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Blogs, Blogging, XML, ATOM, RSS Explained in Simple Words

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Article written by Carsten Cumbrowski, February 19th, 2006 , Updated, August 20th, 2006
Written for regular people who use the Internet, not for tech-savvy geeks.

Table of Contents

1. Foreword

When we created this blog earlier this month, and launched our special RSS Feeds and deal alerts email feature (powered by our RSS Feeds and Feedblitz syndication service), one of our partners asked me, "What's a blog?" He also wanted to know how our blog differs from our website's news page. Finally, he wanted to know what RSS Feeds are and what to do with them.

Our partner is not an Internet or computer newbie; he uses his laptop and the Internet extensively every day. Okay, he is not a computer geek and does not know much about web development, databases or how Google works, but he doesn't have to - he is responsible for our legal compliance and company structure.

I tried, during two lunch meetings, to explain blogs to him. During the first meeting my explanations were filled with overly technical details that did not help him understand blogs or RSS Feeds any better than before he had asked.

During the second meeting, I referenced things he already knew about, like newspaper and magazine websites, email and the news page on our website. I believe he almost got it. All this made me realize that there must be a huge number of people out there who hear about blogs and RSS but don't know exactly what they are or what to do with them. Some might even be active blog readers, yet deal with blogs as they deal with any websites, just visiting every now and then (or even daily) to check if there is something new. Some probably clicked out of curiosity on the XML or RSS icon on sites and got this gibberish displayed called XML. Some might use RSS Feeds already without knowing it. My Yahoo! and now Google Personalized are good examples of RSS Feeds used to add news headlines to your customized home page.

This is now my third attempt to explain to a normal non-tech savvy Internet user what these things are and how you can make practical use of them. Our partner will be the ultimate test of whether I can succeed in my explanations. I hope that he will start using RSS Feeds and also his account to post useful articles to this blog. I also hope that you might start picking up some RSS/blog reader software or services (see Resources below).

2. Blogs (also called Weblogs or Web Logs)

Blogs are web sites that are usually specialized in a specific topic and contain "posts" related to that topic. The posts are made by people (bloggers) who operate the site or have permission to post articles. The posts are displayed on the site in reverse chronological order and are usually written in a casual, personal style.

Blogs are not a new idea at all. BBS's, or bulletin board systems, worked the same way. Internet forums and webrings are also very similar in structure and purpose and can be considered predecessors of what we today call blogs.

Also your diary (if you maintain one) is in essence like a blog. The first blogs were actually nothing else than online diaries or journals or "logs."

Justin Hall founded in 1996 which is considered to be the first "blog" service on the Internet. It wasn't called a blog service. It was a site that allowed people to create and maintain personal online diaries and journals via an easy to use interface.

The term "weblog" was coined by Jorn Barger on 17 December 1997. Peter Merholz is credited with coining the term "blog" in 1999 by simply shortening the term "web log." This short form of web log became accepted and used by the online community and eventually became an official noun.

Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan founded in 1999 the service "" which is now owned by Google. became very popular and helped spread the use of blogs by people on the Internet.

An important reason it became so popular is that it was strongly supported from the very beginning by the open source community which made the use and creation of blogs cheap or even free for anyone.

Dave Winer is the one of the pioneers of the tools that make blogs more than merely websites. Without these tools, blogs would be no different from the news page on our website or news page created by any other type of content management system (CMS).

One of his most significant contributions was setting up servers that blogs could "ping" (notify) updates to let the service, and later blog directories and search engines, know that a change or addition had been made to the web log. Such notification is basically an invitation to come and pick up the new content.

Blogging combined the personal web page with tools to make linking to other pages easier, specifically blogrolls (link lists to other, related blogs) and trackbacks (mechanisms to show which other blogs link to an article in your blog). These enabled bloggers to control the threads that connected them to others with similar interests.

With these changes, a log became more than a simple passive website people had to find first and visit in order to read. A blog is part of an interactive community, a means to publish your articles simultaneously to search engines and directories in order to make it easier for people to find your blog and articles written for your blog.

This interaction and also the transfer of the content of a blog to other sites - and later "blog readers" or "syndication/aggregation" software and services across different technical platforms - was based on a standard format, which was pretty new at the time, called XML.

The specific XML structure used to transfer the content of a blog (the posts or articles) is called ATOM and is a standard used by all blog software and every blog service.

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©2006 Carsten Cumbrowski

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