Spreading Your Word? Syndication Methods Online (Part 1)

Previously on Comixpedia, Xavier Xerexes provided us with a brief overview of syndication methods for online comics. Today, we’re going to be looking at XML-based syndication methods, such as RSS, in a bit more detail.

Let’s get our baseline terminology out of the way first. RSS is a markup language based on XML, but what does that even mean?

Previously on Comixpedia, Xavier Xerexes provided us with a brief overview of syndication methods for online comics. Today, we’re going to be looking at XML-based syndication methods, such as RSS, in a bit more detail.


Let’s get our baseline terminology out of the way first. RSS is a markup language based on XML, but what does that even mean?

A markup language is a means to describe the structure of a document. One uses tags to indicate the purposes served by different portions of the document. HTML (hypertext markup language) is a common, (ideally) simple, and highly widespread example:

<p>This is a paragraph. The tags denote the beginning and end of the paragraph. It is weak, and demands boundaries for self-definition.</p>

This is a line break: <br /> It’s just a line break. It is complete and whole within itself.

Now, XMLeXtensible Markup Language — is something else again. You’ve probably heard of it in a buzzword context. Very simply, it’s a meta-markup language, or a set of rules for describing other markup languages.

XML was developed specifically with web use in mind because, often and increasingly so, HTML isn’t rich or complex enough to describe so many of the documents which belong there. (The current generation of HTML, XHTML, actually employs XML rules.) Think of the urban legend about Inuktitut words for snow. XML exists to fill that gap. (A detailed explanation of what XML is and how it works is outside the scope of this article, but you might find Norman Walsh’s "What Is XML?" useful.)

One application of XML is syndication, a word busily being redefined by sites whose business is frequently updated content of any sort. In this context, rather than having a third party deliver your fresh content to an unrelated site, what you’re doing is setting up a newsfeed, making it available, and waiting for someone to pick it up. (More on syndication below.)

A newsfeed (hereafter feed) is an XML document containing the information you want to get out to other sites. The authoring process can be automated to varying degrees, or you can write your own by hand in your favorite text editor. A webmaster can stick as much or as little information into this feed as they choose — a full article, a comic, a headline, an update notification, or even just an URL with no explanation. They can use just one feed, or several for different sections of their site and different end users.

Aggregation: reading feeds
As with an HTML document, you won’t want to read this raw. An aggregator, software which interprets the feed and makes it human-readable, will check for updates at regular intervals, then download the updated feed for consumption. Aggregators take various forms.

One is a desktop aggregator, which you can install onto your own computer and run as desired. What’s available varies by platform. If you run Mozilla, you can install NewsMonster or Aggreg8 as extensions to the web browser, on a variety of operating systems. MacOS X users can use NetNewsWire (which comes in both free and pay versions); Mac, Linux and Windows users have Amphetadesk. Linux and Unix users with a more traditional bent towards reading text will get a kick out of Snownews.

The list of aggregator apps, plugins, bits and bobs is as long as the polar winter; try Lockergnome if you’re on the hunt.

There are also online aggregators, which allow you to subscribe to various feeds, then collate them into a single web page. Bloglines does this handily for free; MyWireService is in free beta, but plans to shift to a pay service. Some online services have aggregator functionality as a feature, but aren’t expressly aggregators themselves. LiveJournal integrates feeds into its "friends list" system, letting you subscribe to feeds alongside regular LJ accounts. There’s a points-system based quota; each feed "costs" more or less depending on how popular it is, encouraging community use of the feeds.

Finally, Radio Userland, a weblogging and aggregator package, was arguably first on the ball with RSS.

Formats: RSS and Atom
RSS, an umbrella term for multiple related but distinct XML formats, is the most popular of the XML-based syndication approaches. Originally designed at Netscape in 1999 for consolidating various sites’ headlines onto a single portal, RSS was later adopted by Dave Winer of Userland Software as a lynchpin for its weblogging tools. The format would fork over time, then eventually cease development in 2002 at version 2.0 for largely political reasons. One of the ideas behind RSS was that anyone who could write a little HTML could write enough RSS, by hand, to get by.

