They're multiplying on the Internet like a bad case of measles: little orange buttons - seemingly innocuous and often marked with the letters "RSS."
But some say the technology behind them could alter the face of the World Wide Web.
The letters stand for "really simple syndication" and represent a method through which subscribers can automatically gather information from multiple Web sites.
Just as TiVo is changing the way some people use television, downloading programs only when they want to see them, RSS is helping people manage the gusher of information available on the Internet. The technology alerts people to the latest data on topics they've selected - from classified postings to sports scores - and delivers it to their computers.
"It has potential to be as big as the Web itself," said Sean Gallagher, a Hampden-based editor at eWEEK.com, an online technology magazine. "It's changing the way people consume information."
The initial premise of making money on the Internet by attracting as many "eyeballs" as possible has long since been discredited in a heap of shuttered companies and worthless stock options. Internet "content providers" are seeking ever more precise ways to match users with advertisers and information they're mostly likely to have interest in.
This next evolution is reflected in recent headlines about Google's new "Gmail" service and America Online's impending purchase of Advertising.com Inc. in Baltimore for $435 million. Just as Gmail matches e-mail subjects with related advertisements and Advertising.com charges only for Internet ads that generate a consumer's response, the RSS tabs popping up on Web sites intend to channel the vast Internet to the user.
Subscriber in control
Enthusiasts say the technology will one day allow people to create personalized TV networks as the television industry goes digital, and even service a high-tech car while it's on the road.
"The subscriber is in control, not the publisher," said Anthony Casalena, a University of Maryland senior who last year created Squarespace Inc., a Web design company that syndicates in RSS and similar formats.
To use RSS, software that creates a "reader" is needed. It often can be downloaded free, though Apple Computer Inc. has announced that it will include a reader in its newest operating system, due out early next year. Microsoft Corp. is rumored to have the same plans for its 2006 operating system, though a spokeswoman said it was too early to confirm that.
The readers can be programmed to search specific sites. For example, music fans can tailor their RSS readers to search for the latest information on their favorite bands. If there's something new out there, the reader will find it and deliver a summary to the user. To read the full content, users still have to click a link to the information and view it on a Web site, but they avoid the hassle of going to the site to check for new information if none is available.
"You can't monitor 400 Web sites in a day, but with RSS, you can find out if anything has changed on 400 Web sites," Gallagher said, adding that the process has earned a buzzword: "broadcatching" instead of broadcasting.
As a technology journalist, Gallagher uses his reader to keep tabs on the competition, subscribing to feeds from forward-thinking "bloggers," people who keep online Web logs of commentary, and trade publications. But he also offers his own Web log - "blog" - content as RSS feeds that alert his readers to new posts, such as the latest pictures of his three children.
The technology was first embraced by bloggers when RSS was introduced in 1999, and they're still the most prolific users.
But the development is now reaching beyond hard-core techies to major media, such as Yahoo Inc., which added RSS-formatted feeds to its news and group-discussion sites in January. More than 100 newspapers use RSS as well, including The New York Times and The Sun, which has offered its content as a feed since the spring of 2002.
"Really within the last year, it's sort of hit critical mass," Gallagher said.
But most Internet users aren't yet aware of, or using, RSS - The Sun has only a couple of hundred people reading stories through it each day - and many people don't yet see a reason to do so. They aren't surfing dozens of pages per day or keeping tabs on any particular type of news.
Casual users could appreciate the technology for other reasons, though, said Marci De Vries, who owns an online public relations company in South Baltimore. De Vries sees the feeds and readers as possible replacements for company "blast e-mails" sent out to the employee masses, in part because the spam factor is cut way down.
"There's no way you can spam somebody's RSS feed because nobody knows you have it," said De Vries, who presses her clients to adopt RSS.
"Publishing new information is critical to getting people back to their site and making them seem like real resources on the Web," said De Vries, who recently talked the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health into trying RSS technology.
By showing that the site has new information regularly - through frequent feeds - De Vries is hoping users will visit more often. It's a main reason businesses adopt the technology: to gain customers.
"It builds loyalty," Gallagher said, "because people see you're always posting something new."
Gallagher is working on a program to deliver RSS feed alerts to his cell phone, and envisions a day when the technology will be adapted to enable computers to hunt for software updates and install them automatically or even to service a car equipped with a computer.
"When you get your 50,000-mile service, that's usually just a software update for most new cars," he said.
Several versions of syndication feeds and readers are under development, though RSS is ahead of the game, most evident by the proliferation of the orange RSS buttons on Web sites. Sometimes they're other colors, though, with other letters - often "XML," which stands for "extensible markup language" and refers to the code that allows the syndication.
As the instant-information age progresses and people increasingly demand specialized data, enthusiasts like Gallagher see syndication playing a large role.
"It increases the value of the time you spend looking at Web sites, because you don't have to hunt for content," he said.
Step 1: Download a reader - also called an aggregator - such as RssReader, FeedDemon or Newsgator. To find a reader online, go to www.baltimoresun.com and enter the words "RSS," "feed" and "reader" into the search box on the upper right-hand side of the page. Be sure to select the "Web" search box and not "site" search.
Step 2: Add sites for the reader to search. If using RssReader, do this by locating the orange XML or RSS button on a site (on www.baltimore sun.com, there's a button halfway down the home page on the left-hand side; click it to get to other buttons linked to feeds), place the cursor over the button and right click. Choose "copy shortcut." Launch the reader and choose the add channel/feed option. Right click the mouse again and choose "paste" to enter the copied shortcut. Repeat for your favorite sites.
Step 3: Sit back and wait for the information to flow in. Select a site to see its latest information headlines or summaries and select the summaries to view the entire piece.