Elsewhere

What Tumblr Should Do: #1 Follow Outsiders

I am inaugurating a new series here: What Tumblr Should Do. I am simply going to offer suggestions of things that the folks behind Tumblr should implement or change.

#1 Follow Outsiders

Tumblr has a large and growing community of users, but it doesn’t include everybody, and probably never will. There are many folks out there that I would like to follow, but since they aren’t using Tumblr I can’t just click a follow button to start having their posts magically appear in my Tumblr dashboard. But I would like to.

Yes, I know I can follow their RSS feed, or go back to their site periodically, or use any of a dozen other approaches. However, that’s annoying, since I want to experience these folks as if they were posting in Tumblr. I like the Tumblr experience as an active reader and curator: I want to be able to easily follow their insights in the Tumblr stream, and not have to wander around the web. It makes reposting easier and liking possible. And I deeply dislike the sterility of RSS readers: I don’t want to be an RSS readerer, I want to tumble.

Of course there are a list of issues that arise, but at the very least Tumblr could implement a first version by allowing me to add the RSS feed of an outside blog to a list of outsiders I want to follow. Tumblr could instrument things so that when those outsiders post and their RSS feeds are updated, the stories would be parsed and placed into my dashboard.

I think the most sensible way to do this — technically — would be to create a ‘ghost’ account for any outsider that any Tumblr user follows. If multiple Tumblr users want to follow the same outsider, there would be only a single update going on. And then all the reblogs, likes and follows could be associated with the ghost account.

At some point, someone with such a ghost account might opt to switch over, and claim the account, and perhaps abandoning their outside blog. Who knows? But I know I would benefit from this feature and so would other Tumblr users, even if it doesn’t necessarily swell the ranks at Tumblr.

Shouldn’t we open the doors and pull the wider world into Tumblr?

Update: 9:20am — @kthread answered ‘+1 I would definitely use this, and would in fact pay for it as a premium Tumblr service’

Update: 9:47am — @lelapin points out that Tumblr has a feature designed to allow import of RSS feeds. I recently tested that approach, and it just doesn’t work (see Fossilized Tumblr Feature: Importing Via RSS). Besides, if it did, it wouldn’t work as I wanted. And of course there is no economy of scale: if you and I and a 1000 others all import Umair Haque this way it would be 1002 separate RSS imports, and there would be no convergence of reblogs, likes, etc. No, it should be implemented inside Tumblr in an intentional way.

Pulse Pulled: The Web Of Flow Threatens The Web Of Pages

Kara Swisher reports that gee-whiz iPad app Pulse has been yanked after very public praise yesterday at the Apple developer conference might be a tempest in a teacup. Perhaps — as many suggest — senior NY Times execs don’t know that Pulse is ‘just’ an RSS reader. Or is this step one in a way against RSS?


Mike Masnick probes at the edges of this:

Basically, this app is your standard everyday RSS reader, the same sort of RSS reader that has been available all over the place for years. It’s using the NY Times official RSS feed, because the NY Times put it out there. For the NY Times to then complain about it doing so is bizarre:

The Pulse News Reader app, makes commercial use of the NYTimes.com and Boston.com RSS feeds, in violation of their Terms of Use*. Thus, the use of our content is unlicensed. The app also frames the NYTimes.com and Boston.com websites in violation of their respective Terms of Use.

I’m guessing their concern is with the fact that the RSS reader is a paid app. This likely this goes back to an issue I raised more than five years ago, about companies who were putting “non-commercial” licenses on their RSS feed. How do you determine what’s “non-commercial” in RSS? If I use that RSS feed as a part of my job, is that commercial? If I use it in a fee-based app, is that commercial? Either way, it’s hard to see how this is really commercial use in any way. Yes, the RSS app is a fee-based app, but it’s not “selling” the NY Times’ content. It’s just letting anyone access the free content that the NY Times put out for just this purpose. It’s selling the software. In the same way Dell or HP or whoever sells a computer and lets people “access” the NY Times website.

I don’t think this is about RSS, per se. It’s about the general trend into the web of flow away from the web of pages. And the Times and other media giants will resist this.

