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Weblog Entry

Information Convergence?

February 03, 2005

A few thoughts in response to the response on my response from yesterday. On convergence of content, and RSS in particular.

Yesterday we looked at the problem of information overload when too much is presented in a single feed. Some fantastic discussion has been happening here and elsewhere, so much so that a quick linkdump is in order. (Ironic? You decide.)

Stinky Links
Matt Haughey’s piece that kicked off the discussion. To be fair, I originally misquoted him (since amended), and my writing yesterday wasn’t meant as any particular sort of judgment on Matt or the others I called out by name. I had the outline written up early in January as a more general musing on the impact of combined feeds, his post threw it into sharper focus and prompted me to finish up and provide some examples.
On hybridised RSS feeds as evidence of a need for weblog refactoring…
Tom Coates took the ball and ran with it. A long and probing look at how all these small pieces loosely join, in practice. Some excellent musing into what all this is and how we got here.
Requirements for a tag-aware RSS reader

Okay, I didn’t see this one coming, but Brian Del Vecchio has taken the discussion and combined it with the darling discussion point of the day, folksonomies (AKA tags). Arguing for tag-awareness built into RSS readers, Brian takes it into a different realm and lays out a foundation for tagging content which has already hit the reader, to add more permanent storage and classification of useful content. Though it may be some great extra functionality, this doesn’t really solve my problem.

Built-in tagging support that would fit into this particular discussion would be something that allows me to filter content before I even read it. Essentially the tags would have to act as keywords for a search, proactively applied to dish up only entries matching the terms I’ve chosen. But I’d have some major reservations on how you would go about building the UI for this kind of idea. Would I have to select my tags every time the reader polled remote sites? No, that’s silly — what if my mood changed and I wanted to edit the saved tag list? That shouldn’t be a manual process every time.

The obvious solution is to save different sets of tags as “views” of my feeds, which actively includes or excludes unread content items based on my terms. Quite serviceable and probably easy to implement (since NetNewsWire already lets you search across all your feeds), but then I’m only seeing a small portion of content that fits into those narrower terms. I’m not convinced I’d use that sort of custom view often, or even rarely. Likely there would have to be some form of category/tag support built into a feed itself, but then we’d move back into the territory of providing separate feeds for each facet; do feeds at the category level really make sense? For some, yes. It would be interesting to play with this sort of tagging idea anyway, since I’m shooting down a theoretical model that I probably don’t fully understand yet.

Anyway, so here we are with this can of worms that a bunch of people have apparently all been thinking about for a while. There seemed to be consensus on here yesterday that people who read this particular site would prefer to see separated feeds; that’s only a small data set though. I doubt anyone really needs to shake up what they’re doing drastically at this point, as a couple of alternate feeds are pretty easy to build and should satisfy most everyone. (Incidentally, I’m finding it highly ironic that a bunch of web designers are saying we, the users, want to see your site this way. Shouldn’t we know better? Then again, we’re also the ones getting used to ideas like client-side CSS and RSS that allow the user to completely bypass our work anyway, so at least we’re being consistent… I think.)

Tom points out that it may not be quite that easy. Due to small problems with each of the services in the chain — the lack of formatting in del.icio.us, for example — a unified feed is not the ideal it might be. In fact, a significant chunk of my aversion to these content-rich feeds is the sheer number of items; one dump of del.icio.us links, one Flickr photo, and one article a day might be my threshold. One single photo, or one aggregate view of all photos posted within a day would be roughly similar in my mind, the net result being a single new item in NetNewsWire to click on instead of the constant stream I’m getting now. That’s actually not so far away, either — most del.icio.us implementations I’ve seen are already doing exactly that. The Flickr team is probably on this already (we’re smart, us Vancouverites).

But remember that we’re basing all this on only two or three services so far; what happens when someone’s feed integrates those with upcoming.org events, MSN search results, and craigslist listings (all currently obtainable in RSS)? My three-item threshold just got crossed, and that’s scratching the tip of the iceberg. RSS isn’t just about weblogs, either. Throw in stock quotes, bank statement summaries, press releases, and all the other data you might expect companies and individuals to want showing up in their feedreaders, and we’re heading into murky waters where relatively flat RSS files are replacing complex data views (dashboards, anyone?) in a way that might not make sense.

