A new blogrollComments

I have completed the first version of my blogroll plugin and you can view the results here. At present it includes ten people as I wanted to stay true to James Shelley’s notion about value.

Spoiler alert: he made the list.

As previously mentioned, the blogroll stores entries using a custom post type then displays them by way of a shortcode which can be placed on any page. Each time the shortcode is triggered the blogroll.opml file is recreated so it is always up to date.

I have updated the site footer to show links to both the directory and blogroll. The directory is still valuable for discovery purposes but nothing beats explicit recommendation.

The plugin is available on GitHub - usage and styling info is in the readme.

A new blogroll

Learning from the pastComments

There was a quick conversation on micro.blog about RSS triggered by a post from Jason Dettbarn which, in turn, was in response to David Sparks' "The case for RSS."

The upshot was that Google Reader was both the standard bearer and pall bearer for RSS at the same time.

James mentioned the ability of large companies to usurp tech like Google did with RSS and asked could it happen again with the #indieweb?

As I’ve written before, webmentions are the glue that binds the indieweb together, connecting sites from across the web by way of comments, likes, replies etc. They are detailed in a W3C recommendation well on its way to becoming a full, recognised standard - but then so was RSS.

Google cornered the RSS market and Reader became synonymous with RSS; everyone designed their feeds to best fit it, just as everyone tweaks their SEO to please Google search largely ignoring other search engines.

But Google Reader demanded certain things. Every post needed a title, for example, and the rest of the RSS ecosystem followed. It became the de facto standard for RSS, effectively pushing everyone else out.

The rise in popularity of social media as a news source meant many were already declaring that RSS was done but Reader's closure sounded the death knell and left a massive vacuum when Google decided to concentrate on Google Plus.

That synonymity between service and standard meant the closure of one symbolised the demise of the other but standards only "die" when they are superseded by something else, something better. While using social streams as news delivery mechanisms certainly became de rigueur, and the real time nature of Twitter is admittedly unsurpassed, this cannot be seen as sufficiently better to kill off a standard.

So, what of the indieweb and webmentions?

I previously argued that wider indieweb adoption would probably happen by stealth rather than being actively sought out by average users.

"What if, for example, Automattic (the company behind WordPress) suddenly decided that all standard WordPress.com themes were going to include microformats2 markup and support webmentions? You've instantly got millions of people with an indieweb presence who haven't got a clue what it is or how it works, just that things are a little different."

The WordPress community currently seems reluctant to entertain the idea of indieweb integration but what would happen if such a major player did enter the arena and started to impose its own requirements just as Google did with RSS?

The sudden injection of millions of indieweb properties would likely cause a further rush of adoption as others seek to implement a technology which they feel would generate exposure and engagement.

Such adoption, however, would not be against the recognised standard but in line with the custom requirements imposed above to (selfishly) ensure maximum compatibility rather than compliance.

James' fear of a big tech company usurping an open platform could be realised and this custom implementation may become synonymous with the technology itself.

To take this to its logical conclusion, what would happen if after a few years the major player suddenly decided to ditch indieweb technologies in favour of the next big thing?

Where would that leave everyone?

Those who relied directly on the platform dropping support would obviously be affected until an alternative became available. In the case of something like WordPress this would obviously be via plugins.

But, the advantage this has over the RSS issue, even with a major player dropping support, is the very nature of the indieweb itself.

When Google Reader closed people had to actively seek an alternative in order to continue consuming their RSS feeds. This pushed many towards simply using their social streams - they couldn’t be bothered to find an equivalent service and re-add all their feeds.

No such need would exist with something like webmentions. People may not be able to immediately interact with as many properties but things wouldn’t stop working for those not hosted on the major player’s platform.

Sites interact directly with each other without the need for any central agency. If everyone had decided to adopt a custom implementation it would still work between all those sites that used it.

The very fact the technology would have been deployed across many different platforms means it couldn’t contain any showstopping proprietary requirements even if it did not adhere strictly to the original standard.

The overall impact would be significantly reduced.

Learning from the past

Rethinking the feedsComments

Colin Devroe made a good point.

He is subscribed to my main feed and wondered why he didn't see my Watch follow-up post about the woman on the train.

The answer was that it was a microblog post and, therefore, in the /feed/microblog feed instead.

Emailing back and forth about it made realise that this is a bit pointless.

I was originally going to keep the microblog separate from the longer posts and, because micro.blog doesn't want post titles for micro posts, set up a custom feed with no item title element.

It was my intention to not include the shorter posts in the main feed as it had always been for more essay-type posts but, ever since I decided not to separate micro posts on the site, I have been using standard and status posts interchangeably - the only difference is whether they have a title or not.

So, for common sense to prevail (and for related posts not to be ignored based on length) I am going to remove the exclusion for micro posts from the main feed.

The microblog feed will still exist, as will the separate podcast feed, but everything will now be in the main feed.

It has been quite a moot point anyway. A status post of 281 characters without a title would have already been included in the feed being not be added to the microblog category.

Arguing the toss over character count is stupid.

Rethinking the feeds

There's been a bit of talk about blogrolls instigated by Dave Winer (who else) and most recently Richard MacManus who is indiewebifying his personal site.

As you'll know, if you've been reading this for a while, I have taken a different approach and have a directory of people that have interacted with this site via webmentions - both blogs and micro.blog accounts.

Colin Devroe has been considering a blogroll but finds "linking to individual posts with some context provides more value than just a list of URLs."

I can see his point.

Part of the problem with people based following models on social networks is that you follow the whole person so see everything they post whether it is relevant to you or not. There is no filtering system.

Following blogs has the same issue, when you subscribe to a site's RSS feed you get everything unless it is category specific. Category feeds, however, have the problem in reverse - you might miss out on posts you would normally want to read.

But, as Richard says, a blogroll wasn't always just an isolated list of URLs. It was often accompanied by an OPML file allowing you to easily follow each of the blogs within it in your feed reader of choice.

It's then a very personal decision regarding the value gleaned from each subscription as they whether to keep it.

The growth of social and shuttering of Google Reader combined into a perfect storm with many eschewing feed readers, instead choosing to get their updates via Twitter or Facebook. That's fine if you're always on but the more casual social user will miss a lot.

Recently, aligned with the push for the open and indie webs, there seems to have been a resurgence in subscriptions via RSS. It also seems that new feed reader software is being developed and released on a reasonably regular basis.

The passion is returning.

Perhaps it's time for blogrolls and OPML files to make a comeback too.

Status

When my 'Likes and Replies' plugin is done I'm considering building an integrated feed reader that will allow me to read and respond to items all within the same place.

As I wrote before, a self hosted reader tied to your own blog is a logical step; if we want to encourage responses to be owned by their authors at their own properties then it should be as simple as possible to create them.

Whether this is best achieved by an external feed reader that supports posting or one that is integrated with your blog is probably a matter of choice, ability and convenience.

Most readers already support direct sharing to social networks so it's not much of a leap for them to also cater for blogs (via existing methods like XML-RPC, Micropub or the WordPress REST API) with an interface and experience to facilitate it.

An integrated solution would be even simpler.

Status

Taking on the networksComments

While listening to the audio from a presentation by Tantek Çelik in 2014 (video on YouTube) I was struck by his contrasting the experiences offered by social networks and blogs/RSS readers.

He argues the most pivotal reason that social networks took over the web was they had "an integrated posting and reading interface" where you could see what everyone else was doing and instantly reply or add your own updates in situ.

But if you were reading blogs you would "go over to your feed reader, you'd read your feeds ... and then you go to a completely different interface ... to write a blog post."

Bang! Like a sledgehammer to the head.

It seems so obvious, too obvious, that we don't really see it until it's pointed out.

In situ!

The process we go through to read and write on the web is ridiculously disjointed and has been for too long.

Convergence

It's only now, in 2017, that something like Micro.blog is trying to blur the lines - there is the combined reading and posting interface but the content is hosted on your (micro)blog so you are reading other people's blogs and instantly replying or posting on your own.

It's a start but it's still not there. It's only for microblogs and only for those people actually on the service.

He goes on, however, to say that the silos are running out of ideas but here we are nearly three years later and the position is, sadly, even more entrenched with Facebook rapidly approaching two billion users.

That's over a quarter of the world's population.

Crazy!

The #indieweb movement takes us a little further by allowing us to interact with other "full" blogs from our own but we still have to go to one location to read, get the link for that then return to wherever it is that we write in order to respond.

Integrated

Why didn't the open web grow in the same manner and why, three years later, are we still asking the same questions? Tantek talks about learning from the silos and applying some of their best features to personal sites but it is scratching the surface.

Hearing him talk about integrated interfaces, my initial reaction was a combined feed reader/blogging environment.

It is becoming increasingly popular for enthusiasts to host their own web-based RSS readers so, surely it is a logical step to integrate this with your blog.

If you are able to read other's posts without your own environment then any action you take on them, like with Micro.blog, could be instantly posted to your blog and distributed from there.

Likes, mentions, replies, RSVPs, any type of webmention or length of posting could happen from within the reading interface - all from your own property.

Some people use browser extensions or bookmarklets to take certain actions directly from the source page, rather than returning to their own, but this is still only one part of a solution.

The Browser

Jonathan LaCour pointed me towards some thoughts he had written on the subject but I wanted to get my own down before reading his post.

He makes a number of similar points to those above but states that the browser itself is an ideal vehicle for uniting the consumption and creation experiences as they are the delivery mechanism.

I would argue that we would be better served by our own hosted solutions as we could then access them from any browser regardless of whether it was capable or personally configured.

Still, as he says, the building blocks are all there; it just needs someone to put them all together.

Taking on the networks

I added a filter to functions.php to truncate posts in the RSS feed of type 'status' that were longer than 280 characters, then insert a permalink at the end, so that they would play nicer with Micro.blog.

On the one hand it's good for it to be obvious they are longer posts without titles but, at the same time, it comes back to the issues of distribution and whether what we do on our own sites should be dictated by the means of distribution.

I'm torn between thinking "it's a tough call" and "what am I playing at?"

Status

Removing post titles from WordPress RSS feedsComments

I previously detailed a method of automatically replacing blank post titles so that I didn't have multiple items (posted from the Micro.blog app) listed as '(no title)' in the WordPress back end.

Micro.blog wants posts to not have titles but will treat certain text as blank, such as the date, hence the above.

If a status coming from a blog (via RSS) has a title, or one not in a recognised format, Micro.blog will treat it as a long form post and just display it as a title and link. Not ideal.

Jimmy Baum (@jimmymansaray) wanted to have just the date as status titles but this falls foul of these limitations.

So, how to allow different title formats on your own blog but then pass data to Micro.blog in such a way it displays those statuses correctly?

the_title_rss

WordPress allows you to customise your RSS feed on the fly by accessing different aspects of it and applying a filter. Just like modifying post contents prior to saving or display.

The post title in an RSS feed is logically called using the_title_rss() so we need to find a way to modify this based on the specific set of requirements.

Just as I do, Jimmy uses a category called 'microblog' with a dedicated feed so this is what we need to filter on. After a few tests it seemed the most reliable way was to check against the_category_rss() which lists the categories for the current post as would be displayed in the feed itself, like the below for my previous post:

<category><![CDATA[Podcast]]></category>
<category><![CDATA[Distribution]]></category>
<category><![CDATA[Microcast]]></category>
<category><![CDATA[Syndication]]></category>

We can then simply check for the presence of the required category within that string and return an empty title.

The code to do so should be as follows:

function remove_post_title_rss ( $title ) {
  $categories = get_the_category_rss();
  $pos = strpos($categories, 'microblog');
  if ( $pos != '' ) {
    $title = '';
  }
  return $title;
}

add_filter( 'the_title_rss', 'remove_post_title_rss');
Removing post titles from WordPress RSS feeds

The gap between the extremesComments

Dave Winer's post "I want my old blog back" throws up some interesting questions.

He discusses how his blog used to look before succumbing to the lure of Twitter which became the de facto home of short status-like posts for many of us.

With the launch of Micro.blog, especially the self-hosting option, we can reclaim the micropost for our own and, should we desire, list them right alongside our long form pieces.

But there are problems.

As Dave says: "everything needed a title to make Google Reader happy"

I enjoyed using Google Reader and was sad to see it shut down but, while it did a lot to popularise RSS and therefore consumption of blogs, it also did its fair share of harm.

Insistence on post titles among that.

Manton Reece, creator of Micro.blog, continues this complaint. The service wants your self-hosted micropost RSS feed to not have individual item titles (my custom feed doesn't even include the field) although it will treat just the date as though it were an empty title.

