Feeds are one of the core technologies driving web 2.0. Here’s a quick guide to what they are, what they do and how you can use them.
Feeds provide a convenient way to deliver content to your audience and at the same time keep track of just how big an audience you have. Feeds are best used for anything that changes, or gets updated fairly regularly. Of course, blogs and traditional news services are the first things that come to mind, but feeds are also good for sending your growing photo album to your friends or keeping others informed about what’s the latest album you’ve heard.
So just how do you turn something that’s regularly changed into a feed? You need a program that will periodically check whatever it is that gets changed often and then record those changes in an XML file. This file has to be in a proper feed format, the most common formats are Atom and RSS. It’s this XML file that you pass around when you tell others about your feed. Most blogging software and some wiki software does this automatically for you, but there are probably some things that you can change (like whether readers see all or a part of a post).
But that’s not all there is to feeds. If you’ve ever tried to open a feed URL in a browser you’ll know that the result isn’t pretty. Strictly speaking, XML is human-readable because it’s just plain text. But as a human, it’s hard to understand anything because there’s a lot of weird markup in the way. XML was designed to be a primarily machine-parseable language, i.e., computer programs will have an easier time reading it. So, to view the information in a feed properly, you need a feed reader. There are a bunch to choose from, including both desktop and online versions. Personally I use Google Reader and highly recommend it. No matter which one you use, they all perform the same general task: read a feed’s XML file and display the content as something you and I can understand.
Using the numerous free tools and services online, you can accomplish a lot with feeds and the best thing is that your audience can just keep using the same feedreader they always used and not worry about how you do what you do.