Convergence will continue until we have a better idea for sorting out all of this. I suspect Tom’s final wondering of how we might re-define the weblog holds some part of the solution: Just as we’re all different people with different interests, so will each site accordingly treat the technology. This site in particular has never been a personal weblog, so much as a series of articles and musings on design and the web. A bunch of camera phone pictures from the pub would never fit here. If I were to start posting Flickr photographs that support my main articles, on the other hand, I’d deem that essential content that belongs in my main feed. Integrating content pieces on a per-item choice feels like the right direction to move toward; once a site’s focus is clearly defined, then it shouldn’t matter what the content is or where it came from, as long as it’s relevant. The task is much harder on a purely personal weblog with no defined focus, though I suspect there could be an argument for even these sites having an inherent focus whether it’s observed or not.

Ultimately it’s up to the author to make the proper decision for their own site of course, but it should be based on appropriate judgment of what the reader expects, too. In the end, if the readers don’t like the author’s choices, they can always just walk away and find another site more aligned with their preferences. Ah, the beauty of a free market.


1
February 03, 10h

This (and the previous post) have been extremely interesting to me.

Following on from a discussion that took place on my own weblog ( http://xrl.us/eyxb ), I am applying the finishing touches to a system that will allow personalised RSS feeds (based on taxonomies) for each subscriber.

The idea is simple: The subscriber chooses which “tags” he would like to keep abreast of, then my system generates a unique URI for a corresponding feed. The user can reconfigure his feed at time.

This makes for a much more useful RSS feed and helps to eliminate much of the noise that we are all subjected to with our various subscriptions.

2
February 03, 11h

As an aside, but quite related to the subject at hand, is there any push to develop encrypted feeds? Some of the items you listed (stock quotes, bank statements, etc.) seem to hint that the RSS technology needs to group and morph to accomodate the necessity of privacy.

Of course, I have been known to mention something in this manner only to get hit with about a dozen responses of “it’s already being done over here or over there”. Heck, at least I’ll know… if it’s not being done, anyone willing to take up the challenge?

3
Dave S. says:
February 03, 11h

Charles — lots of people would be interested in secure RSS. It’s possible to password-protect the file with Apache, but the reader has to support it, I believe. You’re still getting unencrypted text in the stream though.

4
February 04, 01h

Dave, I agree completely with your desire to use tags arriving with the content for filtering. That fits very closely with how many of us filter incoming email. I believe that Mozilla Thunderbird may have some support for this kind of filtering on RSS feeds. I’ll have to explore further.

5
February 04, 01h

Charles, the most common method for providing privacy protection for content delivered via HTTP is to use SSL for point-to-point encryption. It would work for RSS and Atom just as easily as it currently works for HTML.

There is a large body of standards (from OASIS and W3C) for securing XML for Web Services. I am not familiar with the discussion in the Atom community on the subject, but the main issues would be implementation: how would you take an Atom document and encrypt it, sign it, etc.

I’ll do some reading on the subject and get back to you.

Read more about Web Services Security:
http://del.icio.us/Hybernaut/web-services+security

6
February 04, 06h

Another curious thing I’ve noticed with one of my subscribed feeds, Boxes and Arrows. They implement the use of MT for their website at this time, but in order to make sure the first article remains the same for a while, the pre-date the article for February 1. Since this was posted at the first of the year, everytime my feed updated, this article was always at the top.

I just recently figured out why this first one wasn’t changing at all. A unique use of predated material, but something that works kind of odd in Firefox when I added that feed to my bookmarks toolbar. Every time I checked the list, it was the first one in the list, so I assumed there were no updates. Imagine several of these happening in a combined feed of all subscribed feeds… this one remains at the top for a month until they replace it with a new one… I wonder if I should possibly point this out to them.

7
joshua says:
February 06, 10h

Drupal (drupal.org) provides hundreds of RSS feeds out of the box. Every taxonomy term (category) has its own feed, and you can combine them quite easily. If you feel like changing the terms, you can edit the url. Pretty nice system.

Also, something similar to your filtering of tags idea is provided by PulpFiction, the MacOSX RSS reader. I haven’t used it since 1.0 (it was way slow back then, but has supposedly improved a lot) because I prefer a web-based system (Bloglines for now). Anyway, it works just like Mail.app; create rules, and posts get filtered into folders. I think NNW has this feature now too. This may be the way to go, as I’m not sure that a content producers, we can provide all the implementations that every user would want. It should really be on the shoulders of the aggregator developers (though we can do a lot to help!).

8
January 26, 16h

I think Secure RSS could as well kill the RSS feeds on the open net.