RSS as a platform

March 18th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink

With the recent developments in the RSS world, including the launching of Windows RSS Plataform, the discussions about the use of the format as real platform is undergoing a change. Now, there is a lot of talk about how developers can maximize the potential of the format e how they can solve the existing infrastructure problems.

In all that I have read, I didn’t see much discussion about mutable RSS feeds, that is, interactive feeds that allows users to pass data through the aggregator itself, changing the future behavior of the feed based on their choices.

Obviously, support for such interactivity isn’t present in the current crop of aggregators — at least, in none of the many I know and/or tried. In fact, a persistent fear of security problems that could be caused by such interactivity pervades the entire area. XSS and similar exploits caused most aggregators developers to completly eliminate the use of objects, forms and JavaScript inside RSS feeds.

Such an approach puts extreme limits on what you can do with RSS, of course. More than an year ago, answering a question posed by a friend of mine, I wrote here about interactive RSS feeds. The application I designed to test the concept at the time (a very simple prototype) is still running and can be accessed in the test area of this site. It’s a RS feeds that instead of simply presenting content, allows users to act on its entries. Given the limitations present in the current generation of feed readers, you will probably need to open each entry in the browser to see the feed in action.

The big question is: what can we really do with RSS? Is a read-only platform enough? I don’t think so. Considering the context in which I created the application mentioned above, that of a course served through RSS, a read-only plataform is not that interesting. A typical course has an activity tree that’s completely dependent on the students’ choices. A read-only format would not provide a complete experience in such a scenario.

As mentioned before, there are real security concerns involved in allowing users to interact with a feed. Allowing any kind of content can lead to episodes like the one caused by Mark Pilgrim a couple years ago, whose RSS feed “took control” of hosting computer with a clever use of HTML. The text he wrote later about the subject impacted the development of an entire generation of aggregators. Yet, browsers handle the same issues today and — despite some problems — they do just fine.

Before I start repeating what I already said in the other article, I believe RSS can evolve a lot beyond what it is today. New applications — especially in the much hyped Web 2.0 style — depend on a bigger possibility of interaction than that offered by aggregators today. Since the competition in the area seems to be big, I guess it won’t take long until we see changes.

Dynamic (interactive) RSS

December 1st, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

The questions my friend asked me about SCORM continued to bother me after I posted my answers here. As I indicated in the post, I thought my answers were not quite satisfactory. That being so, I started to think about alternative viable solutions for the context in which the questions were asked.

After thinking about the issue, I turned myself to what she had mentioned about blogs. That, in turn, lead me (kind of obviously) to RSS. So I decided to try a little experiment.

In the context the question was asked, there is a need to minimize costs and complexity while retaining at the same time the ability to provide a rich interactive experience and aggregate data. Obviously, the best way to do that is to leverage existing infrastructure. RSS offers the oportunity to make this happen in very simple ways.

The experiment, then, was the creation of an interactive RSS feed, able to react to options made by its subscribers and to behave in a way that approximates that of a course executed under a LMS. As I will comment further down, RSS offers possibilites just as interesting as the existing standards in the area. » Read the rest of this entry «

Second blog anniversary

September 30th, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

To keep with tradition, I forgot again about this blog’s anniversary. The day before yesterday marked two years since I started blogging. It’s been an interesting time, and, when I started, I didn’t believe it would last two years. So far, I’m still linking the experience.

Thanks to all of you who keep reading.

All the spam you can get

September 6th, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

A friend of mine took a five-month hiatus from his blog. When he came back today, there were over 6100 comments waiting for him, 6000 of which were just spam. Since his blog runs on my server, on top of a MySQL database, I just deleted the whole lot of comments and rebuilt the pages. I may have deleted a few valid comments, so please don’t tell him thatÂ…

When checking what comments to delete, I quickly scanned the comments list. I’m still in awe of the things that were posted on his comments other than the spam. His blog is about marketing, PR and similar subjects, and he talks a lot about companies and their practices. The number of people who thinks he somehow speaks for the companies he mentions is astounding.

There were people asking his help in college assignments, people querying him for the price of air fares (just because he commented on the daring marketing strategies of an airline company), people asking him to help them out of their financial troubles, people asking for him to help them to get a job on the marketing companies he mentioned, people asking him to introduce them to famous people he referred to, people thinking his entries were meant as a support channel, and, the most amusing of all, people wondering why the site featured so many long, boring, and strange comments.

Those comments reminded of a recent entry in Stuart Langridge’s blog about a similar problem. The cynic in me was surely amused at the perils of semantic markup.

What’s more interesting about the spam comments were that their URL were blocked from attaining Google juice by MovableType’s redirection script. Also, all the comments were submitted as HTML in a blog that prevents HTML from being rendered. As a result, no link was exhibited. All that spam for nothing.

