This is not a dumb question, but we’re dumb to not answer it!
The tech crowd is often very arrogant. Sometimes, we’re so arrogant that we expect everyone to understand (and care) about technical details. We do that so much that we use acronyms to describe things without really ever explaining what they mean! It’s so bad, that even in the tech industry, some (a lot!) of people do not understand what RSS is. The answer below is a response that I gave to someone on StackOverflow (a developer oriented question & answer site) a couple weeks ago.
Before telling you what RSS, let me describe you a common problem that many people have.
Say there is a bunch of sites that you really like and it’s sort of a daily routine for you to go thru them. They may be a news site, your friend’s blog, but also Craigslist because you’re currently looking for a new house and maybe a weather site to know how late you should stay at work :)
The first thing you do when you get to work, is open your web browser and these sites in new tabs. It’s not particularly cumbersome because there are just 4 sites. But think about it: maybe there is a new blog that you start to like and ho, these cartoons are really funny. Maybe there is also a bit of financial info that you’re interested in and the pictures that your brother is posting to Flickr every couple day: they just had a new baby! Also, as you’re trying to buy a house, you’d love a little raise and you’ve figured that your boss really likes it when you tell her that you’ve read about your company in the news or when you tell her about a new competing product… There is also StackOverflow. You’re desperately trying to get this “expert” badge and boost up your reputation: this may help with your boss too or even when you’re looking for a new job.
Opening all these tabs is starting to take a toll and you keep forgetting an important one. You’re also slowly getting tired of the different reading experience that all these sites have: small fonts, large fonts, ads all over…etc. Now you have a problem.
Imagine there is a tool that does the following: you can tell it what sites you care about, and then, this tool will look up the new stuff for you. It will show everything in a nice looking format. It should also help you identify what’s really worth seeing ASAP or maybe have some kind of “serendipity” mode that you can go into and find interesting stuff that you would have missed otherwise. The tool will obviously send you to the original sites should you need more info about any particular story or classified…
This tool exists. It’s usually called a Reader, mostly because it lets your read more things online. Often times you’ll see them called “RSS reader”, because RSS is what they use to get the information from all these sites. RSS is the pipe. You as a user should probably not now about it, but that’s what the readers depend on. In an ideal world, when you’re on site you like, you should just hit “follow” on a button like this one and then you’d be redirected to your reader of choice. Later when new content is added, you’ll get it straight in your reader.
To get a bit into more technical details, RSS (like Atom) is an XML flavor. It’s a collection (mostly reverse chronological) of entries. Entries have at least a title and a link to the actual story. They should also include a unique identifier and could have other elements like a description, an image, tags, author information… etc. What’s important if that you should keep in mind that “raw” RSS is better consumed by a feed API than by humans directly.
RSS is great because it’s content agnostic. It can be used to represent a lot of different things (as described in the little story) and decouples the publishing platform from the subscribing platform: they don’t even know the other one exists. RSS is their lingual-franca.