Skip to main content

How to explain RSS to your relatives

Over the past few weeks, as the number of parties I attend reaches its annual apogee, I've been spending a lot of time with some relatives who are not quite as technologically savvy as I am, but who spend a lot of time online and know their way around a web browser.

It just so happened that during the course of conversation, the concept of RSS feeds came up a couple of times. And I discovered that even though it's been around for many years now, RSS is something that the average person has a really hard time understanding. Most people know the familiar orange square, but they're not really sure what it means, or what to do with it.

Cable TV Solves Yet Another Problem

In situaitons like this, I find that the best way to explain something is to relate it to something familiar – to come up with an analogy or a similie. And although I've yet to test this particular idea, I think I've found a good comparison: the on-screen channel guide on cable TV.

Even if the person you're talking to doesn't have cable, chances are they're familiar with the ubiquitous on-screen channel guide – the grid that pops up on your TV screen when you hit the Guide or Info button on your remote. If they don't have cable themselves, they've probably seen it at a friend's house. All the guides that I've seen are set up like tables, with channels and TV shows in the rows, and times in the columns. They look something like this:

Example of table-based TV listings

Anyway, it struck me while I was biking home from a Christmas party last night that the channel guide is basically an RSS feed aggregator for TV channels.

  • Each row in the table is like a feed for a certain channel
  • You browse shows by their channels (these are analogous to websites) and their names (the titles of the posts)
  • If you decide you want to watch a show, you click a button and are taken to that show

Once you've made the connection that the listings for a channel are like the posts on a website, just bring the conversation back around to real RSS feeds. Instead of Fox or the Food Network, you've got the New York Times and The Onion. Instead of "links" to TV shows, you have links to articles, slideshows, videos, and whatever else.

I'd love to hear if anybody uses this method to explain RSS feeds to people who otherwise can't wrap their heads around it. Let me know in the comments!

One final note: in addition to being readily understood by just about everyone, the on-screen channel guide is a great example of when you should use a table for display.