I have since installed MT-Blacklist in my server. I don’t get much blog spam so I hadn’t realized the problem was so bad in the other blogs I host for my friends. Which is also why I deleted the comments by hand: I never had installed MT-Blacklist before so I didn’t know it could do that automatically even for older entries.

Anyway, MT-Blacklist has already blocked a lot of new spam posted today at my friend’s blog so it will save me a lot of trouble in the future — that is, supposing I remember to keep it updated. And the best thing is that I still get to read the weird comments people post over at my friend’s blog.

Old posts are back

July 9th, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

I’m so tired that I’m unable to hear the alarm going off in the morning — even when it’s under my pillow. But I digress…

This is entry is just to report that I’ve finally restored the old posts I thought I had lost when my old hosting provider kicked out of their servers. I found a intact backup containing most of those old posts, and they seem to be okay, including comments and trackbacks. There are a few days missing in February but I believe I have those in another file. It’s two years of content — if bad or good writing, I don’t know — but I was sad to think I had lost them.

Update: All missing entries are now here. I still need to write a script to handle changes in the URL scheme of the blog, but at least the content is here.

Blogs, voices and mental images

June 29th, 2004 § 2 comments § permalink

The Cluetrain Manifesto states that people recognize each other as such from the sound of their voices. How true… Some things are so obvious, yet we tend not to think about them until they are so apparent that it becomes hard to ignore them.

I’ve been reading blogs for more than two years, and blogging for a little less than that. From the beginning, some things about blogs were instantly clear; others, however, I only came to understand when specific events brought them into focus. For example, that blogs are more like e-mail and instant messaging was evident from day one. Whether they allow comments, pingbacks, trackbacks or not, they generally exist in the context of larger conversations. What is said of art, that it’s a commentary on other art, it’s true of blogs. That’s obvious when you think about them as an exchange of information, but the inevitable comparison with normal sites and the fact that they can be used in a variety of contexts can hide it.

Nothing of what I’m talking about is new. Since the first blogs came into being, people inquired into their natures — and still are. The analysis of the blogging phenomenon is continuous among the practitioners, in an attempt, most likely, to understand their own motivations. Consciousness about the process, which is as apparent in blogging as in other writing activities, requires it. » Read the rest of this entry «

MovableType changes are a good thing

May 25th, 2004 § Comments Off § permalink

I returned to the blogosphere just in time to witness the last throes of the controversy around MovableType’s licensing changes. At the time, I decided not to comment on the issue because I was sure SixApart would listen to the market and make some changes to their licensing agreement — as they did.

Although I use MovableType, I’m not bothered by the changes it’s going through. Since it was never open source, I never presumed it would remain free. Of course, I’m thankful for SixApart’s generosity in allowing me to use MovableType for so long. Although I’m not planning to upgrade to 3.0, they’re still generous enough to allow me to use 2.661 for as long as I need it. Every time I downloaded MovableType, I checked the “I accept this agreement”; SixApart honored its part, and I will honor mine.

That said, I think the licensing changes that SixApart is introducing are a good thing. While MovableType is a good product, it has stagnated in the past months. The last releases didn’t introduce new features nor addressed problems with the tool. Version 3.0 has just a few new features — not enough to prompt me to upgrade even to the free version, for which I qualify.

So the fact that people are unsatisfied with MovableType means more development will occur in the area of weblog tools. Because MovableType was free enough, to use Mark Pilgrim’s phrasing, there was little incentive to develop a competitor.

When MovableType started to languish, however, competitors appeared. WordPress, the strongest of those is a really good tool. It’s quite ahead of MovableType in many areas, and judging from the pace of development, it poses a real threat to SixApart. Interesting tools and services are starting to appear from the shadows, and I’m sure others will surface shortly.

Anything that shakes the market and forces people to see things in a different light is good for users. SixApart may have just provided developers with the motivation they needed to advance the market again. And that’s good for SixApart, too. A strong market means they will have to work more to keep up with market demands, which in turn will benefit their users, which in turn… You get the idea.

In short, I liked SixApart move. And I will like it even more if the market answers properly.

Keeping up with RSS feeds

May 22nd, 2004 § 4 comments § permalink

Currently, I’m subscribed to 92 RSS feeds. When I started reading sites via RSS, over two years ago, my list of subscriptions jumped from ten sites to dozens in a couple months. Reading the content in an aggregator saved me so much time that I just kept adding the interesting blogs I found without worrying about how many posts they would introduce in my reading list every day. I was so enthusiastic about the technology, and found so many interesting things that I just wanted more.

A few months laters, I was trying to keep up with over 200 subscriptions. It was so much content that downloading the new posts made in the previous day took about five minutes in the broadband connection I used. I soon found out that I was not able to keep up with so much information. I spent a lot of time just scanning the posts to decide what I would read and what I wouldn’t, but even so the list of unread posts grew every day. Every week or so, I would just clear the list and start it again, ignoring all unread posts from the previous week.