The web of flow that is emerging — based on RSS originally, but now the social web — turns pages into URL handles: not for navigation but for fetching. Instead of playing nice, and clicking on links to visit the hosting site, the flow will suck up the content at the end of a URL and pull it into a the stream. So instead of seeing a NY Times story on their site, the Twitter client or Pulse reader will display the piece in context.

The media want people to travel to their old web of pages — that they spend some much time editing, organizing, and curating — so that they can make money on ads (oh, and maybe people will look at other pages too).

The answer to this won’t be to block the inexorable web of flow from happening. The answer is to put flow ads into the posts being served up in the flow apps. Instead of fighting with Pulse the NY Times ought to be figuring out a way to build micro ads into the RSS that Pulse is using, or the shortened URLs that everyone uses in the microstream.

As just one approach, a shortened URL could be associated with not only a piece of content — the news story on /Message or the NY Times — but also with a micro ad, which could be rendered by readers or flow apps, like Tweetie running on my desktop or my iPhone, or in Pulse on the iPad. The responsiblity of Pulse and Tweetie would be to display the micro ad if and when the story is expanded in place. If the user just clicks through, no problems.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Technorati Adds Favorites: RSS Reader 2.0?

Dave Sifry IMed me to draw my attention to Technorati’s new Favorites, which I was looking at just then, in the form of my pal, Doc Searls:

Dave told me that the whole idea had real legs:

  1. Technorati users can each create their own favorites, as well as look at the favorites of other well-known bloggers like Doc. (This suggests a future social dimension, where people get to look at the Favorites of their Favorites, right?)

  2. Users can enable their blogs or websites with a recently-updated list of posts from favorites, which is perhaps more interesting that a static blogroll. There is an associated seach capability, allowing readers to find stuff, limited to the context of the Favorites domain.

  3. Of course, each user can simply use the Favorites at Technorati as a time-sequenced stream of all posts from all your favorite blogs.

I immediately created a favorites list from the stuff I have been most actively reading, and embedded it over there in the left margin as a widget (small formatting glitch, which I hope they will work out soon).

I will see how it works to take the RSS feed from my favorites as the starting point of my daily wandering around, but it seems a better approach than the alternatives.

Dave also tells me that they at work on a dynamic version of the favorites, based on what you are linking to in your blogging. Now that sounds really optimal. I don’t have to think about updating my blogroll over time, no value judgments: its just based on the empirical realities of what I am linking to. I can’t wait.

Technorati must be on the verge of creating a client, to depose the RSS readers. The perfect scenario: getting delivered to me, on my desktop, exactly what I would like to read if I only could have looked inthe future and decided what was most pertinent. Well, one take at the closest approximation to that is likely to be based on the most recent pattern of the links I am creating. Neat.

Steve Gillmor on Idiot Wind

 

Steve Gillmor says I was way off with my recent post about RSS (Reads, Not Feeds). (In fact, he titled his post, Idiot Wind, which might be his characterization of my speaking voice, but I doubt it.)

Stowe Boyd’s post about RSS is flawed. Flawed in that it is totally wrong. Scoble is right. Stowe is not. RSS will continue to dominate and eventually suck all the oxygen out of the glorious Web as we currently adore it. We as in Stowe. What possibly leads Stowe to the conclusion that RSS will not absorb all of the wonderful (sic) Web characteristics like blogrolls, whirling beanies, and other smoke and awe? RSS is the Web, Stowe. It’s the Web on steroids. It saves time. It wins.

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Hmm. As I recall the context was Dave Winer trying to rally support so that RSS would “bust through” if certain fundamental changes take place in the Web, including fairly major ones, like centralization of all subscriptions. Dave was responding to Fred Wilson’s opinion that RSS is not "brain-dead simple" enough for everyone to get.

My argument is simple: I don’t like RSS readers, and unless someone comes up with a set of appliances (which could certainly exploit RSS, note) that match the way I like to wander around on the web, I don’t think they will come to replace the foraging mode that I have found to be most productive. I am holding out for something closely allied with instant messaging, where RSS feeds related to buddies would alert me to new posts, and then I could click-through to read them in situ (this is the fabled Nerdvana client I have been wishing for out loud for so long).

And, no, Steve, I haven’t forgotten how to breathe just because I think this first generation of RSS tools are inadequate, even if Robert Scoble’s use of them has become as natural as breathing for him.