Support for and uptake of the format since then has been nothing short of formidable. Most of the technology available for reading and generating feeds focuses specifically on the RSS formats. Much recent uptake has been within the weblogging world, but everyone from Wired News and the BBC News to the Government of Canada has something going. You can learn more about RSS at Lockergnome’s RSS Resource.

Not everybody is happy with RSS as a format, finding it awkward and ill-suited to its new life beyond the headlines: "RSS has been kludged and pushed into this world, but it doesn’t really fit." (Atom Project Wiki: Motivation)

The Atom Project emerged in recent months to design a new approach to syndicating "episodic web sites" — a definition which could apply just as easily to webcomics as journals or weblogs — using the lessons learned from RSS use over the years. The Atom syndication format and associated API (Application Programming Interface) are still very new; as of this writing, the specification document is still in the pre-draft stage. That said, Atom feeds already exist for a number of sites, some weblogging software already generates Atom feeds, and popular software for RSS feedreading increasingly also
supports Atom.
It may not be time yet for anyone to make the move exclusively to Atom, but it might not be a bad idea for webcomic creators to begin using it alongside RSS. For that matter, it’s the perfect time for an astute creator to have a voice in how Atom and webcomics might work well together. Check out AtomEnabled and the Atom Project development wiki if you’d like to play.

Syndication and Webcomics: A Brief Overview
Those creators who have latched onto syndication often use it as a simple way of providing update status notification (popular examples: Penny Arcade and Diesel Sweeties use their feeds to notify readers on both comic and news updates). Keenspace provides update status notification for each of their comics as part of their service; this appears to be more for the use of creators than readers, but it serves either way.

Some, such as Something Positive, Goats,and the various Sev comics, use it to distribute the comic image itself. Many webcomic creators are, however, still disinclined to adopt syndication for their own purposes, particularly if their revenue is adview-dependent or their bandwidth is somehow restricted.

They may also have been stung by others creating feeds of their comics without permission. It’s not an uncommon practice for third parties to "scrape" each day for a new comic (using a script of some sort), then to throw a link to the image straight into a feed of their own. This unsanctioned deep-linking can devour a creator’s bandwidth, at potentially great expense, if they’re unprepared for it. Seeing the effects of a poorly-managed scraped feed, a creator might easily conflate the idea of a feed with unrestrained parasitism — it’s no wonder that some might become gunshy.

(A tip to LiveJournal users with lots of comics feeds on their friends lists: it may well be good manners to look into the new image placeholder feature if you’re likely to be reloading your comics multiple times in one day.)

Creators might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, especially if they’ve only been exposed to feeds which feature the comic itself and aren’t aware of alternatives. They might worry about the resource drain that a feed would represent. They might use an alternative means of distribution.

Or they might prefer different update notification web-based methods, such as a status bar or weblog on their front page, posts to a dedicated offsite journal, or a forum thread. That’s a valid means of getting the word out to a dedicated fanbase, but a headline-style feed could still be useful for notifying the more casual reader.

Consider a webcomic with unpredictable (or just plain frequently disrupted) update schedule, combined with the kind of fanbase which will sit there and press "refresh" every fifteen minutes until the comic goes up there. The creator might want to look into some form of syndication. There are many hassles that can be circumvented with the judicious use of a feed.

Next time, we’ll look more closely at how webcomic creators can exploit syndicated feeds for their own purposes, and when such endeavours might (or might not) be appropriate to them.

Wednesday White


  1. Great article Wednesday! I’m really glad – you’ve put some depth on into Comixpedia’s coverage of RSS and syndication for webcomics.

  2. *bows* Thank you very kindly.

    And there’s more! Buahaha!

  3. Steve how are you creating the feed (it’s in Atom right?)? By hand?

  4. Thankyou for letting me keep track of your updates easier 🙂

  5. Wow, very informative. Excellent article. I hope you’re planning to continue writing for comixpedia.

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