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Magazines > Information Today > October 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 10 — Nov./Dec. 2003
Focus on Publishing
The New Content Syndication
By Robin Peek

RSS is an XML-based technology that revisits the publishing question, "Just what is the value of a new headline or the title of a magazine article?" In some ways this is, of course, an old question, because table-of-contents services have been available for decades. But the new spin is how these small, tasty morsels of information are going to be served up to customers. Or more importantly, how do customers want them, if they want them at all?

Before I launch into the current state of RSS, I must acknowledge that written convention instructs authors to spell out an acronym prior to its use. But RSS is, well, unusual. Perhaps only in Webland is it possible to create an acronym when there's no agreement about its specific meaning. In fact, the name can change based on which version is being discussed. Thus, RSS can stand for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, and even variations thereof. Not surprisingly, many authors (myself included) have just decided to refer to it as RSS.

Push Redux?

RSS will be familiar to those who were around for the first generation of push technologies on the Web. In 1997, Netscape's push channels deployed the original RSS for Netcenter. RSS essentially languished until it found its calling for content-sharing in XML. RSS is actually not a single entity but a set of syndication technologies that can be used across XML applications. Or put another way, RSS is a means to distribute content in a more efficient manner than other mechanisms such as e-mail bulk distribution.

The first media outlets to jump on the RSS bandwagon are those that supported the first generation of push as well. RSS has been embraced by the technology media, such as CNET, Wired, InfoWorld, and Slashdot, and mainstream media like CNN, Disney, and the BBC. The baseline content they're delivering is comparable to the type of content that many were pushing in the late '90s—namely headlines and a URL link. (Although the most memorable applications of early push werethe minuscule headline photos—with no captions—that were pushed out by The New York Times.)

One difference between old push and new is how the content is being delivered. RSS gained considerable traction by delivering content to Web logs. But the problem with blogs is that people either love them or hate them.

And if you don't care to slog through a blog, you have to use an RSS news reader to view the information. Users can download one and put it on their computer's desktop. Then, if a site has an RSS newsfeed (see for a good example), the news reader can be configured to view it. The problem here is motivation: Folks have to set up and then actually use the news reader.

A New E-Mail?

I recently came across an RSS implementation that may have the greatest potential. Its name, Oddpost, tends to diminish its consideration as a serious tool. But if we look beyond the name, we can see how content syndication might appear.

Oddpost marries a Web-based e-mail function with a news-aggregation application. The service costs $30 per year, but the company offers a free 1-month trial (and naturally, you have to register). Putting aside Oddpost's e-mail function (as this is a column on publishing), I want to focus on its RSS distribution.

Oddpost does not accept advertising. It resembles Microsoft Outlook, including Outlook's series of folders. When a user subscribes to a syndicated newsfeed, a new folder is created and the RSS content is automatically delivered there. (And the annoyance of having your e-mail box littered with messages that you have to deal with diminishes.) As the content comes in, the folder indicates that it's there. Open up the folder, and the headlines can be scanned at the time of your choosing. Since they're just headlines, there's no need to click on the specific title unless you want to access the URL that takes you to the content itself.

This raises some interesting questions about the value of headlines, particularly in relation to advertising. In this model, I don't have to read your newspaper, visit your Web site, or, at least at this juncture, pay you for the newsfeed. The headlines do work as a lure that might get me to visit your Web site, but how often? Is this going to be disruptive to publishing's business models, or will it serve to drive more people to a site?

Table-of-Contents Services

RSS piqued my interest for its application to table-of-contents material, particularly scientific content, for which advertising is usually not an issue. RSS could really work here and should be easier to implement than the common practice of using e-mail lists to send around table-of-contents information.

But this type of newsfeed could present specific challenges. In many cases, the full content is not accessed at the originating site but through an academic library's gateway or subscription services. So the user may need the full citation, which would make RSS a little less "lightweight."

And yet another implementation issue is that e-mail systems will have to be reconfigured to deal with RSS newsfeeds. There's no doubt that all e-mail systems will eventually be XML-enabled. But this conversion will be uneven for some time, particularly on college campuses.

While there are factors that now limit broad deployment, the RSS model could be the most attractive formula for the distribution of article titles. After all, e-mail is the glue that holds everyone together.


Robin Peek is an associate professor at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Her e-mail address is
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