Dave Winer on the terminology of RSS

This post is the first in a short series exploring my hypothesis of RSS as the technological foundation of Web 2.0 for my PhD research. I have had the honor of talking with Dave Winer about my research and to pose him some questions. I would like to thank him for his time, thoughts and provoking new ideas for my dissertation.

The terminology of RSS

Naming conventions of formats, protocols and standards by Microsoft and Netscape show how they perceive the web. When Microsoft named its Channel Definition Format (CDF) it illustrated how Microsoft thought of the web as a static thing that could be defined through and fixed in Channels. The <channel> element nomenclature by Netscape is still visible in the RSS protocol.

Netscape originally named its “channel description framework for their My Netscape Network (MNN) portal”1 RDF Site Summary (RSS) reflecting similar ideas transposed onto the web as something that can be fixed and summarized. RDF was “Netscape’s way of thinking static.”2 It was later renamed into Rich Site Summary (RSS) and included elements from Winer’s ScripingNews format but the new name still illustrated Netscape’s thinking about the web as a static thing. When Netscape dropped RSS support Dave Winer picked it up and renamed it into Really Simple Syndication (RSS) to name it into something that it actually was: The RSS protocol as “a way of detecting changes.”3

As I previously described in ‘The Perceived Freshness Fetish’ the web currently has a focus on fresh and updated content on websites. Changes were often manually indicated with “last updated” date displays or by placing the “new.gif” image next to the new or updated content. In 1995 Javascript was an important step in automating when a website was updated with for example the Last Modified Javascript:

<script language="JavaScript"> <!---//hide script from old browsers
document.write( "Last updated "+ document.lastModified );
//end hiding contents ---> </script>

The detection and notification of changes on websites to third parties was automated by RSS. It is a way to detect changes and as such RSS is not necessarily  reverse-chronological as we know from the blogosphere where changed and updated information is presented in a reverse-chronological order.

Article Series - Dave Winer RSS

  1. Dave Winer on the terminology of RSS
  1. Dornfest, Rael, ‘XML.com: RSS: Lightweight Web Syndication’, XML.com, 2000 <http://www.xml.com/lpt/a/115> [accessed 23 April 2010].[]
  2. Winer 22 April 2010[]
  3. Winer 22 April 2010[]

13 Replies

  1. Anonymous Reply

    Microsoft used the term “channel” to refer to what we call a “feed” today. Users could subscribe to channels, just as uses can subscribe to feeds today. The contents of channel updated over time, just as feeds do. Microsoft did not see channels as static entities.

    The CDF channel level schedule element explicitly acknowledges that a channel is dynamic. If channels were static, then there wouldn’t be any reason to have a update schedule.

    CDF was the first feed format. A person who claims that his format was the first might not be the best source for understanding Microsoft’s thinking. I recommend talking to the people who were at Microsoft.

    As an aside, CDF was the first format to use XML to represent data instead of as a pure text markup.

    • Anne Reply

      Thanks for your comment “Anonymous” and Rogers. As a researcher I am less interested in the heated battle surrounding who claims to be first (as I’ve heard and read the story from different sides it very much appears to be a “building on top of each other’s formats (in one way or another: incorporating or excluding features)” with no exclusive FIRST! claims being made. What I’m interested in is the history of syndication and the roads not taken from a social-technical standpoint: which features of previous formats were incorporated and which died and why?

      As such, it is interesting that CDF, as a RSS precursor, was submitted to the W3C to become a standard while RSS eventually “survived” as the syndication format. Is it because of its features or because of the adaptation by software providers and publishers?

      Going back to the channel terminology, and the dynamic nature of the channels, what then are the main differences between a CDF channel and a RSS feed concerning timeliness of information? Thanks for your input.

  2. Rogers Cadenhead Reply

    I’m the chairman of the RSS Advisory Board. Your statement, “When Microsoft named its Channel Definition Format (CDF) it illustrated how Microsoft thought of the web as a static thing that could be defined through and fixed in Channels,” makes no sense to me.

    The channel in CDF is dynamic — it is analogous to a television channel over which fresh content constantly is delivered. A channel is just as dynamic as a feed.