Steve Boyd on RSS “breaking through”

Dave Winer is poking at an important issue — How RSS can bust through — building on Fred Wilson’s statement that “RSS has to become brain-dead simple to use.” Fred was writing about RSS as a replacement for many sorts of commercial email — newsletters and the like. Dave is making a case for helping RSS to “break through”, meaning a more widespread adoption, I guess. But, ultimately, I think he’s on the wrong track, based on these points:

  1. It must be easy to find relevant feeds. Too much hunt and peck is involved. The reason My.Yahoo and iTunes have been successful is that they centralize a lot of the discovery, they make it easy to find stuff you might be interested in. But not easy enough to qualify for brain-dead simplicity. That’s why we’re working on reading lists, trying to drive adoption of the new practice by the industry. If, when you get started using an aggregator, it gives you some interesting feeds, and then as time goes by gives you more, without you having to do anything, that’s going to make the finding of relevant feeds a passive thing. Until you’re ready to take over, you can ride the bus without learning to drive. I think this is going to get us another 15 or 20 percent of web users into the RSS world.
  2. Subscription has to be centralized. When Microsoft invited me in, in April of last year, to hear their RSS strategy, I think they expected me to object to their centralizing subscription for Windows users; they were surprised when I didn’t. I had already come to the conclusion that subscription had to be handled in the browser, because that’s where the impulse to subscribe happens. We knew this back in 2001, when we implemented the Radio coffee mug that made subscription a one-click operation. The problem of course is that our method only worked for Radio. Any of these techniques is going to work with only one destination, that’s why there has to be just one destination, why subscription needs to be centralized.

    Microsoft didn’t go far enough. They only solved the problem for Windows. In 2006 that’s not even a very large part of the world, because a large number of people who subscribe, do it through web-based services like Bloglines or My.Yahoo, and more will over time. The Microsoft approach doesn’t work for them. If I subscribe to something using their desktop service, it only registers with software that runs on my desktop. It doesn’t inform My.Yahoo, for example. Now, Microsoft argues that Yahoo can install a toolbar that runs on the desktop, but come on, we don’t want a proliferation new stuff loading into the OS. That’s how we got in all the malware trouble. We don’t need to open that kind of Pandora’s Box. What we need is a centralized subscription public service. It’s not a technological problem, it’s a political and economic problem. In order for RSS to grow to the next level, tech companies have to stop seeking lock-in on subscriptions.

    I’ve suggested to Yahoo that they run this service. Of the top three net companies (the others being Google and Microsoft) they’re the least controversial, imho. All that would be required is that they support OPML export for My.Yahoo subscription lists, and commit to keeping it open for perpetuity. The last part is the hard part of course. Now perhaps we could get a university involved, they have politics too, but people seem to trust universities more than they trust for-profit businesses. Something to think about.

    Now once we have a single place for subscriptions, which is a real tall order, then all kinds of services can be built off that. It’s like the domain name system again, and perhaps that’s the way to implement it. We’re lucky that RSS is still a fairly close-knit community, and there is leadership that works, somewhat. The small tech companies and at least two of the large ones (Apple, Google) don’t participate, they blaze their own trails, but the publishing industry and most of the large tech companies are still in the mode of cooperating. So now may be a time it can work. And reading lists buy us some time.

Yikes. Where to begin?

First of all, the problem of finding ‘relevant feeds’ — Dave seems to implicitly believe this is an area that has matured, and that the current notion of Yahoo directories or iTunes music distribution should simply be repurposed. I don’t think so. Just take the example of music and iTunes. iTunes is a great service if you know what you want to buy, but if you are trying to find new music, a solution like Last.fm or Pandora is a lot more useful. Last.fm is a social solution, where the music playing habits of other, likeminded individuals can be used to inform you of music you might like to listen too. I have found my musical horizons greatly expanded in this way. Note that this from-the-edge solution has no center: while there is a giant directory of music at Last.fm, the most obvious way to get at music is through other people. The approach is totally socialized. So the very hard problem of finding stuff that’s good to read on subjects of interest is made somewhat easier: we seek to read what others we respect are reading. So the notion of reading lists has real merit, but why do they need to be centralized? If our writing is distributed, can’t our reading lists?

