I think my RSS news reader is smarter than your Al Gore rhythm

(Sidenote: On SmallBusiness.com, I’ve written about the new Getty embed feature like the one I’ve posted above.)

The Verge has an interesting take on the acquisition earlier this week of the mobile app owned by CNN, Zite, by Flipboard, another app that does the same thing as Zite, but differently and with greater success (apparently).

Here’s a clip from the piece:

“The premise of apps like these is that they will find interesting articles for you that you never would have seen otherwise….And yet for all the millions spent and the machine-learning algorithms that have been built, none of them have improved on the big portals — CNN, The New York Times — or social networks like Twitter or Facebook, which bring you both the news and the conversation happening around it. Newsreading-app developers hire PhDs to do the easiest thing imaginable — find you something interesting on the internet that you haven’t already seen — and then beat you over the head with it, bludgeoning you with an endless barrage of links that never feel half as personalized as they’re made out to be.”

I especially agree with the writer on two things: (1) Twitter does a good job of finding me things I would have missed if I didn’t use Twitter (along with lots of links to cat videos, but still) and (2) I agree with the premise that PhDs don’t seem to be unlocking the secret of relevancy and context necessary to make their algorithms better than what I can hack together with other tools. It’s much like the way advertising “retargeting” algorithms consistently misinterpret why a web user might surf by a product without having any interest in purchasing it).

Where I disagree with the analysis is this: There is a technology that allows people to personalize and customize a flow of news that’s been around since the Mesozoic era of the web. It’s called RSS and is an often misinterpreted part of the infrastructure of the web that enables us to access content as a real-time flow of news, audio, video, etc. (Despite the never-ending predictions that somehow RSS will die, I’ve written before why that’s never going to happen.)

Ironically, the Verge piece not only fails to mention RSS, it fails to even mention that Flipboard is a self-proclaimed RSS newsreader.

But the thing is…

Flipboard, doesn’t look like an RSS newsreader. The vast amount of coverage it has received (and that’s a vast amount) has focused on its user interface that replicates, in skeuomorphic fashion, the conventions of a print magazine, specifically (thus, its name) the virtual flipping of pages.

I’ve always considered it a bit ironic that web-based tech and media writers would buy into the notion that the ability to turn a page is the killer feature of magazines that should be ported over to the web. I would think, rather, that great writing and graphics that work together to tell great stories would be.

Setting the stage for a real showdown

So here we are in 2014 and we’re still looking for ways that the web was supposed to do something promised to us by Al Gore when he invented the internet: Customize and personalize content and deliver it up to us with our morning coffee and toast.

For a moment, I’ll ignore that this blog has 12 years of me talking about this topic and pretend that we are starting out today and no one has ever actually thought of the hundreds of ways that exist for people to do this. In other words, let’s pretend to be like the Verge article.

Let’s make this a show down between what we will pretend are “brand new” personalized, customizable news catching filters created by people who weren’t around for endless iterations of this concept.

Here’s what we can do to test this brand new, never thought of before, “algorithm vs. human” theory.

(1) First, do whatever it is that you do now to catch up on whatever topic you turn to the web for. (Sort of like what scientists might call, “the control.”)

(2) Set up a TweetDeck account (or use the one you already have) for tracking a few hashtags (Here’s how.). If you are willing to spend five minutes learning to do it, set up some lists of Twitter users or topics you’d like to follow.

(3) Set up a Flipboard account (it’s an iPad/iPhone, Android app) and follow the standard instructions of how you should subscribe to the topics. Some of the instructions will result in you subscribing to an RSS feed, but they (wisely, perhaps) have hidden the “how it works” and are focusing on the “what it enables.”

(4) Set up an account on Feedly.com (an RSS newsreader with an interface and instructions you’ll understand that has an app version and is also available in a browser). While there are other new-fangled RSS newsreaders that are far superior to Google’s now defunct newsreader, Feedly is what I use, so I’m most familiar with its strengths and weaknesses.

(5) (Optional) Set up a Zite account (like, Flipboard, an app) and let their algorithms do their magic. It looks like Flipboard but the test is over the algorithm vs. manually choosing news sources.

(6) (Optional) Download the new app from Facebook called Paper and see their version of recommending news stories based on the preferences of people who were your kindergarten classmates.

I know that I’ve already revealed what I think you’ll discover is best among this group for  delivering a consistent flow of the most relevant and personal content, in the most efficient way. I trust the network of smart news catchers I’ve put together manually more than those that aggregate their suggestions by algorithm.

Suggestion: Step back from the Pinterest hyperbole, my friends

Illustration: Caldwell Tanner

I know it will be hard for some readers of this blog, but imagine you haven’t read anything about Pinterest during the past few weeks.