Status updates on Twitter and Facebook don't have titles, they don't need them. By not wanting titles in feeds powering Micro.blog Manton hopes to force more RSS readers to properly support them rather than duplicating the content.

It is not a difficult concept but most RSS readers have taken their lead directly from Google Reader and insist on titles.

Things need to be more flexible.

The middle ground

But it's not just microposts that suffer. As Dave continues:

There was a gap, items that were longer than 140, or had multiple links, but were too short to get a title. There was no place for them.

And he's absolutely right.

While blog themes will generally hide titles for status posts (if they have them) there is nothing to cater for the middle ground, those posts in-between. Admittedly, we can do what we like on our blogs using custom themes and CSS but the problem lies not locally but in the distribution and syndication.

The obsession with titles is a limiting factor but one we know is unnecessary due to our addiction to status updates on social networks.

We could put these posts on Facebook but why should we when the idea is to get everything all together on our own sites.

In its attempts to be more social, treating replies as new posts, Medium allows you to publish without titles yet still insists on using the first line as one.

How else?

Is it just logistics? After all, we need a way to reference these posts so how do we do it without a title of some description?

Do we need a better way of displaying and distributing this type of content?

The gap between the extremes

Pioneer spiritComments

I used to be an early adopter, I was among the first to put my name down for anything.

I joined Twitter early before hardly anyone even knew what it was, or what it could be. I signed up for every clone that came after and virtually every other service that appeared.

I have long abandoned social accounts strewn all across the web because I just had to be there and try "the new thing." Some accounts I've closed but most I've forgotten so, if the service survives, they exist as little forgotten pieces of a fragmented social identity.

Bragging rights

I was a beta tester for anything I could get my hands on, a total geek veering into nerd territory.

I used to think that being at the forefront was an adventure, an opportunity to see and shape the future but, much of the time, it was for the wrong reasons. I wanted to be first to be cool, for bragging rights.

The realisation that I didn't need to be this person, combined with a period of consolidation and stagnation on the social web, meant that I stopped diving headlong into things.

A few products seemed exciting but weren't really sticky for me and the dominance of the major players, gathering data into their silos, meant any new players didn't really stand a chance.

App.net was an attempt at breaking the control of the big social companies but, while it was a very solid product and had massive potential, seemed to come from the wrong place. It was born out of bitterness and resentment of how Twitter had treated the developer community.

It was incredibly capable but became synonymous with its proof of concept app Alpha - an ad free Twitter clone. Most couldn't see beyond this and its closure was, sadly, inevitable.

Is it time?

Now, micro.blog has got me excited again. It takes us back to the roots of the open web, to good old fashioned RSS and hosting our own content.

The pioneer spirit of the old web feels like it's making a comeback.

There may be a frustration at the status quo and the dominance (and long term uncertainty) of the major platforms, but micro.blog strikes me as a genuine attempt to build something that improves and simplifies short form web publishing whilst leaving control in the hands of authors.

Why should it survive when so many others have failed?

Although micro.blog will act like Twitter - there will be an app with a timeline where you follow others, reply and favourite posts - it is not just a social network but an extension of our existing blogs.

Control and ownership are paramount.

Against a backdrop of online abuse and fake news there is a real sea change, a rising swell of distrust. Algorithms are everywhere with their inherent biases and, although they promise to show you more of what you like, it is becoming harder than ever to see what you want.

Compromise

We have traded privacy for convenience but are always going to be on the losing side of that deal while networks rely on advertising and lock-in to survive. Everything on the social web is about compromise.

Medium's recent move may be a step in the right direction but, with a general reluctance to pay for content, there is no guarantee of a new business model succeeding.

App.net may have come too soon, maybe the web wasn't ready, or the environment that spawned it may have been too toxic for it to flourish.

But attitudes are changing. Perhaps the time is right for a new approach and something like micro.blog can succeed.

Things feel different now.

Pioneer spirit

Is federated microblogging about to become a reality?

Way back in 2008 Dave Winer wrote "Microblogging should be decentralized" arguing that reliance on a single, for profit platform such as Twitter was a bad idea.

Admittedly, this was against the backdrop of the fail whale but the idea of a federated service seemed sound - the catch would be that Twitter would have to enable it and build the required tools (or allow developers to build them and we all know how that went!)

