For anyone who’s interested, which I have a strong suspicion is in fact no-one at all, I have a new Atom feed. All of the cool kids have these – including Stephen, who I now remember asked me to explain what it is to him quite a few weeks ago. Well I’m not the kind of person to break a promise, even if the relevant party is out of the country and completely unaware that I’m now getting around to it. Keep in mind that of all the myriad pages talking about Atom, this may well turn out to be the least informative.
Atom is a syndication format, based on XML. That means that it consists of the content of (usually) a blog and very little extra fluff to tell the syndicator (thing that republishes the content elsewhere) or aggregator (thing that collects Atom "feeds" together for easy reading) what to do with the data. A reasonable impression can be got by looking at the source – just click on the Atom link in my navigation bar to see the source code, as my feed is so far unstyled. It starts with a little bit of info about this site – name, tagline, copywrite – then has a list of recent entries with similarly little information about them – permalink, author, content. It’s layed out as XML which means it’s easy to write a program that can parse it and manipulate it, since XML handling is pretty much ubiquitous these days. Like I said, all the cool kids are doing it.
So you hopefully get what it is now, but what’s it for? It’s for two things in theory, only one in practice I reckon. Atom (and other feed formats like RSS) is called a syndication format which would imply that it’s used to supply raw, or nearly raw, data to other publishers – without such extras as navigation, style, and other cruft – so that they can republish it themselves. Of course there’s nothing, short of copyright, stopping you from using it for this purpose but where Atom and its friends shine, and the reason they’re so popular with the cool kids, is aggregation. There are a range of programs available for grabbing these feeds from all sorts of sites and cramming them together for the user so they don’t have to waste time visiting sites individually. Some of these are web-based, you visit a single site and are presented with new entries from your favourite blogs; some are desktop-based, you start it up and it grabs all of your feeds like an email program. I’d recommend an aggregator except that I don’t use one so I don’t know what’s good. I assume there’s a pretty good open-source one available; there’s always a pretty good open-source program available.
In short, you have one more way to be semi-frequently bored by me. But faster.