[This article is now also available in French. 5 March 2003]
The audience for Pepys’ Diary can be split into two groups: Those who write and/or read weblogs and those who have come to the site purely because of an interest in Pepys. The former group are familiar with the language of the weblog world (Weblog, Blog, RSS, Trackback, Permalink, etc) while the latter aren’t. And why should they be? This kind of language is a hangover from when weblogs were written largely by and for web geeks. And that’s fine — this is a new and fast-changing environment where the technical underpinnings of website construction always lies just beneath the surface. But at the same time sites like Pepys’ Diary, that cover non-technical matters, must be aware that such words often mean nothing to new readers and should explain such concepts in terms normal people can understand. Otherwise it is impossible for a reader to tell whether to ignore an “RSS feed” or learn how to use it. So, here’s my brief guide to weblog terms for readers, not webloggers…
A weblog, or “blog” for short, is a kind of website or a part of a website. It is usually, but not always, run by a single person and they publish bits of writing on the weblog fairly frequently — maybe a few times each day, or once a day, or less often. These bits of writing, perhaps called “entries” or “posts,” generally appear on the front page of the weblog in reverse chronological order, that is, with the newest entry at the top of the page, with older entries progressively further down. Entries of a certain age often disappear from the front page but all entries are ususally archived on separate pages, perhaps organised by date or topic, for posterity.
Entries are usually fairly short, maybe a sentence or a paragraph, but can be much longer. Entries might be written about other websites or entries on other websites, including links to them, but they might also be the author’s thoughts on events, politics, their own life… anything. There is a grey area between weblogs and journals/diaries which are always more personal and tend not to link to other websites so much. The most often cited history of weblogs is Rebecca Blood’s.
If a person wants to link to a new entry on a weblog, they have a problem. They might try linking to the front page of the weblog, where this new entry is currently at the top of the page. But over time the entry will move down the page and eventually might be removed, only existing on an archive page. So most weblogs give each entry a “permalink” (short for “permanent link”), which is where that entry will always live. On the front page of this site each entry has a permalink marked by “Link”. Following this takes you to the permanent page for that entry. Permalinks are marked in different ways on different sites, often by the time on which the entry was posted.
RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication, although that fact doesn’t tell you much. An RSS file (or “RSS feed”) is a text file that usually contains details about the most recent entries on a website. It doesn’t have any information about colours, fonts, layout, or any other graphical issues. It’s simply text in a standardised format. If you look at an RSS file for this site in places you can see some text that isn’t just gibberish, but is information about this site or about its recent entries. The file says “Here’s some information that describes a website and here are the titles and brief descriptions of recent entries.” Some RSS files are in a slightly different format that includes more or different information but they perform similar functions.
But what is an RSS file for? In general it is so that other people, websites and computer programs can do stuff with the information; the standardised format of RSS files makes this easy, regardless of which website the file has come from. There are two main uses for an RSS file. First, it makes it easy for one website to include a list of headlines from another, a process known as “syndication.” For example, someone might want to include a list of the BBC’s top news items on their website. They could write a program that takes the information from one of the BBC’s RSS files and displays a list of the headlines on their own site, with each headline linking to the story at the BBC.
The second use for an RSS file is so people can read entries, or parts of entries, in an RSS news reader. These are programs you run on your computer. You tell it the addresses of RSS files you are interested in and it downloads them. The program then displays the entry headlines, and maybe their content, regularly fetching the latest version of the RSS file. People use RSS news readers if they like to read lots of weblogs or news sites because it makes the process much quicker — the person no longer has to visit each site in turn, the latest entries are fetched automatically, and the lack of graphics makes the process much quicker. It’s more like skipping through email messages rather than viewing websites. The most popular news reader for Mac OS X is the excellent NetNewsWire and SharpReader is a news reader for Windows. But creating an account at Bloglines and using their web-based service may be the simplest way to get started (with the benefit you can read your personal selection of feeds from any computer). You can read more about RSS at Webreference.com.
One of the popular tools used for creating weblogs, Movable Type, introduced the ability to use Trackback. It works something like this: Let’s say a weblog has an interesting entry about the rising price of fish. After reading this I also write an entry about the price of fish, adding that the price of meat has also risen. Let’s assume that the tool I use to produce my weblog and the tool the other person uses both understand Trackback. When I publish my entry a link will appear beneath the original “price of fish” entry that points to mine. It probably includes my headline, “The price of fish and meat,” and the first few words of the entry. Now, someone reading the original entry can see that I’ve written an entry that refers to the one they’re reading, and they might choose to click the link to see what I’ve said about meat.
These are the basics and it can be hard to understand and use Trackback in practice. It is useful, but not all weblogs use it. You can read more about Trackback at Movabletype.org.
[Updated 26 February 2003, correcting which tools include Trackback.]
[Updated 7 July 2004, tweaking the RSS section.]