2006 IEEE Education Society's Distinguished Lecture Series
Prof. Burks Oakley II
University of Illinois
January 2006

Presentation Two - “The What, Why and How of RSS.”

Slide 1:

Well, welcome back!  This is Burks Oakley speaking to you from my office at the University of Illinois in Urbana, IL, USA.  I’m pleased to be with you today as part of the first 2006 IEEE Education Society’s Distinguished Lecture Series.  This is the second presentation I’ll be giving as part of this series.  It is entitled, “The What, Why and How of RSS.”

Slide 2:

RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication.”  An RSS file is a small text file that provides a concise summary of the content of the webpage, and this file gets revised every time the webpage itself is updated.  The RSS files are very small text files, so they can be transmitted readily over the Internet – they require very little bandwidth.  RSS files are written in extensible markup language, which is abbreviated XML.  If you are unfamiliar with RSS, you will be surprised to see that it is a feature of many websites – you probably have seen it, you just didn’t know what you were looking at.  If you look closely, on many web pages you will see a small orange icon with the letters XML, and this icon represents the RSS file associated with that web page.

Slide 3:

On this third slide, I have written a more formal definition of RSS, which was taken from the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.  I’ll be talking more about Wikipedia in the last presentation in this series, when I talk about wikis.  This probably is more information than you want to know, but I’m including it for completeness.  As it states here, RSS is really a family of XML file formats that are used by websites to provide a concise summary of what is on each web page.  The abbreviation RSS really stands for a several different standards, Rich Site Summary (RSS 0.91), which actually grew out of Netscape, and what I’ll be talking about today, Really Simple Syndication (or RSS 2.0).

Slide 4:

On this slide, we have more of the definition of RSS from Wikipedia.  The technology of RSS allows users to “subscribe” to websites that provide RSS feeds.  These typically are websites where the content changes rather often, for example, a news site or a weblog (or blog).  And, of course, these subscriptions are typically free; you don’t pay for the subscription.  By subscribing to an RSS feed, users indicate that they want to be notified whenever the content of the web page changes – so instead of continually checking the website for new information, special software can be used to check the RSS file and automatically notify the user when new information becomes available.  We’ll see more about this shortly.

Slide 5:

Here we have the essentials of an RSS file – which are simply a title, a hyperlink, and a short description.  These RSS files allow users to construct customized collections of information from various sources, and I’ll be talking a lot about that later in the presentation.  The way that an individual builds a collection is by subscribing to various RSS feeds.  Again, these are free subscriptions, and by a feed, I mean something like a broadcast feed over a television network, or a satellite feed.  In this case, we use the terminology of an RSS feed over the Internet.

Slide 6:

Here’s an example that was taken from the New York Times.  If you go to the New York Times homepage, at the bottom of the main home page there is a link that will take you to this page, which shows all of the RSS feeds that are available from the New York Times.  As you can see, there are a lot of RSS feeds!  Essentially every section of the New York Times website has its own XML feed.  And if you simply right click on any of those XML orange icons, you can copy the URL, that is, the Internet address, of the RSS file.  Remember that these RSS files are written in XML - extensible markup language.  If we look at the upper-most XML icon on this screen, which is marked by the big blue arrow, we see the XML file representing the New York Times homepage, and clicking on this icon will open the XML file in a browser window – we’ll look at this on the next slide.

Slide 7:

Here we have the start of the XML file with the RSS feed for the New York Times homepage.  The first tag says that this XML file is written in RSS version 2.0, and remember that RSS files have three essential elements: the title, the hyperlink, and the description.  The title here is “NY Times > Homepage”, the hyperlink is the link to their main website at NYTimes.com/index.html.  And the description in this file is very short – simply “New York Times > Breaking News, World News & Multimedia.”  They go on to include some other tags, as well, in this XML file, including copyright, language and last build date.  But the essentials are the title, the hyperlink and the short description. And of course, by having the last build date, it is possible to know when this file was last updated, that is, when new information was published on the New York Times homepage.

Slide 8:

On this slide, we have the RSS news feeds that cover the topic of health from the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Miami Herald, and the BBC News.  Now, certainly, to find out about health news, I could visit all five of these sites everyday and read the articles that were there, but these articles might not be updated everyday; there might only be a few new articles every week, and I would spend a lot of time going to these websites looking for new information and not finding anything new.  It makes much more sense, then, to subscribe to these feeds and let my computer software inform me when new articles become available.  On this slide, the image at the bottom shows a page from the BBC news site, and highlights the orange RSS icon - in this case, it is an RSS icon, rather than the XML icon – but it has the address of the RSS feed for this page.

