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.
  • Signing up for a feed should require ONE CLICK. Our brains want us to tap the orange buttons and be ready to roll. Make it really "really simple."
  • Share Your Thoughts on RSS

    Did you make it this far into the column? What are your thoughts about RSS? Have you tried and failed at it? Let me know your horror stories with this and other supposedly "easy" technologies.

    It's More Fun Not to Compute

    That's contrary to what Kraftwerk tells us, but increasing numbers of people are mothballing their gadget acquisition program. Boston Globe columnist Maggie Jackson calls them "tech refuseniks," saying they are not "neo-Luddites" but "people who thoughtfully choose which gadgets they adopt."

    "'These are people that have the means, education, background, they fit the profile, and yet they're checking out,' says Dan Ness, principal analyst of MetaFacts Inc., a technology market research firm in Encinitas, Calif. 'It's not just about the haves and have-nots, it's also about the wants and don't-wants,'" Jackson writes. "One-fifth of cell phone owners who don't have computers had a PC and gave it up, according to MetaFacts. Others draw the line at the cell phone, a handheld or even an answering machine."

    Luddite -- sorry, "refusenik" -- Jon Potter, 25, is hot on e-mail and cold on cell phones: "'It's important to me to have times where I don't have to think about everyone else,' says Potter, executive director of a Winooski, Vt.-based mentoring nonprofit, the Dream Program. His decision inconveniences his friends, 'but it's something that I really value,' he says. Still, he admits that to many of his friends and colleagues, his decision is a 'running joke.' Refuseniks often suffer ribbing and pressure when they opt out of a device."

    Sounds like cranky ol' Jon needs his buddies to stage an intervention.

    Ad Hawk

    In other Boston news, the Globe -- which is owned by the New York Times Co. -- will use an online auction to sell a half-page's worth of ad space that appears on the front page of its Sunday classifieds section, the New York Post reported. "Each week the ad will be sold to the highest bidder through BostonWorks.com, the companion Web site to the print classified section of the same name. The bidding starts at $15,000 and rises in $500 increments. There is also an 'instant purchase' option that allows any bidder to immediately buy the ad at a fixed price. For instance, bidders can purchase the May 22 space for $39,500 -- the normal price they would pay based on the paper's rate card."

    Georgia on My Phone

    President Bush knocked 'em dead in Georgia (not that way) when he addressed thousands of its citizens yesterday in the capital city of Tbilisi. But not even the first visit of a U.S. president to the former Soviet republic could prevent a 21st century violation of presidential protocol. Well, perhaps "violation" is too strong a term, but darn it, how else do you describe the bald guy just behind the president who was yakking away on his cell phone during the speech? I asked the kind staff at the Georgian Embassy in Washington, D.C., if they could ID Inconsiderate Cell Phone Man, but they said they hadn't received the video yet. On a side note, Georgia's English-language daily The Messenger reported that the cellular network around the airport was shut off as a security measure when Air Force One landed at Tbilisi International Airport on Monday evening.


    Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are home to more spammers than anywhere else in the nation, and practically the world, Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported. "More than a quarter of about 180 hardcore spammers tracked by watchdog group Spamhaus are based in Florida, and most of those are in the tri-county area. The city with the most spammers in the world is Boca Raton," the article said. "Why South Florida? Spammers and anti-spam groups cite a combination of reasons. They include the warm weather and laid-back lifestyle, lenient bankruptcy laws, proximity to Internet data centers, a history of telemarketing and e-mail marketing, and the state's longstanding image as a good place to do dirty business."

    How thick with spam could it be, you ask? The paper answers: "South Florida is so notorious that some experts attributed a short-term decline in global spam after last year's hurricanes to the assumption that the storms disrupted spammers' operations."

    © 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive