Swimming against the stream

Congratulations to Contributoria! The Guardian’s experiment in crowd-funded collaborative journalism is a finalist in the digital innovation category of the British Journalism Awards. (Disclosure: Contributoria’s CEO and cofounder, Matt McAlister, is a former InfoWorld colleague.) The site, which launched in January 2014, runs on a 3-month cycle. So the November 2014 issue is online now, the December 2014 issue is in production, and the January 2015 issue is in planning. There are now ten issues archived on the back issues page. Here are the numbers from that page in a spreadsheet:

Who pays the writers? Contributoria’s business page explains:

The writers’ commissions are provided by the community membership pool and other sources of funding such as sponsorship. Initial backing came from the Google sponsored International Press Institute News Innovation Contest. We are currently funded by the Guardian Media Group.

Contributoria is a market with an internal currency denominated in points. I’m currently signed up for a basic membership which comes with 50 points I can direct toward story proposals. If I upgrade to paid membership I’ll have more points to spend. As a Supporter you get 150 points. As a Patron it’s 250 points plus delivery of each issue in print and e-pub formats. I like to support innovative experiments in journalism, such as the (dearly departed) Ann Arbor Chronicle [1, 2], so I may upgrade my membership. But I’m not sure I want to vote, with points, for individual proposals. I might rather donate my points to the project as a whole.

What I would like to do, in any case, is keep an eye on the flow of stories, cherrypick items of interest, and perhaps follow certain writers. So I looked for the RSS feeds that would enable me to do those things, and was more than a bit surprised not to find them. Here’s the scoop:

That was back in February. Nine months later Contributoria’s RSS feeds are still, presumably, climbing the todo list. How could a prominent and potentially award-winning experiment in online journalism regard RSS as an afterthought?

I mean no disrespect, and I won’t point any fingers because they’d point right back at me. I was an early adopter of RSS and an original member of the RSS Advisory Board. For many years an RSS reader was my information dashboard. I used it to organize and monitor items of interest from formal and informal sources, from publications and from peers. It was often the first window open on my computer in the morning.

And then things changed. I don’t remember exactly when, but for me it was even before the demise of Google Reader in July 2013. By then I’d already resigned myself to the notion that social streams were the new RSS. The world had moved on. Many people had never used RSS readers. For those who had, manual control of explicit lists of feeds now seemed more trouble than it was worth. Social graphs make those lists implicit. Our networks have become our filters. Mark Hadman and I might wish Contributoria offered RSS feeds but we’re in a tiny minority.

Of course the network-as-filter model isn’t new. The early blogosphere gave me my first taste of it. Back in 2002, in a short blog entry entitled Using people as filters, I wrote:

As individuals become both producers and consumers of RSS feeds, they can use one another as filters.

It worked well for years. I subscribed to a mix of primary sources and bloggers who were, in turn, subscribed to their own mixes of primary sources and subscribers. I often likened Dave Winer’s notion of triangulation — what happens when several sources converge on the same idea or event — to the summation of action potentials in the human nervous system. It was all very organic. I could easily tune my filter network to stay informed without feeling overwhelmed.

I doubt many of us feel that way now. Armando Alves certainly doesn’t. In Beyond filter failure: the downfall of RSS he laments the decreasing availability of RSS feeds:

I’m afraid the web/tech community has done a lousy job promoting RSS, and even people I consider tech savvy aren’t aware how to use RSS or how it would improve the way they consume information. Between a Facebook newsfeed shaped by commercial interests and a raw stream of information powered by RSS, I’d rather have the latter.

Let’s pause to consider an irony. Armando’s Medium page invites me to follow him there, but not by means of RSS. Instead the Follow link takes me to Medium’s account registration page. There I can log in, using Facebook or Twitter, then await the account verification email that will enable me to enter yet another walled garden.

There is, in fact, an RSS feed for Armando’s Medium posts. But only geeks will find it. Embedded in the page is this bit of code:

<link id=”feedLink” rel=”alternate” type=”application/rss+xml” title=”RSS” href=”/feed/@armandoalves”>

That tells me that I can subscribe to Armando in an RSS reader at this URL: https://medium.com/feed/@armandoalves

More generally it tells me that I can form the feed URL for any author on Medium by appending the @ username to https://medium.com/feed/.

How would a less technical person know these things? You wouldn’t. At one time, when RSS was in vogue, browsers would show you that a page had a corresponding RSS feed and help you add it to your feed reader. That’s no longer true, and not because the web/tech community failed to promote RSS. We promoted it like crazy for years. We got it baked into browsers. Then social media made it seem irrelevant.

