What role does a stripped-down, image-free, data-driven document play in providing you with relevant, engaging online content from a variety of sources? More than you might think.
RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication (or Rich Site Summary, depending who you ask), is a method of publishing regularly updated web content so users can easily receive it in an automated fashion via XML files, typically through a feed reader such as Google Reader, Bloglines or Netvibes.
Hopefully, that description was unnecessary. But maybe it wasn't. RSS -- despite the ease and convenience it affords for taking in multiple streams of content from a variety of sources -- is not exactly a household word. It's no Twitter. Heck, it's no HTML.
Way back in 2003, Amy Gahran (co-editor of the excellent Poynter E-Media Tidbits group blog) realized that the term "RSS" would be a non-starter for the mass audience and ran a contest to find a new, more accessible word. The winner was "webfeed," and while it has caught on in some contexts, it has not become widespread. While the orange icon has become somewhat ubiquitous on blogs and news sites, the fail whale probably has more cultural cachet, at this point.
There has been some debate recently about the future of RSS. In a hotly debated post, Steve Gillmor of TechCrunch declared RSS to be dead. The reason, says Gillmor, is that social media applications such as Twitter have supplanted tools like Google Reader by being superior, peer-moderated news aggregators, filtering the unyielding stream of news and information in a newly real-time world. He's not alone with that idea.
RSS advocates (that includes us) point to the fact that none of that peer-reviewed content would rise to the top if not for power readers filtering the tide of content through their RSS readers. RSS feeds are a great resource for websites looking to beef up their content offerings for site visitors. Even Twitter draws heavily from RSS, via services such as Twitterfeed. Some people may look at the Twitterfeeds of the world as a crutch for organizations that want to be on Twitter but don't want to "man up" and put the time in to personally engage and build a community, but I see the news we pipe in via Twitterfeed as a valuable complement to our community building with @TuftsUniversity.
Maybe the fact that its identity and branding are still in flux have inhibited RSS from becoming a part of the average internet user's lexicon. In addition, it feels like elements of RSS are constantly subject to debate -- full text feeds versus partial text feeds, Bloglines versus Netvibes versus Google Reader, and of course the debate over loss of site traffic and design elements.
But the one thing that can't be denied is the value of RSS as a powerful, flexible tool for content dissemination and distribution. RSS puts the control in the hands of the reader to select from endless streams of content and easily peruse dozens of sites in one sitting, and gives the website owner the ability to both feed out content robustly and pull in streams of additional content. So goodbye, bookmark button. Hello, orange icon. Content is king. And long live the king.