Slide 9:

I the previous slide, I mentioned that it is possible to subscribe to RSS feeds and let computer software inform you when new articles become available.  You do this by using an RSS feed aggregator.  This could be stand-alone desktop software; the software product that I use is free – it is called SharpReader, all one word, SharpReader, but another piece of free software is called FeedReader, and a more complete listing of stand-alone feed aggregators is linked here on the slide in the link to an article in Wikipedia.  And, of course, there are also web-based RSS feed aggregators, where you would view the feeds in a browser window.  MyYahoo is the web-based feed aggregator that I use, and this slide also has a listing of a number of web-based RSS feed aggregators from Wikipedia.

Slide 10:

On this slide, I have a screenshot of a window on my computer showing the SharpReader software – remember that this is free software that I downloaded and installed on my computer.  I then subscribed to 5 different RSS feeds about health – from the health section of the BBC News, the Miami Herald, USA Today, the Washington Post and the New York Times.  Here you see all of these articles mixed together in one place – so whenever I’m interested in reading some articles about health, I can go here, click on a title, view the short description of the article – in this case, an article from the BBC News about malnutrition, and I also can view the short introduction to the article.  If I’m interested in reading that entire article, I would simply click on the hyperlink – in this case, the title of the article is a hyperlink itself – and then I would view the article in a web browser.  Overall, this is a great way of aggregating and bringing together all of the RSS feeds about health from these five individual news sources.

Slide 11:

With an RSS feed aggregator – in this case, SharpReader – I can decide how often the software looks to see if there is a new RSS file.  In fact, that’s called the refresh rate.  And, as you can see here, the default refresh rate is set to be every hour, so in this case, once an hour, the software will go out onto the web and check each website to see if a new RSS file is available.  If a new RSS file is available, the software will download this file – remember it’s a very small XML file.  It will download this XML file to my local computer and display the headline, the hyperlink, and the short description of the article.  When SharpReader detects that there is a new article, it actually pops an alert up on my screen, so I know that new information is available.

Slide 12:

On this slide, I have the website from MyYahoo with the same five RSS news feeds about health: the New York Times, USA Today, the BBC News, the Washington Post, and the Miami Herald.  And as you can see, I get to view the titles of these articles, and if I’m interested in any of them, I can simply click on the hyperlink to read the entire article in a web browser.  So we have two alternatives, one is to have a stand-alone RSS feed aggregator, software like SharpReader that I use, which is installed on my local computer; the other alternative being a web-based RSS feed aggregator, something like MyYahoo.  But the important thing to remember in both cases is that I get to control the news sources that I want to see.  I determine which RSS feeds I subscribe to, and if I ever decide that I don’t want to view that source, I can simply delete that feed from my RSS feed aggregator.

Slide 13:

I’ve talked so far about news being distributed through RSS, but many other types of web-based information can be distributed through an RSS feed.  In the first presentation in this series, I talked about weblogs or blogs (as they are called), and again because bloggers post to their blog on an irregular basis, rather than continually checking a blog to see if there is new information, I can subscribe to the RSS feed for the blog, and let the computer software tell me when new information become available.  There are sites on the web, such as Flickr, at Flickr.com, where people can store digital photo collections and share them with others. Flickr allows me to subscribe to an RSS feed for an individual photographer or for a collection of photographs that have been tagged with a certain key word.  We, of course, have audio blogs, or podcasts (as they are called), that I referred to in the previous presentation on blogs and will be talking about in detail in the upcoming presentation on podcasts, and audio blogs are also distributed through RSS.  At the bottom of this slide, I have a hyperlink to my “Burks on Learning” blog, at burkso2.blogspot.com.  And then finally, a number of other sites distribute information through RSS, including social bookmarking sites such as Del.icio.us, and Del.icio.us is actually the URL.   It’s in the .US domain and the server is Del, the company name is Icio, and so the URL spells out the word Del.icio.us.  If you have never seen anything about social bookmarking, I have a podcast about it that.  That podcast is linked at the bottom of this screen, and you can listen to that podcast and learn about social bookmarking.  The bottom line is that many different types of web-based information are distributed through RSS.

Slide 14

Well, how do you subscribe to one of these RSS feeds?  On this slide, we see my colleague, Prof. Lanny Arvan’s blog, Lanny on Learning Technology, and when I go to his blog, I see the XML icon, which is clearly marked here with the red arrow.  And that icon represents the RSS feed for his blog.  If I right-click on that icon, I can copy the address of the RSS feed and subscribe to it in any of my RSS feed aggregators.