If Dave means that we are migrating to a My.Yahoo model, where we pull stuff we like onto a page, or into a reader, I opt out. I want to roam around, not be caged in, even if it is a cage of my own making.

If he is implicitly taking the stand that RSS readers are the best and only response to the “information overload” problem (a la Scott Karp’s “Focus on the User, Not the Technology”), I don’t buy it.

Secondly, the notion that subscription must be centralized — why, Dave? The experience of the web is managed a page at a time, as we drift around reading things and following links and searches. The RSS reader experience is a piss-poor way to experience the web, decoupling the sense of place associated with direct experience of blogs and other sites. There is an implicit assumption of efficiency, like Scoble’s contention that he would be unable to consume the amounts of writing that he does if he had to actually browse to the various locations. But that argument is something like asserting that a seven day tour of Europe that takes you to thirteen capitals is “better” than one that only involves two countries. Quantity has its points, but it is not the point.

I believe that we haven’t seen the killer app for RSS yet. It’s not RSS readers — which provide a layer of mediation into the Web that is patently bad. I don’t want all meals pre-cut into bite-sized portions. I want to see the stuff in author’s sidebars, their blogrolls, read the comments, look at the pictures. I want to feel the road, spend the extra day in Paris, check out the blog design. It’s a total experience, and the ersatz, deskinned environment inside of RSS readers is sterile by comparison.

The killer app will be the appliance — or set of appliances — that embody the metaphor of travel on the web: that will allow me to more easily stay up to date on ‘places’ and people of interest, to plan and execute ‘travel’ to those ‘places’ on the web, keep notes on my travels, and find new places to travel to.

If efficiencies are the issue, how about precacheing all the places I like to visit, based on RSS notification? Then I can still get out of the RSS reader box, but cut the time involved.

So I think RSS will play a big role in ‘active reading’ but it will not be the experience itself: it will support the experience, in various ways, but not subsume it.

I am really arguing for an esthetic appreciation of the experience of being what I have been calling the “active reader” while Dave’s focus is on the more-or-less industrial scaling of RSS as the foundation of a new model of communication. But I don’t think the centralization of subscription is needed, or even attractive. On the contrary, initiatives like memeorandum show the promise of new forms of aggregation — leveraging RSS under the hood — that reveal social connections and distributed conversation across groups of people. Memeorandum is an example of an experience made much less rich when presented in the RSS readerized format: a stream of chunks with no apparent relationships.

The web is not a pipe, streaming bits onto our eyeballs. It is a world of people, and the social aspects are the most interesting. It is people that are the best source of guidance, advice, and pointers to things worth reading. Throw away your readers, and let’s beg the app makers to come up with tools that make the experience of roaming and reading the web richer, not homogenized.

Attensa Meets Performancing: Something Has To Go

I got a demo of the brand spanking new Attensa RSS products — one integrated into Outlook (which I don’t have, being a Machead), and an online version — and immediately after trying some of the apparently cool features, ran into some stumbling blocks.

Here’s a screenshot of the Outlook version (click for fullsize):

Here’s a screenshot of the Online version (click for fullsize):

The problems I had?

  1. First, the Firefox plugin that would allow me to automagically discover RSS feeds on pages I am viewing doesn’t come with the free Online version. Apparently you have to have/buy the Outlook version. So I guess you have to manually find and insert the RSS feeds. I have learned that Attensa plans to unbundle this, but at the moment, you’re stuck.

  2. So, I did add some feeds manually, including importing an OPML file. Seems to work, but creating folders (“categories”) is very counter-intuitive. Apparently the only way to do this is to move feeds to a new “category”?

  3. And then, the headaches started. I was using the neato web view, which displays the post being looked at in the native HTML, not the RSS stream. I saw a piece I wanted to post about, selected some text, and cnrl-clicked on it — this brings up the Performancing blog editor (which despite its bugs and flaws, I still use all the time). However, the link pasted into the new post in Performancing was to the Attensa Online Reader, not the post being displayed in Web view.

Here’s that screenshot (click for fullsize):

I am a bad test subject, though, since I really don’t want a reader, anyway. That’s a rude approximation of what I really do, which is wandering around, as a forager. But if new tools don’t play nice with the ones I am already comfortable with, they never find a place in my world. I will suspend judgment on Attensa’a attempts, here, until I can see what the toolbar for Firefox holds.

