More RSS Tools: Sharing Feeds

This post was first published on the Idealware Blog in April of 2009.

For my last followup to my RSS article, Using RSS Tools to Feed your Information Needs, I want to discuss OPML, the standard for RSS Reader feed information, and talk a bit about why RSS, which is already quite useful, is about to become an even bigger deal. Last week, I discussed sharing research with Google Reader; before that, filtering RSS feeds with Yahoo! Pipes, and I started with a post about integrating content with websites.

Admitting that I might represent an extreme case, I subscribe to 96 feeds in Google Reader. I started with Google Reader last December – prior to that, I used a Mac RSS Reader called Vienna. Moving from Vienna to Google Reader might have been a chore, but it wasn’t, thanks to Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML). The short story on OPML is that it was developed as a standard format for outlining. While it is used in that capacity, it’s more commonly used as a format for collecting a list of RSS feeds, with last read pointers, that can then be processed by other feed-reading software. So, I exported all of my feeds from Vienna to a .opml file, then I imported that into Google Reader, and all of my feeds were instantly set up. If you run a WordPress blog, you can rapidly build your blogroll by importing an .opml file.

In addition to sharing feed information with applications, OPML can be used to share a group of feeds with a co-worker, friend or constituent. Say your org does advocacy on a particular issue, and you’ve collected a set of feeds that represent the best news and commentary on your issue. You could make the OPML file available on your web site for your constituents to incorporate in their readers.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “what are the odds that my constituents even know what a feed reader is? Wouldn’t making this available be more likely to confuse than help people?” As good as a question as that is, here’s why I think that you won’t be asking it soon. RSS has seen quick and steady adoption as a standard web service. Four years ago, it was obscure; today every content management system and web portal supports it. It features prominently in the strategic plans of tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!. But it’s not as well-known by the general computing public — RSS still has yet to become a real household concept, like search and email have. The game-changer is underway, though. Last month, The Seattle Post-Intelligenser, one of Seattle’s primary daily papers, ceased print publication. The San Francisco Chronicle announced last month that they are making one last ditch effort, with a redesign and new printing presses, to stem the growing budget deficit that they face. Competition from TV and the web is driving newspapers out of business, and the hope that something will reverse this trend is thin.

As the internet becomes the primary source of news and opinion, RSS is a natural fit as the delivery medium. You can see that all of the Seattle PI sections are available as RSS feeds, and they have an option to customize the news and features that you see on your homepage. How long before they offer your customized paper as an OPML file, allowing you to instantly replicate your web experience in a reader?

In 1995, internet email was an arcane, technical concept. I figured out that I could send mail to an Internet address using my company’s MCI Mail account. My email address was 75 characters long. RSS may seem similarly oblique today, but it’s well on the road to being a mainstream method of internet information delivery. Your partners and constituents won’t just appreciate your support for it; they’ll start to expect it. I hope that my article and these follow-ups in the blog can serve as a good starting point for understanding what RSS can do and what you might do with it.

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