Slide 15:

Here you see a screen image from Flickr, from my account in Flickr, where I’ve uploaded my digital photos, and the URL for the Flickr site is shown on this slide.  I encourage you to get your own free account at Flickr and upload your digital photos and share them with your colleagues, your friends, and your family.  And here we see, if you are interested in subscribing to the RSS feed for all of my photo collection, you can easily do that – you’ll notice again the red arrow pointing at the RSS 2.0 feed.  And the photo shown here, by the way, is me in Alaska on a cruise this past summer in front of the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.

Slide 16:

Here we see a social bookmarking site.  In this case, Del.icio.us, and Jon Udell often bookmarks very interesting sites that he’s encountered on the web.  Jon Udell is the lead analyst at InfoWorld, and he is incredibly knowledgeable in computers and Internet technologies.  I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed for his bookmarks. So whenever he bookmarks something interesting, I find out about it through my RSS feed aggregator.  And again, the red arrow here is pointing to the RSS feed for his page.  I can right click on the icon, copy the address, and then subscribe to this account in my RSS feed aggregator.

Slide 17:

This slide again has a screenshot from SharpReader, the stand-alone RSS feed aggregator that I use.  And here I’ve shown all the blogs that I subscribe to – and one is Barbara Ganley’s blog.  Barbara is a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, and here we see her recent blog postings.  You can see that she posts several times a week, and here I can see the initial paragraph of her most recent blog posting.  If I’m interested in reading that posting, I can double-click on the link and read the entire article.

Slide 18:

This slide has another screenshot from SharpReader.  In this case, it shows an RSS feed from Flickr, the digital photo sharing site.  I subscribe to the RSS feeds for several different photo collections, and here we see the feed for the digital photos taken by Digital Gurl.  She takes tremendous close-ups of wildlife.  Her pictures of humming birds are absolutely outstanding – and here you see a thumbnail photo of a cardinal in winter.  So in this case, the RSS feed includes the small thumbnail photo that you see here.  Clicking on this thumbnail photo then brings up the entire picture in a web browser.  And then I have the option of downloading this photo, or even posting a comment about it.

Slide 19:

I also subscribe to the RSS feeds from a number of podcasts, and here we see what they look like in SharpReader – remember that a podcast is really an audio blog.  I subscribe to the RSS feed for the audio blog, and whenever a new podcast is published on the blog, I find out about it through RSS.  I then can click on the hyperlink, open the blog in a browser window, and then download and listen to the podcast, which is just an mp3 file.  I’ll be talking about this in much greater detail in the next presentation on podcasts.

Slide 20:

This slide has yet another screenshot from SharpReader.  Here we have the RSS feed representing Jon Udell’s bookmarks in Del.icio.us.  Recall that Del.icio.us is a social bookmarking site, where individuals can bookmark interesting websites, tag them with key words, and then share their bookmarks with others.  Jon finds some very interesting sites about new technologies, and shares this information widely through his account in Del.icio.us.  Again, since Jon Udell only adds a few bookmarks each week, it makes much more sense for me to subscribe to the RSS feed of his bookmarks, so that my computer can alert me when he adds new content, rather than checking his site on a daily basis.

Slide 21:

On this slide, I’ve provided a rather extensive list of the things you can do with RSS.  This is actually something I’ve copied from Tim Yang at timyang.com and the URL for this information is at the bottom of this slide.  While I won’t take the time to go through all of the items on this list, I suggest that you pause this presentation and check out some of these applications.  All of the items on this list are active hyperlinks, and clicking on any of them will take you to Tim Yang’s site, where you can read more about each application of RSS.

Slide 22:

One of the more interesting applications of RSS is the RSS calendar at RSScalendar.com, where you can create a free account, and then post items to your online calendar.  All your friends, family, and colleagues can then subscribe to the RSS feed for your calendar using their RSS feed aggregators.  Anytime you update your online calendar, everyone will get an alert through RSS, and then they can then go to the website and look at your new calendar entries.  This really is a cute little application of RSS feeds.

Slide 23:

So far, I’ve been talking about subscribing to an RSS feed and displaying it either in a stand-alone feed aggregator or in a web-based feed aggregator.  It’s also possible to take these RSS feeds and display the content on a webpage.   My colleague, Professor Ray Schroeder, at the University of Illinois at Springfield, publishes a very famous blog called Online Learning Update, and a number of different institutions take the RSS feed from his blog and display it on their own websites.  Examples can be seen on the University of Illinois Online website, the Academic Commons website, and the Portland Community College website.  In the next few slides, we’ll look to see how this RSS feed appears on these individual websites.