I soon had to start to delete some subscriptions — not because their content was not good, but because I was not able to keep with them. I finally reduced the list to less than 50 feeds. I was able again to give my daily intake of information the attention it deserved. The fact is that I don’t like to skim posts. Unless I find out soon that I don’t need to read a post in its entirety to understand what it wants to convey, or if it’s simple a post talking about cats, small incidents, and things like that, I prefer to read every word on it. So 50 feeds was content enough for the time I devote daily to read.

Over the following year, however, my list started to slowly grow again. Every now and them I found somebody whose writings were consistently interesting and meaningful. I reasoned that I would be able to keep with those feeds with just a few minutes more every day. That was 40 new feeds ago.

Today, with 92 subscriptions, I’m falling behind again. Of course, it’s not that I’m obliged to read those feeds. It’s just that I’d like to read them but I don’t have the time.

A couple months ago, Scoble said he follows 1400+ feeds. I wonder if he ever sleeps. A mere 10 seconds spent in each feed already amounts to almost four hours after so many subscriptions. Jonas Galvez, a friend of mine and fellow blogger, wrote recently that he follows 400 different feeds. I know he doesn’t sleeps, but even so it’s just so much content that I doubt I would even be able to filter it in the time I have to read every day.

So, how do you guys keep up with so many feeds? What techniques do you use to avoid a deluge of information?

RSS is a great technology, and it has done wonders for my career since I’m able to stay informed about what’s happening in the market in near real-time, but it can easily get out of control. It would be interesting to learn how people cope with the flood of content that RSS can generate. I look forward to hearing opinions about the topic.

Blogs as information spaces

December 31st, 2003 § 3 comments § permalink

Recently, one of the bloggers I read, Caffo over at Pattern Recognition, brought up one interesting issue in his blog, complaining about the monotony that pervades the blogosphere both in terms of layout and site structure. This is a really trick subject, with many ramifications, involving even the culture of the blogosphere itself.

In a comment on his blog, I said that the biggest problem was inertia: most of us are simply used to what already exists, which is also what almost everybody uses, and there’s a certain reluctance to change what, so it seems, works well. That comes hardly as a surprise since innovation, in all areas of human knowledge, usually proceeds from a considerably smaller subset of the group of people working on those areas. In the Web, a imitative medium where dissemination of customs and patterns of use is so easy, that becomes especially true, even if the opportunities to innovate are considerably larger on it as well.

To ascertain the situation, you just need to look at sites on the top of the curve of the power law distribution that describes the blogosphere. Even those sites, counting with a superior potential in terms of what is doable, tend to gravitate around the same tried-and-true structural patterns. I say that not as an offense since my own site, which doesn’t even figure on the power law’s curve, follows the same old and boring model of a blog, with content of the left and a sidebar on the right with dozens of links that conflict with each other losing most of their meaning and usefulness. The fact remains, however, that little work is being done on the subject. » Read the rest of this entry «

Bloglines

November 23rd, 2003 § Comments Off § permalink

After seeing some positive reviews (1, 2) , I finally persuaded myself to try Bloglines, a centralized RSS aggregator. I never liked this kind of Web aggregators, but I decided to give it a try to see what the fuss was all about.

Well, after a few minutes, I realized Bloglines was the same old thing. And I still don’t like Web aggregators.

Firstly, I don’t like Web interfaces. Bloglines’ GUI is too simple, and that’s the problem. Things are missing. I mean, even the simplest standalone aggregator has more options than Bloglines. It’s not a matter of what can’t be done in a Web interface. It’s a matter of what was not done. For example, SharpReader, the aggregator I use (or used to use, since it simply stopped working in my box at work), has a nice feature that relates similar posts and links. And it does it using only you own blogroll. Bloglines, which has access to many more blogs, could do something similar, but I didn’t found anylink like that there. Maybe it’s something they will still implement, but I miss it now. And the GUI is still too simple. I need something as sophisticated as Oddpost, for instance.

Secondly, the interface doesn’t work well. For example, I clicked at a category and it marked all the blogs below as read, without asking me anything about it. The category had about 30 blogs under it, comprising hundreds of posts. How can I find what has been modified if it simply marks them all as read?

Thirdly, it’s slow. Obviously, it knows what blogs have been update much faster than a standalone aggregator since this work is centralized, but the GUI is slow. When you want to see all unread posts in a big category it takes a while for the HTML to be downloaded and rendered. I’d rather wait more to download the feed than wait to read them.

I could point other problems, but those aforementioned are enough to prevent me from using the service. I also think that they won’t be able to keep up with the bandwidth requirement and will start charging for the service soon. Although they can charge just for additional services, I don’t think the basic service is featured enough to compensate.

In short, I will keep SharpReader. Although I need to configure it in any machine I use, and keep too aggregators for Linux and Windows, it’s worth the troube since I get more added value from them.

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