Pretend you didn’t know it raised $27 million or that it was “white hot” from catching fire. Forget that you’ve been told that it’s a web platform that’s used primarily by women (58%) or that it is doing something to get commissions on links without informing users. And most of all, ignore anything from a website that would run a story that’s pure link-trolling by suggesting Pinterest is enabling copyright theft on the scale of Megaupload. (I’ve not linked to the troll.)

For this post, forget all of that stuff and let’s try to explore what Pinterest is, is not, maybe could be, but likely won’t be.

These are my opinions based on several credentials that I have never before even  considered credentials. But after reading a massive amount of crap over the past week, I feel certain these make me more of an expert on Pinterest than most of the people who wrote that crap.

First credential:  I’ve actually used Pinterest for several weeks before writing about it. I started using it right after Christmas, because I knew this time would come and I didn’t want to write about what I think it is, but what I know it is from being a user.

The account I have used to learn about Pinterest is Pinterest.com/smallbusiness, if you’d like to check it out. It is a collection of “boards” about topics that I think are better displayed visually than with text. I chose the topic of small business for two other reasons I consider credentials. First, I host the wiki, SmallBusiness.com which means I devote lots of time to the taxonomy of web-based information designed for a specific audience, a credential that helps me understand anything related to categories and niche content. More importantly, I have actively “pinned” (although I use the more common web-word, “bookmarked,”) small business related articles for over five years, using Delicious.com/smallbusiness, a service I suggest  at the end of this post, is becoming Pinterest-like, yet in a more open-web-friendly way. On Delicious.com, I have bookmarked and categorized almost 6,000 news articles, blog posts and other information.

The genealogy of Pinterest: Bookmarking hyperlinks

First, some background.

One of the benefits and/or handicaps of participating for 20 years in activities that now have labels like social media or user-generated content is that I can’t pretend that what I see today isn’t built on foundations that were laid a long time ago.

I was there when blogging first gained popularity (this blog goes way-back) so I know that in the early days, a big part of what I did on this blog was bookmark articles that were of interest to me that I thought would be of interest of the people I worked with. What I didn’t realize was that people who I didn’t work with would find those links of interest also.

Because this blog first started on a blogging platform created by Dave Winer, a person who pioneered and evangelized and defended with great passion (and continues to) many of the conventions that have evolved into what is popularly labeled, “social media,” I learned by subscribing to his RSS feed that, over time, posting bookmarks of news articles can be some of the best blogging there is. Over the years, I’ve discovered that “link blogs” like Andy Baio’s Waxy.org/links are the key to staying aware of things I’d never know about were it not for his willingness to share things from parts of the web I’d never see. (I once asked Andy something people ask me all the time, “Where do you find that stuff?” His answer was something like, “I have a constantly edited newsreader.” Wow, I thought. That’s my answer, also.)

So why do I mention all of this?

Because, at its core functionality and utility, Pinterest is a link blog. Moreover, it belongs to a category of link blogs we used to call bookmarking services. In presentations I’ve made for over five years, I have used a slide called, “sharing links” as a personal expression that I equate to posting photos or video or text or audio.

Indeed, I could argue (and heck, I’ll go ahead and do so) link blogging is the most valuable form of personal expression there is on the web.

Why? Because, when you break it all down, the most radical, revolutionary and disruptive thing on the web is the hyperlink.

Hyperlinks are so valuable to the web that a multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up based solely on trying to insert links into the web in ways that are, at times, ethical, and at other times, criminal.

A web without hyperlinks would be nothing more than an information Superhighway where only the big brands could afford locations next to the rest stops and exits. Without hyperlinks, the web would be the way giant media companies envisioned it back in the early 1990s — visions that flopped like Time Warner’s interactive television.

Strip Pinterest down to its underwear and you’ll discover a robust platform for creating and organizing hyperlinks that is based on the same principles that started out with early blogs (and back before we called them blogs) and that today, when packaged differently, are the basis of anything that aggregates recommended links in new ways ranging from Flipboard to whatever Twitter turns Summify into.

What makes Pinterest special?

Pinterest is a pure-play book-marking service however it has followed a brilliant plan  other successful social media platforms have followed: In describing itself to potential users, it doesn’t mention anything related to technology, social media, blogs, or especially bookmarking. Perhaps, using the “pin” metaphor instead of the “bookmark” metaphor was its most brilliant move.

Pinterest is successful, in part, because it doesn’t look like anything geeky or “link bloggish.” It’s pretty and minimal and utilizes a metaphor that’s as un-geekish as anything imaginable, a bulletin board. (On second thought, bulletin board can be a geekish metaphor.)

It is drop-dead simple to use. Wait. It’s even more simple than that.

It’s what people mean when they say, “build a better mouse trap.”

Pinterest is an incredibly better mouse trap for certain kinds of users.

It’s the kind of thing you use for the first time and wonder why this is the first time you’ve ever used something like this. Except you have, but it’s so much better, you don’t recognize it.

Why then, do I appear not as mesmerized as others about Pinterest? Nor as outraged about it as still others?

