Jerame Davis

Gay Geeks: What is this RSS thing anyway?

Filed By Jerame Davis | December 18, 2008 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Geeks, Site News
Tags: gay geeks, how to use RSS, RSS, RSS programs, RSS readers, subscribing

Editors' Note: This has been bumped back up to the top by the Ed Team. We have ten times more traffic now than when it was first published, so it's a good time to remind Projectors of the easiest way to access the Bilerico sites. This was originally published in July 2007 and is always linked from our front page at the top of the right column.

infooverload.pngWe get a lot of questions about RSS. What is it? How does it work? Why should I use it? I have decided to devote this premiere edition of Gay Geeks to RSS and how RSS feeds can make your blog reading life much more pleasant and fulfilling.

There is often confusion around RSS because of competing technologies and poor implementation by some websites. Let's take some of the mystery out of this time-saving tool and help you get on the right track with RSS.

Why all the hype around RSS in the first place?

  • RSS helps keep you up to date with more of your favorite websites.
  • It's much faster to load than a full web page with pictures, movies, etc.
  • You get an uncluttered view of the content on the website.
  • You are in control of what content you read and when you read it.
  • Website owners will love you for taking the strain off their servers and networks
  • All of the cool kids are doing it...

Full details, including how you too can jump on the RSS bandwagon, after the break...

What is RSS?

First, let's get something out of the way...There are a lot of names for the same thing. RSS feed, XML feed, Atom feed, News feed, etc. They're all the same thing. Yes, any proper geek will flip out over that statement, but be assured: For all intents and purposes, for 99% of people, they are all the same thing in that they perform the exact same function from an end-user standpoint. RSS is the standard and verbiage that has seemingly won out, so that's the nomenclature we're going to use here.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds are just another way of accessing the content of a website. Most sites will offer content from the last 15 or so entries in their feed starting with the newest. The feed content always contains the freshest content on the site.

You might be thinking, "Isn't that pretty much just like the front page of the website?" The answer is, "Yeah, sort of, but not really."

How is RSS used?

The idea behind RSS is to offer readers a stripped down version of the content of a website in order to only transfer the bare necessities. This reduces the amount of bandwidth necessary for a large number of people to keep up to date with a website.

Most sites use feeds in one of two ways. Some post a synopsis or teaser for the article while others may provide the article entirely. This is totally up to the webmaster of the website in question and unfortunately, most webmasters aren't even sure how they should be serving their feeds. Here at The Bilerico Project, we include an excerpt of the entry to give you an idea of what the article is about so you can decide if you want to click through to finish the post.

Feeds are published in a plain text file using a markup language called XML, which stands for eXtesible Markup Language. (Don't worry, you don't need to know anything about XML or even text files to enjoy your RSS goodness, but do follow the link if you're interested in learning more.)

RSS feeds aren't intended to be accessed directly, like the front page of a website. You are expected to use something called a "feed reader" or "feed aggregator" to access the feed. Your feed reader reads that XML code inside the file and displays in some for or another the titles, authors, dates, and excerpts for each entry.

How do I get hip with RSS?

"Oh no," you might be thinking, "another program I have to open? Where would I even get one of those reader/aggregator things?"

Never fear, most modern web browsers (Firefox 1.5 , Safari 2 , IE 7) have rudimentary RSS functionality built right in. Firefox calls them "Live Bookmarks", IE calls them "feeds", and Safari uses "RSS". It's all the same thing. (It's this dysfunctional nomenclature that I believe confuses most people.)

There are, of course, dedicated applications for reading RSS feeds. NetNewsWire for Mac and FeedDemon it's ugly Windows step-sister. I use NetNewsWire to manage the feeds I track and I love it. A lot of people use online RSS readers, though. There's Google Reader, Bloglines, NewsGator, My Yahoo now has the option to include any RSS feed too - just way too many to talk about. Our own RSS feed has a nice list of online feed readers as well - just visit in your web browser.

Once you have your RSS reader, you need some feeds to get started. May I suggest The Bilerico Project RSS feed?

orangefeed.pngMost websites offer two ways to find their feeds. Almost all websites that offer feeds have a link to the feed on their front page. Many sites use the universal feed icon (pictured right) to indicate a link to their feed; most stick with the default orange. Click the link (or copy the feed's URL into your feed reader) and you are set.

Many websites also contain special code that allows feed readers and RSS enabled browsers to "discover" the feed for the site automatically. This is tricky because 1) not all sites use this feature, and 2) some readers handle this differently than others so it's not always predictable what feed you'll end up with if there is more than one.

However you decide to use them, RSS feeds will make make your time spent reading blogs and other web content much more manageable and enjoyable. So find a favorite feed reader and start subscribing to the feeds from your favorite websites (don't forget ours!)

Need help? Want some clarification? Want to tell me how great you think Gay Geeks is? Leave a comment!

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Jerame -

Bil told me about this on Sunday -- and I started using RSS to read "my blogs" yesterday for the first time -- and I have to admit, I am a convert! Its a great way to skim read topics and decide what I want to explore in greater depth! Thanks for this posting and a more detailed explanation.....especially for those of us non tech folks!

Wilson46201 | July 31, 2007 12:16 PM

I heartily recommend RSS - personally, I use the "Sage" plugin with the FireFox browser. Last year Star columnist Matt Tully was sorta irritated that I was often the first to comment on his now-defunct blog. I reminded him that some Hoosiers were savvy enough to use RSS to get notified when he posted something new ... I'm not sure he appreciated that RSS usage!

