Right then – I feel a bit like I’ve got the wind behind me and it might not last so I’m going to plough right on into another subject before the demons of fear crawl up my leg. Dave Shea’s written a really insightful little piece (after Haughey) on the current trend for hybridised RSS feeds merging del.icio.us feeds and Flickr photostreams with normal weblog posts. Here’s some of the best stuff:
The problem I have is quite similar to what Matt describes: when new items show up in my newsreader from people I enjoy reading, Iím often mildly disappointed when itís simply a new camera phone image, or a couple of sparsely-described links to stuff Iíve already seen. Iíll go one further though, and say this about the practice: itís really damaging the signal-to-noise ratio of content I otherwise love.
And all I can say is that I couldn’t agree more. My RSS feed at the moment is a monstrous atrocity. It’s vile and clumsy and ugly and infuriating. But it’s as vile as it is because that’s where the software and systems that I want and need to use have led me. I want to fix it. I’d love to make it better, but to do so I’d have to sacrifice something somewhere along the way.
When I started weblogging it was all about the links, and the little asides and the one-liners and guff like that. I believe fundamentally that weblogs are communicative and social rather than being publishing ((Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything) and this seemed like a natural register for that kind of thing. Everything was nicely informal and easy. But the systems had their problems – Blogger style permalinks were an ugly and clumsy way to reference particular pieces of commentary, so people moved towards using Movable Type with is individual archives and built-in comments. Page-per-post sites, though, require a different form of writing – people change their interactions and the sites become less agile and less cross-conversational. Shorter posts get lost, posting becomes more of an effort and many things that one might like to talk about in passing get thrown away. There are benefits, it’s clear – you write longer, better, more considered things. But they’re not the same things that we used to be writing. You can see some of the transitions that occurred when I moved to using Movable Type in the visualisations that people did for me last year: Visualisations lead to Self-Knowledge.
I think this shift was really what caused the desire for people to start link-logs. Sites on the internet that we responded to emotionally but couldn’t find time to write Movable Type-length posts about were getting no commentary at all. People who were busy found that they simply weren’t writing anything for their sites at all – the length of posts that using MT seems to inspire (in my case anyway) started to be incompatible with post-work energy levels. The concept of a simple, throwaway linklog seemed to present a cure to this situation. People could post things and get their thoughts out into public quickly and easily. Or – just as importantly – they could keep track of the links that they wanted to keep track of – back to the weblog as personal link-organiser. It seemed like the perfect solution.
Certainly it didn’t seem to matter much whether or not the links were unique or whether everyone else in the world had posted them too. This was the time that saw the emergence of what I call microcontent voting. The more people linked to something, the more people saw it, obviously – but now it was becoming an exponenial relationship rather than a linear one. This was because of the newly significant presence of aggregators like Blogdex, Daypop, Popdex, Technorati. Now there was an effective feedback loop – if something got the attention of a certain number of people in the ecosystem, it would be brought to the attention of even more. A site that got only a few links could be at the top of the aggregators within a day, and experience thousands of visits immediately.
The links had – in part – ceased to be just something you did individually and instead became something that you did as part of a community that one way or another helped information bubble up. I think this found its best expression to date in Hotlinks, which I really think needs only to be abstracted into a more generic service to take over the world.
But linklogs had their own problems – how should they be integrated into a weblog site? Should they be individually permalinkable or should they be aggregated in daily clumps? Should they sit in central bars or be relegated to little-read sidebars? Different weblog authors found different solutions to these design problems – with kottke and Anil probably being the groundbreakers in this area. But it still felt a little clumsy. The weblogs were capturing everything again – covering a whole range of content from long-form essays through to the smallest particles of link data – but it wasn’t sitting together well – the weblog softwares didn’t seem (and still don’t) to have found a way to really consolidate this kind of combination management / conversation / publishing role. I personally strongly felt that my link-logs should be posted in daily digests as part of my main weblog. I’d done groups of links as posts for years, and I didn’t see why that should change now. But these things were far from simple to perform.
The introduction of moblogging caused another problem – the infrastructure for handling phone to weblog stuff effectively had never seemed to emerge in an elegant, simple and un-hacky way – clearly they’d need different templates for a start, and again decisions had to be made about how to integrate them with the design and layout of sites. Should the photos be in a sidebar? Should they be a different and separate weblog? Should they be posted each day, or immediately as the photos were taken and coming in?
The two sites that – for me – changed this picture enormously were del.icio.us and Flickr in that they both provided me with new tool-sets for managing stuff and they both also gave me mechanisms for posting to my weblog in ways that seemed to afford more benefits than they had costs. Firstly, del.icio.us gave me the ability to organise my links more effectively than my weblog had – and made the process of refinding my links much much easier – and some slightly provisional settings do exist for publishing a daily digest to a weblog. So I get the space to file my links in a way that makes sense to me, and get to expose this action back to people. Except of course it’s not a finished piece of functionality – I can’t give it alternative formats for the title, I can’t change how each link is formatted and I can’t stop it publishing everything to both my site and weblog with extra fields of information exposed that I don’t want people to see (like the del.icio.us tags that each post has). I can hide these tags on the web because I control the stylesheets. But it’s much harder (rightly) to do that kind of thing in an RSS reader. The consequence? The posts generated by del.icio.us in my RSS feed are ugly and feel clumsy – they’re functional, but they’re not how I would have them…
And the same is true of my Flickr photostream. The pictures that I take are aspects of my life, and I want them to be exposed to people in the same way as my overt posts are – but I have non flexibility. I can have them posted directly to my site, but then they don’t feel cleanly on my site in that they’re still hosted elsewhere. And I can’t aggregate them into clumps usefully – every photo appears as I take it, and I can’t make a daily archive of them to be posted into the body of my site. So feedburner becomes the best option for bringing these very separate things together – except it has design problems of its own. Titles of Flickr photos don’t seem to update and the integration of feeds – while beautifully elegant technically – does seem to create unbalanced or confusing feeds to experience… And if you’re asking why I want to keep everything together in one Feedburner feed at all, it’s because the functionality that feedburner affords me in tracking the number of people reading the damn feed is so incredibly useful to me. And I wouldn’t get that ease or accuracty of calculation by having multiple feeds…
Phew! So that’s the history of all weblog functionality in a nutshell, which wasn’t quite what I was expecting to write. But the point is that all through the history of weblogs, the technologies have opened up new doors and created new problems. Different functionalities make it possible to do one thing much more easily or effectively, but they come with a smaller cost elsewhere. We’re definitely moving in a positive direction, but each time we make a leap to a new level of functionality, things get more complicated and fractured and difficult for a while. Our feeds are ugly, and they don’t quite work right and neither do our sites. But this is because the technologies that we’re using to organise and collate our lives aren’t quite communicating perfectly and aren’t splicing themselves together in the way that we might like. And things are getting ever more complicated, and we need to do something about it.
And I’m beginning to think that the thing we have to do is start to reconsolidate and refactor the weblog concept itself. We need to take a step back for the first time in years and re-ask the question – what is it for? How do we find something hard and shiny in the middle of all these hybridised trends and make it the ideal shape to support all the other services that will grow upon and around it. In a whole range of issues – from the collation of our browsing to the handling of our photos, from the posting of our opinions to the way we’re relating to our social networks – the traditional weblog format is starting to buckle. So rather than concentrating on the specifics of clashing informational streams in our feeds and looking to fix them, I’m going to make the problem even larger and ask – are these clashes evidence of something more seriously broken? Does anyone really have any idea what we do next?