In 2011 I wrote a post arguing that calls for a federated network were probably unrealistic but I just stumbled across a Kickstarter project that may have changed my mind.

Micro.blog

Manton Reece, a developer and podcaster, is writing a book called "Indie Microblogging" but also developing a new service called, unsurprisingly, micro.blog using RSS to deliver updates.

Micro.blog will be a combination of a paid platform to host microblogs (no advertising here) and a social network allowing you to follow updates from others, reply etc. It will also be open allowing you to connect your own blog rather than relying on the centralised hosting.

Twitter clones and alternatives have come and gone but this is something I would really like to see succeed so I've backed it on Kickstarter.

Why not check it out.

Is federated microblogging about to become a reality?

Is Facebook reinventing its image?Comments

Random NetworkIs Facebook being forced to reinvent itself adding, new features to reinvigorate its user base and placate the disaffected youth?

I have made no secret in the past that I am an admirer of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his vision for creating a socially connected world.

After the Facebook Home announcement in April I wrote:

"While I am not a big Facebook user I am fascinated by the principles of network science so the company interests me because it displays the most obvious adherence to these principles both in structure and terminology. Networks are about people and the connections we make with those people rather than the means of that connection."

Facebook suffers from having to accede to the business requirements needed to keep the company funded and the resultant advertising is a big turn off to many users.

Activity monitoring and the Open Graph supply the network with data about our online and social behaviour but we are still in the relative infancy of the social business model. Facebook appears to have problems either targeting us with relevant advertisements or, perhaps, getting relevant advertisers signed up with which to target us so needs to placate its users in other ways.

Drama

Recent studies have shown that teens have waning enthusiasm for the Facebook due, in part, to "stressful drama" and there are often jibes on other networks about the behaviour and ignorance of Facebook users so the findings are no surprise.

While relationships are the real social currency, users are increasingly taking to social networks for their supply of news and information about current events; social media even plays a part in shaping those events so it is understandable that networks should want to exploit this behaviour.

Facebook is looking to do just this in a number of ways.

Reinventing interaction

Facebook hashtagsFacebook's Graph Search aims to readily surface information related to a specific query but this goes way beyond just people. Being able to find interests, places, restaurants and local businesses all with the added benefit of social recommendation is a powerful departure from existing relationship based behaviour.

As I have previously suggested, the implementation of Graph Search could have an effect on user behaviour; if it is so simple to expose our actions then such a system might encourage some to moderate their behaviour. This would obviously benefit Facebook's reputation as a place of discourse and reduce the "drama" experienced by its members.

The introduction of hashtags had been rumoured for a while and its recent inclusion serves to add a new dynamic to the Facebook experience.

Hashtags are simplistic in nature on Twitter, allowing users to easily follow a specific topic in real-time. Google+ has now taken this one step further with auto-tagging and related tags which provides enhanced, more serendipitous discovery.

Facebook will be aiming to combine both as it takes a slice of the real-time conversation pie whilst iterating its hashtag implementation to facilitate enhanced discovery to act as a perfect counterpoint to Graph Search.

Newsfeed or news?

Facebook RSSAs is the way of the social web, rumour once again suggests that Facebook might be looking to further expand its remit by adding RSS consumption functionality to its toolset.

When Google announced that it would be shutting down Reader I suggested a possible way that Google+ could incorporate RSS feeds to replace it. Could it be that Facebook is moving to entice over Reader users who have not yet moved to another solution?

Although social networks, via user curation, can do a good job of disseminating news we are not on permanently checking our feeds. Subscribing to RSS feeds allows us to catch up with specific sources at our leisure so perfectly compliments the real-time flow of social.

Grow and adapt

Facebook has changed from its humble beginnings; it has moved from being solely the domain of university students to friends family and more via pages and subscriptions - it's not just for friends anymore.

The new design - which has yet to roll out to all users - and recent introduction of new features would seem to indicate that Facebook is trying to encourage a different breed of social networkers to use its service - those who are more focused on news, discovery and the intricacies of networking.

While the pressure is on to increase revenues via advertising and other initiatives there is equally a pressure to ensure that the user base is happy with the service. With everything that is happening this appears to be Facebook's biggest challenge and the long term fate of the network depends on getting it right.

Images by OpenBioMedical, myself and Techcrunch.