But as Armando and many others are beginning to see, we’ve lost control of our filters. In the early blogosphere my social graph connected me to people who followed primary sources. Those sources were, it bears repeating, both formal and informal, both publications and peers. We made lists of sources for ourselves, we curated those lists for one another, and we were individually and collectively accountable for those choices.

Can we regain the control we lost? Do we even want to? If so let’s appreciate that the RSS ecosystem was (and, though weakened, still is) an open network powered by people who make explicit choices about flows of information. And let’s start exercising our choice-making muscles. I’m flexing mine again. The path of least resistance hasn’t worked for me, so my vacation from RSS is over. I want unfiltered access to the publications and people that matter most to me, I want them to be my best filters, and I’m available to return the favor. I may be swimming against the stream but I don’t care. I need the exercise.

15 Comments

  1. Happy to see you swimming. And also darned happy to see someone not shrug it off as “technologists did not explain RSS well enough”- it’s hard to imagine how it could not have been more explained. It was really just about the only technology I felt honest when I told educators that it would “save them time.”

    My hunch is that it did not serve the ultimate business need to gain a financial leverage; the transformation needed to convert twitter’s JSON API 1.1 to RSS is simple (I use a script hosted in Google Drive, so their dropping of its support is hard to swallow on technical grounds.

    Medium’s feeds have many problems besides discoverability (and even that is a bit of a zonk since they don’t identify a full URL — https://medium.com/@cogdog/medium-your-rss-feeds-are-mess-ebfe6f731c22 Their feeds do not validate, and to get them to work in a WordPress aggregator, I found the end around is running their feed through Yahoo Pipes.

    I wish I could be more confident about more swimmers.

    1. According to https://twitter.com/judell/status/531112053943959552 I am just being nostalgic. And it’s true. The fact that open syndication went as far as it did is a miracle given the countervailing forces. On the one hand it’s crazy to expect that miracle to repeat itself, On the other hand, crazy stuff happens. So I don’t know. Meanwhile, swimming upstream is good exercise and I really need the exercise.

  2. I never saw blogging as a ‘business channel’, I certainly never subscribed to feeds which (I saw as or ) were business related. For me it translates as ‘what’s going on today’. A variant of a news feed?

  3. I think the complaints about monetizing RSS are very telling. RSS is pure information exchange — great if you care about people being able to hear what you say without competing for attention of the rest of the social river; not so good if you want to mediate consumption through a paywall or co-presentation of ads.

    To me it’s critical but not either/or: I subscribe to the RSS feeds where the hit rate of an article being something I want to read is high. There’s little sense in subscribing to broad, high volume sites like the Guardian — far better to let the social network filter that for me.

    1. I’d sure like a way to shape and control my interactions with both high-volume sites and social streams, though. Where’s the all-up information dashboard? Still need that.

      1. You describe exactly my pain, winnowing the signal from the noise, using visual tools to get a quick overview and control over all interactions in the past 24 hours, drill down, filter, favorite, annotate, hashtag clouds, just for my stuff.
        Some people only tweet monthly and I really don’t want to miss what they have to say.

        My project was tweety4, a 24 hr dashboard for my Twitter stream.
        But writing a Twitter ‘client’ is too risky and calendars are a greater interest and then there are even greater interests :)

  4. There are some great comments in that Twitter thread…for example, this: https://twitter.com/holden/status/531124567604232193

    Putting ads in feeds and focusing on what happens with articles in a ‘reader’ was one of the many missteps taken by those (like me) who embraced RSS wholeheartedly.

    But open syndication is’t dead.

    I think it will be very hard to put that genie back in the bottle even for the very very big platforms who have no incentive to support it and considerable incentive for it not to exist. The fundamental protocols of the Internet make it so easy and efficient that it will appear and reappear in different forms and shapes…perhaps as an open P2P network next ;)

  5. In reader apps that are smart enough, the user can just enter the URL of the page they want to subscribe to, and the reader will find the rel=alternate link and discover the feed automatically; there’s usually no real need for the RSS/Atom feed itself to be exposed in the UI.

    1. It was wonderful how that discovery mechanism came into being and was rapidly adopted, what, about 10 years ago now? Sadly it seems some newer readers don’t know about it.

      1. Unfortunately, one of the bigger culprits here is WordPress. By default, it exposes *two* feeds — one for posts, one for comments — and there’s no way to automatically distinguish which is more likely to be useful to the reader. So you either may end up subscribing to the wrong feed, or have to bake in smarts to guess which is right based on the URI.

  6. Hope springs eternal. The idea that we would voluntarily put ourselves eternally in the Facebook/Twitter/etc. box after the Internet succeeded in escaping the AOL/Prodigy/etc. box is too depressing.

    So Jon, what reader are you using?

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