Anil Dash – The lost infrastructure of social media

A great summary of various bits of tech that made the early blogosphere1 so alive and vibrant in ways that hasn’t been captured or reproduced since. How can tools give individuals control over what they create, where they publish, who they follow, what they read, and how they share? These are currently controlled almost exclusively by one of two companies for the majority people on the modern internet. Something amazing, powerful, and enabling was lost in that transition.

More than a decade ago, the earliest era of blogging provided a set of separate but related technologies that helped the nascent form thrive. Today, most have faded away and been forgotten, but new incarnations of these features could still be valuable.As social networks grew in popularity and influence, the old decentralized blogosphere fell apart and those early services consolidated, leaving all the power in the hands of a few private companies. That’s left publishers and independent voices even more vulnerable to the control points of a few social networks and search engines.

Source: Anil Dash – The lost infrastructure of social media. — Medium

Much of what I’ve been trying to do has been fumbling around trying to shift back to many of these bits of tech for my own use. RSS is still king because it lets me control what I read without opaque algorithms shaping and pushing. Blogs are still king because I can publish and archive whatever I want, without worrying or even thinking about where it goes or who gets to modify or transform it.


And, yes, I get that I saw Anil’s post on Medium rather than via RSS. Whatever.

  1. man, that’s something I haven’t said in ages… it used to be a thing. I desperately want for it to be a thing again. []

the death of Google Reader has been greatly exaggerated

Using Marco Arment‘s handy dandy RSS feed-subscribers apache access log processing script, here’s the current breakdown of accesses by known RSS reader applications to my blog since 8am today:


The big spike on the far left? Google Reader. Still counting for almost 77% of RSS-related accesses to my blog. Except no humans can see what it’s still indexing using GReader…

Marco found the same thing on his much-more-widely-read blog.

Google Reader appears to be a zombie process, obediently and tirelessly indexing RSS feeds, oblivious to the fact that nobody will be able to view the product of its work…

Update: Here’s a version with GReader removed:

GReaderRIP withoutGReader

Newsblur (at almost 15% of RSS traffic to my blog), followed by Digg1, Yahoo! Pipes2, etc… The RSS landscape has changed rather dramatically in the last couple of weeks. The long tail of long tail readers…

  1. which used to be dead, but was resurrected by the death of GReader… []
  2. I thought that was dead already… []

on commercial silo-ification of online discourse

I complain about twitter, facebook, and other corporate silos as much as the next person. If only there was some alternative… Something that didn’t mine everything and everyone I know to sell that data to the highest bidder(s).

One response to this has been the development of new private commercial silos, with barriers to entry (subscription fees, or invitation requirements) that are intended to keep out the riff-raff while letting the cool and worthy folks into the conversation.

This is the wrong direction.

I am not even remotely interested in participating in the shiny new (and newly funded) twitter clone/replacement, nor the online-discussion-blogosphere-replacement These solve the noise problem, but don’t solve the mining-my-everything-for-monetizing-synergy-blech problem1.

Then, there’s Diaspora. This project sounded extremely promising. An installable application to replace social silos like Facebook. Very interesting software, but it’ll never take off as a high-volume application run by humans, because most humans won’t be installing Ruby on Rails apps.2 Maybe, if it was offered as a one-click-installer on common web hosting providers? It’s not.

In a perfect world, I’d post my stuff to a place3 I own. Like, say, my blog4. And people who choose to follow, would see the updates alongside the rest of the folks they follow. On something they own. And vice versa. This isn’t new. RSS and PubSubHubbub, with a decent installable interface. Done.

We don’t need more silos. We need to be able to extract ourselves from them, and still be able to connect with each other. There has to be a better solution to that problem, before we continue to fragment and isolate our online interactions.

I’ll be staying with Twitter, as much as I hate it, because that’s where the people I follow are. But, I’m only staying for as long as I have to. As soon as something comes along that lets me own my stuff and follow who I want to, without exposing everything to monitoring/monetizing by central third parties, I’m gone.

  1. I’m not saying that or are currently mining everything. but what’s to stop them? if I let someone else control my interactions with others, I have to give them a pretty high level of trust. I have no reason to do that with either of those services… []
  2. yes, I get that it’s not too hard, and it’s something I could do, but then what? I’d get to connect with the other 36 geeks that installed it? yeah… []
  3. simple, lightweight, easily installable by humans []
  4. I’d experimented with “asides” here awhile back – but without the notifications layer, it was pretty much useless… []

back to Fever˚

I tried switching to Pulp as my RSS reader a couple of weeks ago. The interface was interesting, and it syncs across multiple devices (Mac and iOS) using iCloud, so there’s no Google-tracking. Sounded interesting. Worth a shot.

