A Response to Blog Prompt #2

Posted on January 26, 2011

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Blogs and RSS

Dig that Aggregation

We have started this course by setting up blogs and aggregated our feeds into a feed reader called RSS Owl. RSS Owl is one of many feed readers that do the same things. They automate the process of monitoring a list of feeds. When they detect that new content has appeared in a feed, they present it to the user as unread information. They also enable the user to search the aggregated info in various ways, allowing the user to better use the info.

In this way, information, preselected to some degree, flows to the user, rather than the user having to go out and seek the information. The user’s focus is on processing the information, not finding it. Processing information that comes in a flow is a 21st century literacy skill.

Personally, I am very grateful for RSS, the markup specification that structures newsfeeds. RSS is the backbone of this aggregation process that has transformed the way many people get much of the information they use in their jobs and in the rest of their lives.

Maybe you can’t do it, but I think, if you try, you can probably almost imagine how gratifying it is for me to be able to read what you have written on your WordPress.com blog all in one place, simply by starting up RSS Owl.

Do you aggregate what you read? I try to, every chance I get. Aggregating information, putting it all in one place so I can see it all together, sift through it all, explore it all in different ways. Aggregating helps me not only absorb information more quickly than I could if I had to hunt it all down; it also allows me to think about it more deeply.

First, I can relax, as I know what I need to read is all in one place, and second, I can really focus on the aggregated material, as I would on the chapters of a book, because I already know that it is very likely to be useful to me. I have preselected this material, at least to a degree, by selecting the feeds. So I know there is a good chance that what I find in my aggregator will be valuable to me in some way.

And then there is the sense of conversation that emerges from all that aggregated info. Multiple sources preselected because they write about the same subjects (subjects of interest to me) seem to be in dialog with each other. Sometimes, sources may, very explicitly be in dialog with each other, and if they are blogs, there is often the opportunity for me to add my voice to the discussion by commenting directly to a blog entry or two (blog comments can even have their own feeds).

Another part of this information process is a responsibility I feel to expand my field of interest, to challenge myself to learn more about more things, not just to find the blogs that challenge me in some way, that tell me more than what I know or what I want to hear. There is a danger, because the system allows so much customization, that one will narrow one’s supply of information too much, creating an echo chamber. This technology, and most notably RSS, allows me to try to improve myself in this way.

These days, it is common for me to find new information not so much through search engines but moreso through referrals, or pointers, from family and friends. The existence of blogs has increased the amount of information generally available. This is called “social search”, and it has been enabled and supported and furthered by the use of blogs (bloggers, through links in their entries, point to other information and other information sources). Microblogs (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) figure in this, too. Social search is becoming a more common and important mode of information discovery. Blogs are an important instrument for this kind of social activity that revolves around the deliberate sharing of information.

Look at delicious.com for a good example of this activity. On this site, people join networks of users who share bookmarks (pointers) to information they find online. These pointers can be published to Twitter and Facebook, and, by using a browser plugin, one can record new bookmarks from other places on the web as well. Delicious.com supports what is called an information ecology.

Where Did RSS Come From?

For the development of RSS, we owe a debt to a computer programmer named Dave Winer. Dave is still “digging”; he’s still coming up with new blogging software based on RSS. His current project is a blogging system that twines with Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk but allows authors to keep a copy of their material, in the cloud (on a server they control). He is doing this to help bloggers keep control of their content. He does not want to see them give it all to Facebook, for example, for Facebook’s profit. He wants blogging to belong to the bloggers.

Listen to http://mp3.morningcoffeenotes.com/reboot11Jan10.mp3 starting at minute 24 to hear Dave Winer’s plan for a new, RSS-based, “blogging ecosystem”.

That is why RSS is free. It’s the backbone of a system for producing and sharing information without constraint. It is an open standard, an XML application, the structure and styntax of which you can easily understand. Take a look at the anatomy of an RSS feed (click here to view the file). Examine it. Notice its elements. It has tags, like XHTML. The tags define (semantically) the kind of content that goes between them. The full RSS specification is here.

RSS is of interest to web designers for another reason as well. The content from RSS feeds are often piped through web pages which use the RSS feeds to dynamically update their content. Feed2Js is such a system. Check it out and learn how it works.

Combining web based elements like web pages and RSS feeds is what web design is about these days. Working with information from an RSS feed, a web designer will fabricate a template that structures and styles tagged information from the feed in different ways. For example, the title of a channel will be styled one way (like an h1 heading, perhaps), while the content of a description may be styled as a paragraph. Once the web designer has made the template, machines do the rest. The template resides in a content management system or on a web site and just sits there while info from RSS feeds, styled by CSS on the client side, flows through the pages. A page like the Yahoo! home page is full of such flows. Notice that much of the content on that page is dynamic and responds to “trends” of attention detected by a search engine in real time.

RSS feeds do something else again: they can carry multimedia payloads such as podcasts and videocasts. In this way RSS becomes a multimedia distribution mechanism. That is what the “media” tag in the RSS specification is for, to label and contain links to media objects to which the RSS feed calls attention.

In addition, RSS feeds have become tools for collaborative and managerial communication inside organizations. Managers use blogs to collect information from employees they supervise and to tell other employees what’s on their minds. Exployees use blogs to aggregate the communication of members of workgroups. In many organizations, internal blogs have replaced email for group communication.

Your Comments on the Blogs You Read

Your recent adventures in the blogosphere yielded some valuable insights into how blogs are written and designed.

With exceptions, some of which you noted, the tone of most blogs tends to be informal, but not as informal as it is in a tweet or Facebook status update. With respect to content, you noted that blogs tend to be narrowly focused and written very much with a reader in mind. Companies have adopted blogs as a means of developing relationships with customers. Individuals write blogs to share their perceptions and provide information wherethey perceive information is lacking. The open architecture of the internet allows anyone with a connection to participate in this ecology.

The visual layout of blogs, as you have seen, has become rather conventionalized. Most blogs sport a two column layout. Blog posts are displayed on one side of the page; navigation links appear on the other side. Sometimes, multicolumn layouts are used, but you usually find these on larger sites with lots of content.
One rule of blog design you noted: the visual appearance of the blog should not compete with the content; the content should always be readable. This is not to say the content of the blog cannot be visual. Sketchblogs are among my favorites.

Often, when the appearance of a blog become cluttered it is due to the addition of ads, an attempt to “monetize” the blog. Bloggers may not have control over the appearance of ads they agree to pipe through their blogs. Sometimes the ads are ugly and distracting. This is unfortunate.

About Your Banner Images

I very much enjoyed seein the banner images you created for your blogs. They are creative and reveal something about you. I think Bryan’s. is probably the most successful one. Here are some more examples for you to see:

Notice how these examples are conscious of and make use of the whole banner area. Note how they stick to a theme. These are two important qualities of successful banner images. If your banner does not exhibit these qualities, you might consider revising it.

In Closing . . .

I hope you are seeing the potential of blogs to create an information ecology. Many people rely on blogs and similar tools to stay in touch with and interact with the world. Blogs are closely related to content management systems that power other kinds of web sites. It is due to the impact blogs and blogging have had on the web, and to their resemblance to other CMSs, that we will be learning to craft WordPress templates.

Dr. W.

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Posted in: Web II