Making Signal Out Of Noise

As RSS’ popularity continues to accelerate, it’s becoming more and more difficult to neatly weed out the entries we want to focus on from the flood of information that is being collected.

Part of the problem is aggregators themselves. They’re looking more and more like email clients these days. Channel Groups. Channels. Read & Unread Entries. Etc. It’s starting to feel like we’re back to Square One as far as the productivity leap goes.

Another part of the problem are the feeds themselves. They’re effectively just one-dimensional lists today. The only real unit of grouping is the feed itself. A blog that nicely separates its entries into neat categories on its website typically delivers the feed in one big blob of information. The feed reader can’t do a thing with it – except list out the entries. Again, back to Square One.

Let’s take a look at an example of how the feed is a clear step back from a visit to the same site on the Web. Fark.com is a very popular news/humor site. If you visit the actual site, you’ll notice that they’ve got each of the entries neatly tagged with visual labels representing the categories they fall under. They even stick to a consistent use of color-coding categories to further assist the user’s task of digesting all that information.

Now take a look at the feed supplied by Fark.com. Look careful at the titles of each entry. Notice that the first word of the title is the category the entry falls under. As a result, you get titles that look like this:

Unlikely Two originals of “dogs playing poker” paintings sell for over half a million dollars. Auctioneer attributes it to the growing popularity of poker

The word “unlikely” above is not part of the title. It’s simply the category it falls under. The decision to just drop the category right into the title borders on ridiculous. Nevertheless, it’s more than most sites do.

A few months ago, I drafted up an RSS 2.0 module called RSS Traits. Traits is designed to provide a simple way to enrich RSS entries with just about any kind of metadata. Beyond just providing a mechanism for slapping on metadata, the spec also allows for some simple methods for helping aggregators “draw” that information so it becomes easier to understand. The module, along with examples, can be found here.

I think Traits makes sense. Adoption is a whole other matter.  I had a brief back-and-forth with Nick Bradbury (creator of FeedDemon – in my opinion, the best client feed reader for Windows) and he raised a good point in regards to adoption. Something like Traits requires the adoption of both sides of the participants in RSS – the channel providers and the software developers that make the clients. The result? A “You go first. No, you go first…” type of stalemate.

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