RSS Readering, Redux

Paul Kedrosky (RSS Sucks) and Scott Karp (How to Fix RSS) are tapping into the inadequacies of RSS, but they are off target.

Karp carps about the terminology, as if using ‘subscribing’ instead of ‘syndicating’ would solve the real broken parts of the whole RSS mess. Paul does a better job enumerating real problems, which can be summarized as feed overload.

But the real problem is that the entire user experience offered up by RSS newsreaders is wrong. I wrote about this at some length last year in a post called RSS Readering: Why RSS Readers Are No Good For Me (And You Too, I Bet). In particular, I made the core point:

I tried them for a time, and then dropped out. These annoy me for similar reasons: I don’t like the Pez dispenser feel, where all posts are like another, and you assume the role of a pigeon in a Skinner box, hitting the button to make the pellets roll out.

I have been lusting for something, a new solution, that actually parallels my most rewarding reading experiences. The way this generally works is like so:

I stumble across some link, or reference — perhaps in an email, or in the midst of reading a post in a browser — and I decide that I would like to invest some attention to this concept, or meme. Note: I am not just deciding to click a link and go to a specific page — which is all typical browsers do. I am deciding to investigate the theme, thread, meme, or whatever, and assimilate and collate information about it.

I then use a variety of techniques to uncover what I am interested in:

  • I might click on tags embedded in the post, that take me to Technorati, or I might simply decide to search at Technorati or Del.icio.us for references to the piece or for tags to the topic or the names of individuals writing about it.
  • I might follow backlinks, from the post back to earlier sources: other posts, or articles.
  • I might ask specific contacts of mine what they know about the object of my interest.
  • I might write a post, summarizing what I have uncovered, and offering some thoughts on the subject

But what I seldom do is just sit there reading a stream of posts, based on their chronology, or other intrinsic factors. No, I am on a hunt, skipping from place to place, and these tools constrain me more than they free me.

So the problem is not RSS, which should be just a low-level protocol that tools rely on. The problem is the amazingly static and non-innovative way we are using RSS.

The basic metaphor of having all RSS streams converge into an app like NewsGator or Bloglines is too limiting.

I want RSS threaded into other social aspects of the web, like the Nerdvana concept I have been hawking for a long time: an integration of RSS feeds into the instant message buddylist, so that I can be notified when someone I am interested in has posted something recently, just like I can about their online presence, except in this case it is their onblog presence.

At any rate, Scott and Paul are attracting attention to a real problem, although the problem is the RSS reader model we have adopted.

RSS Readering: Why RSS Readers Are No Good For Me (And You, Too, I Bet)

I am constantly fiddling around with RSS readers and various strategies for “RSS readering” — William James remarked that you coin a new word at your own peril, so verbing “RSS reader” may be dangerous for me, but I do so with a plan.

I want to be an RSS reader: by which I mean to say that I would certainly rather (in theory) receive alerts about posts and — perhaps even the posts themselves — within some some window of time of their being posted. However, I haven’t generally liked the various RSS readers I have tried. And I have tried gazillions.

I tried NewsGator integrated with Outlook when I was still (hiss) living on a Windows laptop. Yes, in principle I keep my email client open all day, and, yes, in some way getting email is similar to RSS-transmitted posts. But the email metaphor, of folders and messages doesn’t quite jibe with my experience of browser mediated blog reading. So, ultimately, I dropped it.

The same is true of standalone RSS reader tools, like NetNewsWire and Fire. I tried them for a time, and then dropped out. These annoy me for similar reasons: I don’t like the Pez dispenser feel, where all posts are like another, and you assume the role of a pigeon in a Skinner box, hitting the button to make the pellets roll out.

I have been lusting for something, a new solution, that actually parallels my most rewarding reading experiences. The way this generally works is like so:

  • I stumble across some link, or reference — perhaps in an email, or in the midst of reading a post in a browser — and I decide that I would like to invest some attention to this concept, or meme. Note: I am not just deciding to click a link and go to a specific page — which is all typical browsers do. I am deciding to investigate the theme, thread, meme, or whatever, and assimilate and collate information about it.
    • I might click on tags embedded in the post, that take me to Technorati, or I might simply decide to search at Technorati or Del.icio.us for references to the piece or for tags to the topic or the names of individuals writing about it.