Slide 24:

On this slide, we see Prof. Ray Schroeder’s syndicated RSS feed from his Online Learning Update blog being displayed on the Portland Community College website.  You can see that his blog posting contains links to three articles about online learning.
Slide 25:

On this slide, we see the Academic Commons website, which also has dynamic content from Prof. Schroeder’s blog.  I say that this is dynamic content, because it changes every time Prof. Schroeder publishes a new posting to his blog – which happens to be daily.  Here we see that while the content is the same, the text appears in a totally different font than on the Portland Community College site in the previous slide.  And we’ll see it will even look different in the next slide.

Slide 26:

Here we have part of the University of Illinois Online main homepage.  And again, the 3 articles from Prof. Ray Schroeder’s Online Learning Update blog appear here, displayed in a totally different way than on the previous two sites.  This is really what we mean by Really Simple Syndication – or RSS – since Prof. Schroeder has published his content in one place, it has been syndicated, and then appears on other websites – literally around the world.   This is much like with have with syndicated columnists in traditional newspapers, where material is sold through a syndicate and appears in different newspapers around the country – it is created by one individual, but then appears in numerous publications.

Slide 27:

In fact, you can add RSS feeds to your own website.  You do this by converting an RSS feed into HTML – well, really into the scripting language called JavaScript.  The JavaScript code can then be pasted into any HTML document, where it will dynamically display the RSS feed, and by dynamically, again, I mean whatever is current in the RSS file, whatever the RSS file has at that time, will appear on the webpage through JavaScript.  And there’s a free source you can use to convert RSS to Java script, and that’s at the URL shown on this slide, http://www.rss-to-javascript.com .  And I highly recommend that you experiment with this – find an interesting RSS feed, convert it to JavaScript, and display it on an HTML page.

Slide 28:

So far, I’ve been speaking about RSS 2.0, Really Simple Syndication Two Point Oh.  Well, it turns out there is a competitor to RSS 2.0, another type of XML file that describes what’s on a webpage, and that’s called Atom, and right now we have Atom 1.0. So right now, if you want to have an XML file that describes what’s on a webpage – on a blog or on a news site – you can use the RSS 2.0 file specification or you can use the Atom 1.0 file specification.  Actually, my blogs are on the Blogger.com site, which is owned by Google, and interestingly, Blogger.com uses the Atom 1.0 file specification.  So even though I talk about the RSS feed for my blog, it really comes out as an Atom 1.0 feed.  Well, some feed aggregators understand RSS 2.0, others understand Atom 1.0, and some of the more modern programs understand both specifications.  Well there’s a simple way around this.  There’s a site called Feedburner, at feedburner.com, and it can interchangeably switch between the different feeds, and I use it to convert the Atom 1.0 feeds from my blogs into RSS 2.0 feeds. Again, this is a free service.  Maybe this is more technical information than you wanted to know, but it’s something I felt I should cover because not all sites have RSS 2.0 feeds available.

Slide 29:

As I mentioned, many RSS feed aggregators, such as SharpReader and MyYahoo, can read both types of feeds, RSS 2.0 and Atom 1.0.  MyYahoo supports a number of different feeds, all the RSS standards as well as Atom 1.0.  And the graphics on this slide just shows that back in 2003, blogs and RSS were essentially synonymous.  There was one type of RSS.  Now we have RSS and Atom feeds, and they’re representing everything from blogs and podcasts, to watch lists, to all types of other web services, such as the RSS calendar that I mentioned earlier.  So I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this.  I think that this field is still evolving, but all of these are XML files; they are all based on standards.  And at least right now, we can use either one of them.

Slide 30:

Okay, just like in my first presentation on blogs, I have an optional assignment for you.  I would like you to subscribe to several RSS feeds.  You can create a free account at Yahoo if you don’t have one already.  Once you have your account, you can go to MyYahoo and subscribe to an RSS feed.  You can also download one of the stand-alone feed aggregators, such as SharpReader, and again, that’s free.  I’d like for you to subscribe to at least one news feed and one blog feed using MyYahoo and then repeat this with a stand-alone RSS feed reader, such as SharpReader.  And remember you can find the RSS feed on many web pages with the orange XML icon or the orange RSS icon.  And simply right-clicking on that icon will let you copy the URL of the RSS file and then paste it into your RSS feed aggregator.

Slide 31:

So this completes my second presentation, “The What, Why and How of RSS.”  I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this presentation.  Again, if you have any questions at all, please email them to Rob Reilly, who is hosting these Distinguished Lecture Series for the IEEE Education Society.  Rob’s email is reilly@media.mit.edu.  He’ll forward your questions to me and then post my answers to our website.  Thanks again for listening!