Is Facebook reinventing its image?

It’s time for App.net to earn its stripes.

App.netAfter the initial anger at the news of Google Reader's closing came the realisation that this could actually herald a new era for RSS based news consumption.

Feedly have advised they are developing "Project Normandy" a clone of the Reader API and will switch to it automatically and other services such as Digg have announced plans to build their own alternative.

As soon as the new broke developers started discussing how they could replace, or even improve upon, the Reader based ecosystem and there is one obvious place where this might bear fruit.

Google Reader's demise is a perfect opportunity for App.net to earn its stripes.

Opportunity

From the outside, App.net has become little more than a developer friendly Twitter clone where third-party apps are free to innovate but the intent was for much more - the possibilities are enormous.

What is App.net?

App.net is an ad-free, subscription-based social feed and API. App.net aims to be the backbone of the social web through infrastructure that developers can use to build applications and that members can use for meaningful interactions.

That what the about section says and Dalton Caldwell emphasised the need for a "financially sustainable realtime feed API & service" when making his initial statement of intent.

As far back as 2008 there was talk about the folly in Twitter effectively giving away its business for free so something had to change. App.net was born from frustration over Twitter's ongoing efforts to exert greater control over its own ecosystem whilst also appearing to make choices that favoured advertisers over users.

This might have been the genesis of App.net but the vision was far wider reaching and is summed up very simply in Caldwell's proposal:

"Realtime feed API"

A feed doesn't just have to be a stream of status updates. In fact, the App.net API will have been wasted if it achieves little more than being a Twitter clone.

Potential

If App.net wants to fulfil its potential and actually become a social backbone rather than "just another social network" it needs to take on projects such as this and solve real problems.

It’s time for App.net to earn its stripes.

How Google+ could save RSS.Comments

RSS is dead, long live RSS!

Google Reader logoThe announcement yesterday that Google would be, finally, sunsetting the Google Reader service was met with disappointment, anger and confusion but with a small counterpoint of "it will force innovation".

Some say it might even be the final nail in the RSS coffin.

The focus on Google+, both as a service and an all-encompassing social layer, is being placed firmly in the frame for Reader's demise with Brian Shih, former Google Reader product manager, taking to Quora to give his thoughts on why this is so: social.

Ever since Google killed the social aspect of reader, because of Plus, the writing has been on the wall for the RSS reader with Shih saying:

"Ironically, I think the reason Google always wanted to pull the Reader team off to build these other social products was that the Reader team actually understood social"

Focus

The official announcement justified the move by saying "usage of Google Reader has declined" and that the continuing focus will lead to better products.

Consumption of news and blogs via RSS has declined partly because of a shift towards social news and, for Google Reader specifically, because of that very move by Google: hamstringing their own product in order to migrate people's social activity to Plus.

The decision to streamline services into a cohesive structure and improve the user experience is welcomed but what hasn't happened yet in a number of cases is any move to integrate certain obvious products with Google+.

Blogger has always been an obvious target for integration followed very closely by Reader.

Saving Private RSS

Equally as ironic as social killing Reader, it could also be its saviour - Google+ in particular.

The recent Google+ profile redesign gives us more control over how our information is viewed and compartmentalised. As well as our "links" and "contributor to" sections why not have an option for RSS feeds both for Profiles and Pages?

Any RSS feeds we own could be published on our profile and, when circled, our feed items could automatically be placed into smart "Feeds" Circles displaying just those items from all the authors we follow as a river of news.

Why stop there?

Why not then give us the ability to categorise feeds just as we can create categories for posts within Communities? An RSS "Circle" could then become an amalgam of the best of both Circles and Communities. Could we then even stretch to allowing others to follow our curated RSS streams?

The emphasis is on getting as much data into Google+ as possible in order to generate a wealth of social signals; while Google has resisted adding the ability to auto-post, the social sharing of content from those authors we explicitly follow would be prime example of the good use of such behaviour.

Integrating elements of the technology behind managing RSS feeds, which currently exist in Reader, into Google+ and providing a much easier and more consistent means to re-sharing the content to our Circles fits with the apparent aims and simplifies the processes involved for the end-user.

Confused

Whilst I completely support Google's move to amalgamate services and combine our data to provide a more valuable, streamlined experience the methods employed sometimes seem haphazard and confused.

