Feed Simple

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005; 9:30 AM

I know what Shakespeare said about a rose by any other name, but accuracy is my profession's watchword. In that spirit, I propose changing the name of a technology that we Web news types use to persuade people to visit our sites.

The technology is called RSS, which stands for "Really Simple Syndication." It's like installing a wire service on your computer -- or cell phone or handheld device. RSS lets you choose the "feeds" that you want to receive and posts updates as they happen. You install "readers" so you can, well, read them. It's a great way to stay current not just on the news, but any Web site that runs a feed.

RSS is not a new technology. It's one of those developments that makes the rounds among thousands of people without becoming a household term. It's almost ready to surface in the mainstream, but it's still not convenient enough to use. Until then, I propose that we call it "KOSS," or "Kind of Simple Syndication." I know it sounds a lot like Daily Kos, but if you're not spending all your time at work reading blogs, you don't know what I'm talking about anyway.

The biggest problem is people can't set it up without thinking about it. My personal experience is a testament to this. My editor, colleagues and friends have teased me with evident relish -- and justification -- because I am not the sharpest guy at getting technology to work the way it's supposed to. (It's why I write about technology instead of designing or fixing it. Consider the difference in pay.) Despite their ribbing, I figured I ought to be able to set up an RSS feed.


After discovering that the little orange buttons labeled with the cryptic message "XML" wouldn't provide a one-click solution, I realized I couldn't surf through this without reading the instructions. I found some -- at my own Web site -- including Google's list of reader software. But out of the 15 readers I tried to download, I couldn't get more than one or two to work properly. At this point I threw the whole enterprise in the garbage. To hell with RSS, I said to myself. I only went this far because I get a paycheck. If I were doing this on my own free time, I never would have gotten past the jabberwocky of computer code I got when I hit the orange buttons.

A week later I was foraging for crumbs of news at bloglines.com, which hosts thousands upon thousands of bloggers typing away like the proverbial 700 monkeys. I glanced at the left side of the screen and there, in a column down the left side, was a folder with a tab labeled, "My Feeds." I remembered my experience from a week earlier and raced back to my Web site. I clicked on the orange button and got the infuriating screen of nonsense. Unlike before, I copied the Web address, went back to bloglines and clicked on the "subscribe" button. A new window appeared, letting me drop in the address. Up popped the headlines and the lead paragraphs. Not quite a one-click solution, but still painless -- a true "Hallelujah" moment.

Now I can't do without it. My RSS program includes wires that update me on local news in Seattle to the latest musings from the team at the Economist to my favorite -- new snack-food reviews at Taquitos.net. (I strongly encourage anyone with a sweet tooth to get on RSS for this site alone.) I have dozens more feeds coming in and add new ones almost every day. Because this column usually riffs off other people's news, RSS has become indispensable to my ability to research and write this column in three to four hours each day.

But the companies that hope to make a splash with RSS want you, the average Internet user, to get cozy with it. This is happening ... somewhat. People who use the Mozilla and Safari Web browsers can add readers to their toolbars with relative ease, and as the Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg noted in his column last week, some companies are developing tools that will let you do the same thing with Internet Explorer . In addition, Yahoo's "My Yahoo!" homepage lets you control your feeds inside the Web page.

Here's what still must happen:

  • Web sites must flack it more. Make RSS unavoidable.
  • The instructions must be crystal clear and include links to sites that allow people who know only the bare bones of technology to get started in a matter of minutes. Make it friendly.

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