One of the cool things about our new site is that you we offer several different feeds now. You can get the feed for the whole site (which most subscribe to) or you can get the feed just for a certain category. Say you only want news about trans issues - get the "Transgender and Intersex" feed. Coming up next - RSS feeds for specific authors!

Kevin Lahti | July 31, 2007 12:47 PM

I love RSS... I use it everywhere, the BBC, here, and well anywhere that safari puts the little blue rss button.. I love that you can limit the results by a time frame, search within and at least on the bbc limit the results by region..

I was so happy to see an article about RSS b/c I have wondered what it was (and figured it was too techie for me)! Thanks Jerame!

Thanks for the great comments. I'm really glad this was helpful to people. I hope more people will start using the feed after this post.

Just a quick note: The category RSS feeds aren't all working yet, so I haven't actually setup the links for them like Bil suggested in his comment. They're coming.

There are now comment feeds for every post on teh site. If you don't want to use to cocomment feature, you can always just subscribe to the RSS feed to keep track of an ongoing conversation. You'll see them at the top of the comment section for every post.

beergoggles | July 31, 2007 4:23 PM

Google Reader all the way for me and it keeps everything nice and organized between laptop and phone too.

I have to say, NewsGator is much better than google reader. Google will get better, but NewsGator is pretty far ahead of them right now. I use NetNewsWire and they're owned by NewsGator. You can sync between NetNewsWire and NewsGator and it keeps track of your read and unread articles, etc. between both. They also have smart feeds, which allow you to filter your feeds for keywords automatically.

So I can have all of my feeds organized in general categories, then I can use smart feeds to look through all of my feeds for any mention of whatever I choose. Bil uses it for the blog to comb through feeds for LGBT related topics. It's a HUGE timesaver.

I'm much more of a fan of the application RSS readers than the online ones though. I have a laptop, so I take it with me everywhere. I rarely have a need to access my feeds from someplace else.

All of this RSS feed stuff just gives me a headache; I just want to know if the fact that the first letter on the computer keyboard is a "Q" (as in "Qwerty", whatever that is) is something a forum run by gay geeks ought to be concerned with. I'll take my answer offline, online, or wheterever I can get it.

Great post, Jerame - thanks for reviving it! I'm using Google Reader and love it.

Question for you: As a web content producer, do you have qualms about the loss of traffic, and coordinating potential loss of ad revenue, from people using RSS readers to view the Bilerico sites? Just curious.

We mitigate that issue in a couple ways. 1) we advertise in our feed and 2) we only publish part of the entry in the feed. To read the full entry, they have to visit the site. So, in reality, any ready that reads us via RSS actually pays higher dividends because they get ads in the feed and on the site.

The general rule is get your content out there in front of people whether it's monetized or not. The more popular you are the more you get linked and the more money you make overall. It seems counter-intuitive, but feeds increase revenue because they increase exposure and overall readership giving you a real and trickle-down effect.

Feeds are a convenience for regular readers. No one wants to read every post on any site, so I see it as a filter letting readers sample what's available each day and choose which parts they find most compelling. It also makes it easier for others to syndicate material for linking and discussion. By showing only a portion of the entry, it gives those other site an easy way to clip the text for a preview - we keep them pretty short as a rule and we coach our contributors to write these parts as a hook to the main part of the story.

Good question though. This tends to confuse a lot of people because it's not exactly logical that you make money by giving something away for free.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | October 18, 2008 3:51 PM

Hey, Jerame, I'm going to give this a try again. In the past when I've tried to keep up with my favorite blogs with RSS, I've found it slower and glitchy. And yep, right off the bat with NetNewsWire, when I tried to read Alex's post about the No on 8 ads, I couldn't load the post. It hung up, then crashed.

Could it be related to the video feeds?

A couple of quickies.

(a) You really don't want to subscribe to 10,000 feeds. Your router will glow cherry red, and you'll never be able to find them all once they finally load.

(b) Set up your feed reader to fetch the first few lines only, then click on stuff that looks interesting and go to the website to read the whole article. Usually you just have to click on the summary.

(c) Set up your feed reader to fetch your feeds once a day or once every couple of hours automatically so you don't have to keep pushing the little icon.

(d) I'm not sure this is even an option any more, but you should not tell your feed reader to get all the articles, just the ones you haven't read yet. That way you don't have to see the old stuff over and over again.

(e) I'm pretty sure the best front end for RSS feeds is your email program, not your web browser. Thunderbird can do this natively without a plugin, but the setup is kinda weird. Here's a little bit about it that I think still works:

I love this post. Every time we run it, we gain about 50 new RSS subscribers! :)

i have been using the rss feeds for bilerico for quite a while now. but lately it hasn't been updating - i still see the same headlines from november 7 every day (starting with a post called "forgetting the horse they rode in on"). i'm not sure what's up. i use i'm not sure if it's bilerico's issue or yahoo's. but i'd be a happy person if someone looked into it. :)

Here's a perfect example of the power of RSS feeds to make life easier:

The Bilerico Project's awesome RSS feed has been aggregated with other notable LGBT blogs, Twitter streams, Flickr photo groups, YouTube channels et al. It's called The Gay Civil Rights Movement Mega Feed and it's a live stream of close to 100 quality LGBT media feeds.

I used FriendFeed technology to create the mega feed. All are welcome to join, contribute, embed and subscribe at FriendFeed or from Facebook.

sunny maryland | December 19, 2008 5:43 AM

alright, if yer so smart, then how is it that in about two days after i got a facebook account i started getting email from, among many others, people who were in the same 4th grade class as me?!!