Integrating RSS feeds into Google+ would not only serve to continue the rich tradition built with Google Reader (thus appeasing current users) but also expose additional users to consuming news via RSS feeds (without, perhaps, even realising it) and meet Google's goals of sharing more data to the social product.

Update

Further discussion on this topic has suggested that Google could/should consider integrating its other news reading application Currents which might easily fit with the more visual direction Google+ is taking.

How Google+ could save RSS.

Subscription v CurationComments

Battle
The battle is drawn

I started writing this post over a week ago and in that time the argument has sprung up in many different places with advocates on both sides.

Content curation and social sharing is rapidly becoming widely established ranging from casual curation via link sharing on social networks to dedicated services such as Amplify. Its popularity is such that curation advocates are arguing that it is sounding the death knell for RSS readers (as distinct from the format) and traditional news outlets, especially now that Bloglines is being shut down, but is this really the case?

Personally, I don't believe so.

Curation is great - you can't deny that - and has been with us in one form or another for as long as the web. Sharing files or links on bulletin boards, forums, blog posts listing "best ofs" or "top 10 resources", and more recently sharing items from RSS feeds via Google Reader have all set the scene.

Getting news and links via your social circle allows you to consume things you would probably never find through your own surfing. Consuming social news also means that you don't have to manage your own news sources.

Should you wish to target your consumption you can use something like Twitter lists but it is not essential to actively play a part in the delivery of news beyond initially following people on your network of choice.

The down side

There are, however, distinct disadvantages to relying on your social circle for news. Firstly, social news is immediate - it appears in your stream and within no time at all is buried under a pile of new status updates. Recent reports mentioned that the effective life of a popular tweet was only half a day.

Could you imagine it if you could only see emails when they hit your inbox as they would be deleted within 12 hours?

We are not always plugged in to our social circles 24/7 and can even go for days without being connected (rare for us geeks but it does happen). There is, therefore, a high chance of missing items that you would normally like to read unless you are using lists to add your own level of curation to the mix.

It has been said that if news is important enough it will find you but it cannot do so if you are not there.

The second drawback of curated lists is that they invariably consist of mainly links with little explanation or guidance as to what they contain, especially within the 140 character restrictions of Twitter. You are, therefore, constantly forced to jump out to a browser or a different client in order to read the item. You may be able to peruse more tweets in a minute that posts in other places but how much value is actually gleaned from them?

The primary advantage of subscription based consumption is that your feeds are gathered in your reader and retained until marked unread just like your email. We can therefore consume items at our leisure days, weeks, even months after they were written should we want/need to. Providing the feed publishes full text you need not even leave the RSS reader.

The argument that news is just what's new and anything else doesn't matter is, frankly, wrong. In the wider context than tech journalism and the echo chamber we consume more than just news. We are not all chasing the latest and greatest. Research around a topic may rely on older information where newer work may not exist. If we restrict ourselves to the here and now we are missing out.

That perfect blend

Subscription alone means that we are limited to the feeds we have discovered thus requiring a greater effort on our part to search out new sources of information.

The sweet spot is a blend of subscription & curation: discovering sources via the curation efforts of our social circle so that we may then subscribe to those sources that interest us most. Just because one of our friends has shared a particular item there is no guarantee that they will then share further items from the same source (or that we see those shares even if they do) so the ability to then follow those sources directly is still a must.

We are entering a time where our online behaviour is altering but, as with so many other things, it is an evolution and not a revolution and our readers and applications must adapt to match this behaviour.

Perhaps RSS will alter over time but there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

Image by Lovro67

Subscription v Curation

Is fav.or.it a Google Reader replacement?Comments

favoritlogoJust before I went on holiday a discussion emerged around what the RSS feed service fav.or.it is or isn't starting with Louis Gray's post "Fav.or.it Beta Effort is Not My Favorite. Not Even Close". In this post he argues that fav.or.it is not living up to its initial potential citing a confusing interface, OPML import problems and "limitations" on the service in that you could only import 25 of your RSS feeds in to the system. Louis was also unhappy that any feeds imported were shared will all users of the service.

Mark Hopkins over at Mashable picked up on Louis' post and tends to agree with him but in less vociferous tones - asking the question "If you are seeing something that Louis and I are missing, please explain it to me".