    • I might follow backlinks, from the post back to earlier sources: other posts, or articles.

    • I might ask specific contacts of mine what they know about the object of my interest.

    • I might write a post, summarizing what I have uncovered, and offering some thoughts on the subject

  • I then use a variety of techniques to uncover what I am interested in:

But what I seldom do is just sit there reading a stream of posts, based on their chronology, or other intrinsic factors. No, I am on a hunt, skipping from place to place, and these tools constrain me more than they free me.

What I would rather have is what I imagined Flock might be (and well might be, in later incarnations): a browser-based solution, perhaps a suite of plugins, that augment the browser-based “readering” experience. One part of that might be a buddylist-ish sort of minimal RSS tool that would simply remind me that people I like have posted something somewhere. I have a strong bias that this should be implemented along the lines of what the geniuses at 2entwine implemented in Gush, about which I have written a lot in the past, including various posts this year about the Nerdvana client. I have stopped using Gush because I find the Mac version painfully slow, but I loved having a multi-headed instant messaging client that included an RSS reader. I had tried to persude them to strip down the RSS reader to be just an alerting tool, and to conflate the IM buddylist and the RSS alerts into a single list, rather than two separate worlds, but, alas, the Brothers Carr never did get around to those tweaks.

So, when I recently was alerted to RSS reader doings at Yahoo, my mind filled in all the gaps, and I dreamed that dream again. However, while the new Yahoo Mail Beta does in fact include a now conventional RSS reader integrated with it — and it appears to work as it should, given the email metaphor — it won’t actually fit in with the model of readering I am chasing after. However, Yahoo is rolling out feed alerts, as part of Yahoo Alerts (although I didn’t see it running, yet), which may implement part of what I’d like, since these alerts can be sent through IM. But Yahoo and the other major IM players don’t want to provide IM capabilities as Firefox plugins: they want us to use their proprietary clients.

The rest of the browser modules might include these:

  • A tag browser: given a tag, or a boolean expression involving tags, present an ordered list of sources (both authors and blogs). This could be a Technorati plug-in, perhaps.

  • A backward link and forward link sniffer: give the current webpage, collate other pages pointing to that page, and a list of the pages referenced. This I envision as something like the radar widget found in video games, in a way. But instead of being displayed in a circle, two ordered lists would be fine.

  • A Del.icio.us module: given the current page, who of my friends has bookmarked the page, and what have they said? And I would like to get away from the javascript contraption that I use for Del.icio.us now, where bookmarking a page moves me to Del.icio.us, and creates a problem with use of the back command.

  • A journaling module: I would like to drop an anchor in my clickstream when I decide to start some exploration and to drop a second one when I stop, and be able to retrace my steps at some later point, or to pick up the thread again, and add more stuff to it later on. I have written a bunch about “search as a shared space” vis-a-vis various services like Jeteye, but I would really rather have something embedded in the browser experience that I could also publish in some way, to allow it to be shared with others.

  • A IM presence module: I’d like to be able to share the location I am currently browsing as my iChat/AIM presence, and I would like to have my circle of friends do the same. Of course, people would like to turn this off when they are reading Fleshbot (not me, but others might), but in general it would be a simple source of new sources of clueful information.

There’s more modules that could be conceived, but I think I have waved my hands enough to get across what is profoundly off about RSS readers: they don’t work the way I read. I need support for active reading, or “readering” as I dubbed it, which is a very social activity, not a solitary one. I am no pigeon in no cage.

It could be argued that my needs or wants are wildly atypical — I am a blogger, I have more time on my hands than others, blah blah blah. I maintain that because I am a blogger, and heavily invested in it, I am willing to do manually what others don’t have time or patience to do, even though in the final analysis it leads to a much richer experience of the web.

Now all I need is for inventive souls out there to start building the bits and pieces of my dream world. It shouldn’t be hard for someone to build an RSS alert plugin for Firefox, should it? Maybe someone already has done that. But I suspect that the other pieces of the puzzle have yet to be built. I can dream, can’t I?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...