A Personal History of RSS

April 17th, 2002

We recently launched a new feature on the Indymedia Global site. Built on top of RSS, the features newswire is an aggregation of the hilighted stories (features) from the local IMCs.

There has been a large amount of contentious discussion about this feature, and its been very interesting. It has proved to be a chance for IMC to revive, and reaffirm our institutional memory, the quasi-verbal tradition that binds us together. Many others have responded to other points superbly, however I felt that I should respond to the claim that, “XML/RSS is corporate plot to take over the world”. It was claimed that RSS is some sort of proprietary technology maintained by AOL/TimeWarner, and that we were forcing people to abandon the road of Free Software to come mingle their stories with ours. I have a long (if not very active) involvement in RSS, so I want to respond.

First, the link Arc sent, RSS: Lightweight Web Syndication is a good starting point, Rael is very heavily involved in the current state of RSS, and is generally an excellent and insightful tech writer. Rael, like all historians, is also trying to push a particular viewpoint with his history. He is trying to build legitimacy for his idea of a modular, RDF compliant RSS. So here is another prespective, a much more personal, and less eloquent one, perhaps.

My colloquial history of RSS

I first saw RSS mentioned on Slashdot in early 1999, I think around January or so, as an Ask Slashdot story about the new alpha Netcenter, Netscape’s late entry into the portal game. Netcenter was the first, last, and only cool portal. It acknowledged that people might want content beyond the generic fare of AP and Reuters (something Yahoo still doesn’t offer) So it invented a format to allow headlines to be syndicated into its Netcenter Channels. And they added MozilliaZine and Slashdot.

So someone asked, “Could we create our own Netcenter channel?”, and the creator of Netcenter RSS responded in a comment explaining the process (which was still totally informal, as it was pretty much just this one guy doing it) And so light weight syndication took off. At protest.net we had just recently started re-posting DAMN articles, and a few of our own pieces, and so we whipped up a RSS feed, and submitted it to Netcenter, and it was included. So now the really amazing content from the late and much lamented Direct Action Media Network was showing up on this mainstream corporate portal.

And then Slashdot decided they wanted channels, and they called them Slashboxes, and put CowboyNeal in charge (who was accepting if flaky) and the whole network of small self-publishing sites, sharing content and traffic, which has grown exponentially recently to include the bloggers was born.

This is all pre-AOL acquisition of Netscape. AOL bought Netscape, and gave Sun all the good stuff, keeping Netcenter, and the browser for itself. Some people speculated that they bought Netscape for Netcenter. That might have been, but one of AOL’s first acts was to shut down the super cool Netcenter, and replace it with a generic portal. (probably bought from Infospace)

I don’t remember when I first heard about the syndication mailing list, but I sure jumped when I did. We had been talking for a while about how to create a syndication network to share the content from Protest.net, DAMN, and Zmag in a meaningful way, and here were some of the sharpest people doing this stuff all haggling about syndication.

Well I thought the list was a flop. Dave Winer had not mellowed down into the quiet, open minded buddhist monk we know today. And he browbeat people into abandoning the original pie-in-the-sky ideals of RDF/XML and turning RSS into the Userland format. RDF being TBL’s attempt to build some tools to make the web a collection of rationale information, where your access to being heard is dependent on the quality of your information.

And thats how things stayed, we kept talking about building this syndication network, without ever having time to do it, and RSS kept puttering along, and I kind of lost track of it. (IMC happened, and there went the last moment I had to stop and catch my breath for like a year)

And when I saw Rael’s first post about modular RSS, RSS 1.0, an idea to get back to the original ideas about RSS being an open format, and RDF, and adding XML namespaces, to allow people to innovate, and do their own thing, but still work together. And it used Dublin Core, and it was elegant, and his first act was to say, I’m just playing with ideas, lets make an open mailing list, and all talk about this for a few months, and see what people think of it. And so it went, RSS 1.0 evolved in an open fashion, geeks flailing in the dark for a form of consensus, they dealt with some vicious attacks from the Userland old guard, and eventually built a new standard, that encouraged collaboration, but also allowed people to do their own thing.

And in the meantime blogging took off, the personal publishing phenomena which is just starting to really catch the mainstreams eye, and has much in commom with Maff’s Hilights proposal, and Dru’s Open Publishing proposal, and the idea that the web was a conversation began to be normal again.

So it seems to me, that to say RSS is a standard maintained by AOL/Timewarner is incorrect, and uninformed. To insist so violently upon it smacks of disinformation to me.

On Indymedia we generate 3 RSS feeds, v.9 the Netcenter version, v.91 the first “userland” flavor developed on the syndication list, and v1.0 hammered out in public, by consensus. The features newswire is uses the version 1.0 of RSS, though admittedly not for political reasons, but because its more richly descriptive.

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