Andrew Burke

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RSS and the Three Popes
Posted on: 2006-08-25

I cobbled together an RSS feed for my blog after the Silicon Valley Ruby Conference in April, when I started getting actual traffic to this thing. With all the Alpha Geeks coming in, I figured it was worth sprucing things up a bit - adding margins, some better layout - and an RSS feed.

People using the feed to keep up with my posts may have noticed that it doesn't format things correctly. I had originally been trying to get the entirety of my posts into the feed, but they come through rather garbled. So until I get the time to figure out what's going on and clean up the feed, I'll be putting a 'teaser' in the RSS feed part, and you'll have to view the full articles in a browser.

RSS is in many ways the opposite of HTML. The concept of HTML seemed rather complicated at first - formatted hypertext documents on the web - but following some basic rules you could easily create pages that were legible and functional for anyone using any browser anywhere. I know very well that web pages can be extremely complicated, with style sheets, elaborate layout, JavaScript, AJAX, embedded graphics and animations, etc. - but just getting something useful up there is really simple: Put in the HTML, HEAD, TITLE, and BODY tags, and mark up your text with T1, P, A and BR tags. Anybody can do that - and many people do. What does HREF mean? Who cares? It's just the magic words for a link.

RSS is opposite. Conceptually, it seems pretty simple - an XML file with timestamped content. In practice, it's a mess. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, he was the only one doing it, and HTML was flexible enough that nobody tried to make radically different versions. RSS formats are like medieval popes: there should be only one, but there were two, who both considered themselves the only true one - to resolve this, a third pope was created to replace the two 'bad' ones - but this just meant that there were now three of them and things got very confusing.

Before even starting to set up an RSS feed, you have to pick which format you want to use. Then you have to see what it looks like in any of a half dozen different feed readers, all of which display things slightly differently. The 'getting started' step for RSS isn't as simple as it should be.

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