Not too long ago, I read a fascinating book about international shipping. No, I’m serious: Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, published in 2006 (which happens to have been the 50th anniversary of that ubiquitous part of the global economy, the shipping container).
Photo by NeonMan
In a nutshell, the standardized shipping container revolutionized international trade by vastly speeding up the loading and unloading of ships. The cargo that had been brought to the wharf, unloaded from a truck into a pile on the dock, moved piece by piece into cargo netting to be hoisted by crane into the hold of a ship, so that it could be removed from the cargo net and then shoved in the corner of a hold, was now as complicated as building a stack of bricks. OK, a bit more complicated, since loading and unloading containers is really an art, the ship needs to be properly balanced, and so forth — but basically, a crane operator and few others can load a ship. Turnaround times at pier — when large, expensive, freighters were just sitting there — were reduced dramatically.
Photo by anaulin
What does this have to do with RSS? Quite a bit, actually. RSS is the box into which any old thing can be packed, for uniform shipping from producer to consumer. A paragraph of text, an audio podcast, a video podcast, a Word document… If it can be put online, it can be shoved into a container (the RSS item), given a bill of lading (the RSS channel), pre-cleared for customs (tags, authors, keywords, etc.), and sent on its merry way on a conveyance (the RSS feed). Nobody has to touch the contents between shipper and receiver — just once to pack it, once to unpack it.
The feed is empty…. Fill it!
Photo by James Good
Addendum (10AM 5 August 08): Another similarity pointed out to me (thanks Cindi) is that RSS and shipping containers both lack security and authentication. The ramifications of this problem are a bit more serious for shipping containers than for feeds. Still, not really knowing who might have mucked with a feed between origin and destination, or having any real knowledge of who published it in the first place once the feed items are scattered around the Internet, can be a problem. Feeds, once set free, can have a life of their own.