Yeah. Well. That didn’t work out so well. The iCloud syncing never worked well for me. Not sure if I subscribe to more feeds than it can handle, but there you go. Constant issues with getting feeds and state synced across a couple of computers. But, that’s not the end of the world. It was the interface just doesn’t work for extensive use. It’s like the Pepsi Challenge thing. It seemed great on the screenshots, and with initial usage, but it just didn’t work with lots of feeds, over a couple of weeks.

Pulp tries really hard to be a shiny newspaper. But it tries really hard to be just that. Little quirks like showing all items in a page, but just fading already-read items out to barely legible grey. And not showing the new stuff without making you wade through multiple pages and scrolling through a bunch of columns. A reader should help me blast through feeds without hunting for unread items and squinting to read stuff.

So, back to Fever˚. And, with the latest version of the Reeder app for iOS (adding support for using Fever˚ for the sync – hopefully the iPad and Mac apps get feature parity with the iPhone version soon…), I can have the full interface on any computer with a browser, and an optimized mobile app for the road. Best of both worlds.

on Pulp

I saw the new Pulp app for Mac and iPad, and thought it looked interesting enough to try out. I started on the Mac side, importing a bunch of feeds that I’d exported from my Fever˚ reader. It’s definitely different, but I think I like it.

Here’s the “home” front page – similar to the “Hot” section in Fever˚ – it mines the items in the subscribed feeds, to find trends and more-linked-to items.

Kind of a strange interface decision, making everything that’s already read fade to grey. So, the front page of the Pulp app is full of low contrast text and images that are hard to read. Some other “you’ve read this” indicator would be better, rather than simply fading items out. I’m unclear on how Pulp decides what items make it to the front page. It seems like stuff from Engadget and similar trump things from less mainstream feeds. Maybe because the tech sites all link to the same stuff, so they get picked up faster?

Here’s the “Hot” view from Fever˚ – less newspapery, but based on the same feeds.

Here’s my “5-star” page in Pulp, with feeds mostly from friends etc…

The same fade-if-already-read thing makes it easy to see that there aren’t new items (above the fold, anyway – there are a bunch of feeds below this, if I scroll down). Feeds are grouped into pages, and then into columns within a page. One interface strangeness is that items for a feed are gathered together, rather than showing the newest items for an entire column at the top. This means I may have to scroll the column to see if there are new things in feeds that are below the “fold” – which is odd, since there shouldn’t be a “fold” since this is all magically assembled by the app. I’d love to see the columns show items from any feed within the column, sorted by date published. I had initially thought that a “hide read items” would be ideal, but simply showing newer items at the top of the column would work better.

As I was writing this, Alan posted something and it popped up right away at the top of the column on my “5-star” page:

and again, with this post showing up. There are now 2 new/unread posts, but they’re not listed together at the top of the column. Strange.

For syncing, it uses iCloud rather than Google Reader. So, I can sync feeds and application state across devices, without feeding The Beast with everything that I read. Best of both worlds.

Frankly, I never thought I’d even consider using something other than Fever˚, but there’s something about using a native app that makes it feel more responsive. I’ll give Pulp a few more days, to see if I can get past the interface strangenesses. If they get refined, it’ll be a really solid RSS app. Except RSS is dead, as are blogs, so this is all moot anyway.

Problems with my RSS feed?

I got an email saying there was something wrong with my feed, as it’s apparently borking in Sage. I can’t seem to reproduce the error here (Sage is borking in general for me, and the feed validates and renders in the aggregators I’ve tested).

Anyone else having problems? Something I should be worried about? Maybe just something intermittent? Something related to Feedburner?

Also, this is posted using the new ecto 3 alpha – I haven’t used a standalone blogging app in years, but if this works, it’s about as close to the perfect app as I can figure. Even offers searching and sorting of Categories, and resizing/uploading of images…

Update: Cool. It worked. I’ll be buying a license for ecto 3. Haven’t used it since back in the Kung Fu days (wasn’t the original version of the app called KungLog or something?)

BlogBridge Feed Library in an Academic Environment

I’ve been experimenting with a copy of BlogBridge Feed Library, to test it out for possible deployment for use by students and faculty here at UCalgary. It’s not an official project, but I think it’s important enough to warrant investigation. What is BlogBridge Feed Library (BBFL)? From their website:

Feed Library (FL) creates a flexible web based structure to showcase Feeds, Reading Lists and Podcasts to employees in your company, or members of your organization. It will be the ’store’ where users can browse and search for recommendations of content to read with their Aggregators. And, here’s the important point: these are recommendations by people in your organization for people in your organization.