First off, if you go to that Pinterest account I’ve been maintaining, I think it will show that I believe it can be a wonderful platform for doing what I’ve done there.

Unfortunately, that’s showing off how it’s a better mousetrap. Not how it’s going to change the world — or even be the best mousetrap. To sustain the wave of micro-celebrity it has received during the past few weeks, it must continually improve its mouse-trappery.

When I first started looking at Pinterest, I thought they’d made a mistake by focusing on a narrow demographic: Women who have certain hobbies or interests that have already done scrap-booking and pinning offline. When I first saw it, I thought they should have done like Twitter and let different demographics discover what they could do with the platform. (Pinterest, by adding “sports” and other “manly” topics seems to be attempting to retrofit its image, and if 32% of its users are males, those topics might be working — or those 32% might be males who are into crafts and decorating and cooking, and me.)

After using it a couple of months, I’ve decided they were smart to focus on a defined marketplace because to become a platform for all people and all topics is going to be impossible for them. That would be a war. They are going to be too busy fighting lots of battles to win that war.

Is Pinterest a den of thieving pirates?

Without getting into it, there are some who are suggesting that a lot of the photography that’s appearing on those Pinterest boards are copyrighted images stolen from their owners. While I’m not a lawyer, I’ll pretend to know what I’m talking about for the sake of argument. I think it is silly to suggest Pinterest users are doing something equivalent to people who upload pirated movies onto Megaupload (as stated on some highly visible blog posts during the past couple of days). However, it is not silly to suggest what Pinterest is doing pushes the envelop on some previously court-blessed uses of web content that could provide more rounds of legal wrangling on the topic of photography usage on the web.

Without getting too deeply into this topic, you have to consider the Pinterest image issue in the context of legal decisions that enable Google’s “image search” to provide search-results pages filled with images it doesn’t own. However, you’ll notice on Google’s search-results pages that no Google ads appear. Why not? Because such ads would make it easier for a plaintiff to argue that Google is monetizing content being scraped from another site.

If you’ve followed the Pinterest saga over the past week, you know that Pinterest did have a model of monetizing certain links on pages where scrapped photography appears. However, once discovered, Pinterest dropped that practice. (A side geeky and legal-theory issue for anyone who has made it this far: On Google, the thumbnails are hosted on Google servers, but when you click on the image and see it enlarged, the image appears to be the one hosted on the site linked to. Logically, this would seem to be a practice that would enable Pinterest to claim it doesn’t “download” images. They could also use the type of logic the app Flipboard uses when it claims the images appearing via it service are being fed via RSS and that users are merely seeing images they have subscribed to as permitted by the blog or website on which the image originated. In other words, if Pinterest is targeted as a thief, companies like Google and Flipboard and hundreds of others might have reason to join forces in defending it.)

Bottomline, in my opinion: The Pinterest model of being a visual bookmarking service is probably legal — and is probably beneficial to the owners of the copyrighted material to whom Pinterestest users are sending traffic. But being wrong never stopped people from suing.  [Later: LLSocial.com reports that Pinterest has made some code available to any website that wants to block the site’s user from pinning its photos. While I doubt too many take them up on it, this will provide Pinterest some room for defending itself against claims that it encourages piracy. I’m not sure the internet (the opinion-shaping people part) will view this opt-out approach as being much more than window dressing, however).]

Is Pinterest the next Facebook, Twitter et al?


But I’m not sure it wants to be, nor needs to be, in order to be successful. There are lots of ways to be successful without being Facebook or Twitter. Pinterest has a good product for its  targeted audience. If it becomes a dominant player in that market, there’s lots of ways to make everyone associated with it very rich.

Another thing: While Pinterest is an awesome way to create a visual display of bookmarked photos, my six weeks of using it has convinced me that it is dependent 100% on its users, but it rejects lots of conventions that all of the other social media platforms its being compared to are based on. The lack of these conventions (keyword tagging, exportability of user-contributed data, only one type of RSS feed) mean that developers who could create easy extensions to the site won’t feel so inclined.

On the other hand, I look at what is taking place at a service like Delicious.com and I see a platform that is doing everything Pinterest is doing, including transforming one of the most anti-user-friendly experiences in the social media space into one of the best ones. A site like Delicious, whose current owners started YouTube, know how to create a platform that can be adapted into anything the user wants to turn it into…and know that to do that, you have to be as friendly as possible to the open web.

In the coming weeks, I’ll demonstrate what I mean when I compare Delicious to Pinterest, as there will be those who claim the two have nothing in common.

But just wait. You’ll see.

[Later: I was reminded later about a similar time in its development when I wrote a lot about what Twitter is (existentially, speaking) and recalled that I had once pointed to a post by Fred Wilson, in which he said, “Twitter has never been about technology….Twitter, like all social media, is about the people who use it.” Bottomline, Pinterest is, too.]