Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

What is the Best Way to Explain RSS Feeds?

  By Dennis D. McDonald

I recently demonstrated social networking and social media concepts to a group of professionals via a special version of this blog. I showed among other things how easy it is to locate RSS feeds and subscribe to them as well as the various ways you can view them. I even showed how easy it is to see what Netflix DVDs I have at home, courtesy of a special RSS feed.

In retrospect I realize how confusing this topic can be to some. One issue is that there are so many ways to display feed lists and the feeds themselves. Just looking at my own setup I regularly use the following, all of which show something different:

  • Netvibes (which can display individual feeds in separate boxes on tabbed pages)
  • Wizz (as a Firefox extension that opens up a list in the left side of the Firefoz screen)
  • Google Reader (which involves going to the Google Reader web site and logging in).
  • As a scrollable within-web-page list (e.g., via GRAZR feed)

These approaches show both the strengths and weaknesses of the RSS technology. The strength is in the variety of publishing and subscription options it gives to people.

One downside is that a feed can look very different depending on what approach you use to view it. Some approaches are  barebones and display pages in a rather crude fashion. For some uses this may be appropriate. Other approaches render and display an RSS feed in a well-organized and attractive fashion, complete with graphics and other media elements; Netvibes is very good for this. I also like the way that Firefox displays feed pages individually.

I can see how the variety of rendering and display methods might seem a bit confusing. As the producer you can never be completely certain what the person at the other end will see. In some cases some of the effort you put into page composition, even page composition designed for web browser display, could go for nought.

That’s the reality of the web, but at minimum this does provide an extra challenge to how you explain such things to novices. 

I’d like to figure out a good way to do this without getting into too many details of the technology and underlying standards and data models. Can someone point me to something that might help? If you like, please leave a comment below.

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