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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the effort that became the Atom feed format. It all began on June 16, 2003, with a blog post from Apache Software Foundation contributor Sam Ruby asking for feedback about what constitutes a well-formed blog entry.

The development of RSS 2.0 had been an unplanned hopscotch from a small group at Netscape to a smaller one at UserLand Software, but Atom was a barn raising. Hundreds of software developers, web publishers and technologists gathered for a discussion in the abstract that led to a concrete effort to build a well-specified syndication format and associated publishing API that could become Internet standards. Work was done on a project wiki that grew to over 1,500 pages. Everything was up for a vote, including a plebiscite on choosing a name that ballooned into a four-month-long bike shed discussion in which Pie, Echo, Wingnut, Feedcast, Phaistos and several dozen alternatives finally, mercifully, miraculously lost out to Atom.

The road map of the Atom wiki lists the people, companies and projects that jumped at the chance to create a new format for feeds. XML specification co-author Tim Bray wrote:

The time to write it all down and standardize it is not when you’re first struggling to invent the technology. We now have aggregators and publishing systems and search engines and you-name-it, and I think the community collectively understands pretty well what you need, what you don’t need, and what a good syntax looks like.

So, now’s the time.

As someone whose only contribution to the project was voting on names, I think I was too quick to rule out Phaistos, a suggestion inspired by a clay disc produced by movable type before 1600 B.C. Comments on the wiki page proposing that monicker offer a sample of the name wars:

MikeBlumenthal: Does one of the great mysteries of antiquity, a document which, after almost 100 years of trying, is still a mystery not only as to its meaning but even as to its purpose, and which stands as a paragon of impenetrability, really fit as a name for an interoperability format?

Jayseae: Actually, the current state of RSS is pretty much a mystery — why should this project be any different? I like the association with publishing — though I’m not sure the pronunciation really flows. Perhaps it could be shortened somehow?

AsbjornUlsberg: Sorry, but I don’t like it. We could just as gladly give the project any other Greek-sounding name, like Papadopolous.

Arising from all the chaos and debate, the Atom format became a beautifully specified IETF standard in 2005 edited by Mark Nottingham and Robert Sayre that’s used today in millions of feeds. It is the most popular syndication format that’s never argued about.

Everybody got that out of their system on the wiki.

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