Sure enough Nick Halstead, the mind behind fav.or.it, leapt in with both feet to show that Louis had missed the point, unfortunately the manner in which this was done may not have won him any friends - a fact which Sarah picks up on and explains the to-ing and fro-ing which have surrounded the incident.

What is fav.or.it?

According to Nick, fav.or.it is not a personal feed reading system - it is intended as a feed reading community where members add feeds which are shared with the community at large thus enabling users to discover more blogs in given topics. The other main focus of fav.or.it is the ability to pass comments made on fav.or.it back to the original blog post providing the blog platform supports the API but more on that later.

Louis may have got the wrong end of the stick by treating fav.or.it as an alternative to Google Reader but Nick has not helped in the matter. I have been testing fav.or.it and after a  new version was released which introduced new features was asked by Nick Halstead on Twitter if fav.or.it was a Google Reader replacement. I replied that I must be one of the few people that doesn't like Google Reader (I've never hidden the fact that I prefer Bloglines mainly due to the mobile view) but I said that I liked fav.or.it. Does that mean I think it could replace the Google offering? Not necessarily but the potential is there.

As currently packaged fav.or.it is not - and could not be - a Google Reader replacement so why then was Nick trying to pitch is as such on Twitter?

Selling your product

The key to launching any product - even one in a limited beta - is to market it correctly not just in getting the exposure it needs but in what you are exposing potential "customers" to. Fav.or.it seems to fail here as the message coming out of the camp is mixed or missing vital information.

If all you do is check out the fav.or.it website and read through the Overview and About sections you will be bombarded with great teasers about an integrated blogging solution (the feature which really excites me) but nothing about it being a news reading community or how that works - you can therefore understand Louis' frustrations with the sudden realisation once he has come to import his feeds.

I do indeed applaud the efforts that Nick and his team are making but feel that he is making a rod for his own back by not actually doing the selling correctly. Demonstrations at web 2.0 conferences may go off well but that is because you are talking directly to your audience, showing them how it works and fielding questions from those who don't get it. You can't do that with a static About page so need to be thorough in your description of the service or you will not catch the audience you intended.

The good, the bad and the ugly

I agree with Louis that the interface can leave you wondering what's going on and that "slices" are not handled in an intuitive way - I had to do things to understand how they worked rather than it being apparent or explained - there's the bad. The limitation on importing only 25 feeds could well just be to keep the beta under control so we'll let that slide for now. The ugly is definitely fav.or.it's handling of some feeds which I also noticed along with Louis. Take those operated through FeedBurner. As Louis says when you import a feed fav.or.it does not resolve the correct feed name - just says it is from http://feeds.feedburner.com - not good!

The good, however, is the comment handling which as mentioned passes comments back to the originating blog providing it is on a support platform or is linked in to the fav.or.it API - this feature alone made me seriously question hosting my blog on SharePoint and switching to WordPress which is already supported by fav.or.it.

The system works (albeit with a few glitches importing comments already on posts) and goes a long way to alleviate the worries bloggers have over the decentralisation of the conversation.

What next?

What does Nick need to do win over his audience? The way I see it there are a couple of options:

  • stick to the present product but market it properly - do not send mixed messages and fully explain exactly what it is/isn't
  • expand the present product by allowing more imports so that we can use fav.or.it as a true replacement of our current reader of choice 

Nick may be targeting the less tech savvy but his integrated solution really calls out to the more advanced web heads out there but if they cannot get all of their feeds within the system then a perfectly good feature will be going to waste.

Why not let those of us who currently use other systems to have fav.or.it as a personal platform? I hope the number of feeds you can import is extended - at the very least the import should check if the feed is already "in the system" and not have it count towards your import allowance. Personally, I can't see why you should get offended if the feeds you import are categorised and added to a database to allow others to discover them more easily but if people are concerned about it why not give us an option to opt out of the feed sharing?

The service needs a good mobile interface so that it can be used on the go - as I said, this is what I really like about Bloglines and is what keeps me there. If fav.or.it could match or better the mobile experience and give me integrating commenting to ALL of the feeds I want to
read then I would switch in an instant.

Your take

What would make you switch feed readers? Do you like what fav.or.it is doing or is it heading in the wrong direction?

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Is fav.or.it a Google Reader replacement?