Language Matters: RSS


Back in July, when some folks were upset about various other folks’ intention to employ RSS without actually calling it RSS, I started a post and then gave up on it — while language seems like a big deal to me, I didn’t think that many other people would care.

Apparently I was wrong. Nice to see that.

While I can understand why Dave Winer would be a little touchy on the issue, it seems to me like a non-starter question. RSS is a data syndication format, and in discussions of that format it is essential to use the correct, specific language. In cases where the discussion is of other tools or toys that might make use of RSS, however, dictating that the resulting RSS-fed product be called “RSS” seems unnecessary.

In the post linked above, Brad Feld used the SMTP/email example, but I prefer HTML. Which of the sentences below might you actually say during the course of a normal day?

A. Hey, you’ve got to check out this great HTML document that I just ran across!
B. Hey, you’ve got to take a look at this cool Web page that I found!

Be honest, now. You’d feel like a pedantic goober saying version A, wouldn’t you? The fact that the stuff that you’re looking at is marked up with HTML is totally irrelevant to a non-technical discussion. There is, however, a related language question that remains relevant: version B above is immediately comprehensible to pretty much anyone you might be talking to…they might never have heard of HTML, JavaScript, or Flash, but they know what a Web page is. What we need is a single, generally accepted, specific-but-not-too-limiting term for RSS thingies.

In the case of RSS, one could make the argument that “RSS” is a perfectly good designator that should be propagated, rather than splintering off into “Web clips,” “Web feeds,” and whatever else various marketing departments come up with, but I don’t really buy it: something like a simple “feeds” is much more compelling to me. It’s not tied to a specific technology, so that you eliminate discussions like “do you mean RSS RSS or Atom RSS?” It’s a meaningful word rather than an abbreviation, which is always a good thing, and — since I’m starting from Brad Feld’s post this seems an appropriate note — it’s an analog analog.

The idea of a feed or feeding something into is one that’s familiar from the outside world, and one that points users in the right direction when trying to understand what “feeds” might be online. “Channels” should have been a good candidate for this word, and it’s strange to me that it never really caught on as a term for RSS thingies.

Outside of FeedDemon (you subscribe to channels rather than feeds in FD), I never hear about RSS channels any more; given that “channel” is the key element in all versions of the RSS spec, and a totally familiar offline term to boot, it’s just weird. I guess that the people have spoken.