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.