It’s a directory. Of feeds. That can be distributed across the internets, and organized in any fashion. It’s been running the Expert Guides section of Blogbridge’s website for several months, and has provided a pretty cool resource for finding and subscribing to feeds. It’s very cool, in that it doesn’t try to do too much. It doesn’t pretend to be an aggregator. It’s just a directory. It provides friendly ways to preview feeds right in the directory, and to subscribe to groups of feeds via OPML representing folders within the directory. Aggregation is left to the individual’s taste in applications. Any feed reader that groks OPML will play nicely with the great directory OPML features. And any app can, of course, subscribe to the individual feeds.

It’s a really great directory application, and has been running well in production on BlogBridge’s server for some time now. But it needs some love if it’s going to thrive in an academic environment.

Currently, there is a small group of trusted stewards, or “Experts” that are given folders of feeds to manage. That’s fine when there may be a dozen or two contributing “Experts” – but how does that scale to a class with 20, 60, or 300 students? How does that scale to an institutional level with 30,000 students and hundreds of faculty playing in the pool? How do you refine control so that a student can add their feeds to the appropriate places, without having to go through a central gatekeeper?

Continue reading “BlogBridge Feed Library in an Academic Environment”

1 Month with Google Reader

I can’t believe it’s been a whole month since I started trying out Google Reader (GR) full time. I wanted to see if I could live in a browser-based aggregator, and was curious about how far it had come since the early days.

The short version is: it’s less efficient at reading boatloads of feeds and items. But, the always-on, available-anywhere design of GR makes it worthwhile.

The long version is, well, longer. I still much of the niceties of BlogBridge (BB). Things like having a “photo gallery” view, for viewing images in feeds (I subscribe to a fair number of Flickr tag feeds, so this is quite handy). I’ve got a workaround for the star ratings that BB uses – I’ve created two “tags” in GR: “5-stars” and “4-stars” and have applied them to appropriate feeds. That definitely helps prioritize reading important stuff from all of my feeds/tags without having to hunt for them. Because it’s browser based, I can use native interfaces, so that feature from BB isn’t missed. The most annoying thing I’ve found with GR isn’t directly GR’s fault. I have to do a fair bit of clicking to get through all of my tags. I need to do some more work to add appropriate feeds to “5-stars”, “4-stars”, “3-stars” etc… so I can focus on levels of importance rather than subjects.

I do like the “trends” view in GR. Not because it is helpful in organizing or accessing information (it isn’t), but it’s kinda interesting in its own right. Here’s a screenshot as of 5 minutes ago:

Google Reader Trends - first month

I’m a bit surprised at just how much I’m reading. Almost 18,000 items in a month? I’d have never guessed that. Actually, almost half of that isn’t really “reading” per se, but “viewing”. Photos from Flickr. Which is why the “photo gallery” view would be great.

There are some shortcomings.

  1. I’ve got a nagging feeling that by using GR, I am continuing to “feed the beast” – by teaching Google about what interests me, and by providing guidance about relationships between feeds and items.
  2. There isn’t a “blogroll” or live OPML view of my tags/folders. BlogBridge lets me publish tags as live OPML documents, which is how my edublogs directory is managed. There isn’t currently a way to replicate that from within GR. Yes, I could periodically export a tag as an OPML file, and post that somewhere. Not the same.

All in all, I think I’ll keep using Google Reader for now. I’ll have to figure out how to reconcile my feed subscriptions with BB so that I can keep maintaining the edublogs directory, but that will work itself out somehow.

Blog now FeedBurner-powered

I just enabled FeedBurner caching/serving of my blog’s RSS feed. The goal is to dramatically decrease the load on the server by redirecting RSS requests through FeedBurner’s server rather than mine (well, Dreamhost’s). Google just bought FeedBurner, so they’re not going anywhere. I’m trusting in Google not to do anything evil. I can always pull the plug on them and take control of the feed if needed.

Another bonus (for me, anyway) is an estimate of stats – how many folks are subscribed to the feed. That’s always been a total crap shoot, with nothing more than edumacated guesses and darkened dartboards providing numbers. Now I might get a better idea, and am braced for the emphatic “5 subscribers” that it will be flashing at me shortly.

I apologize in advance for any RSS noise as this kicks in. Hopefully it won’t republish all posts in the feed, but if it does, “mark all as read” or in Google Reader parlance “shift+a”.