second opinion, so I asked my friend Evan Williams, CEO of Odeo, (formerly Google and founder of Blogger) for his opinion. Evan’s pithy response:

“i use bloglines. I like it ok.”

Now Evan is way ahead of me: he founded Blogger in 1999, and I am just getting serious about blogging now, in 2005. So generally speaking, Evan is at least six years ahead of me when it comes to technology adoption. Evan is into podcasting now; so I predict, if you are patient enough, you may see a podcast from me by about 2011.

So, if Evan says bloglines is ok I’d say it’s a good bet.

By the way, if you like audio, check out Josh Minton's one-minute-fifteen-second explanation of RSS.

Beginning late last night, I am experimenting with a combination of Google’s personalizable home page and bloglines. To complicate the matter, I just installed Google’s new sidebar which claims it will bring everything I care about directly to my desktop.

Not being an early adopter, I can’t tell you what the next big thing will be. But I can say this: When it comes to blogging, it’s not a fad: the train has left the station and it’s gaining speed.

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