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.

Flipboard: The product is great, the hyperbole is grating

flipboardFlipboard is a creative and beautifully crafted iPad app that performs something you can do dozens of ways (use RSS, APIs of Twitter and Facebook, et al and content scraped from websites to deliver a flow of news and information), but Flipboard does it in a new and beautiful way: in a graphically rich, smartly engineered and refreshingly serendipitous fashion. The metaphor they use for this display is “magazine” but unlike many online website publishers who use the magazine metaphor, but with little in common with the paper-based medium, Flipboard actually captures some of the essence of a magazine experience (but it won’t find a place on your coffee-table).

But there is a “flip” side to the recent launch of Flipboard that has the potential of derailing the app as envisioned with the first generation version the founders and backers used to launch the company (note to those who will misinterpret what I just said: I didn’t say the company could fail, I said specifically that the current concept of what the product Flipboard “is” and “does” could be derailed).

The creators of the well-received and impressive product blundered right out of the gate with a strategy that seems influenced and engineered by experienced and deep-pocketed “veterans” who are convinced the only way to succeed is to instantly create a market for something the market didn’t know existed, and to instantly capture 100% of its market-share before others figure out what’s hit them. That’s the way people who have been around the block a few times think. (And, frankly, who am I to argue with their billions?)

However, I have seen lots of great web-based and media ideas come and go, and almost always, the big ones started out small and work out the kinks at the stage of a product’s life where you’ve stopped limiting its access to those who are pre-disposed to tell you everything you want to hear. Flipboard failed technically on its first day of wide release by not anticipating the scale necessary to respond to a multi-front tsunami from early “tire-kickers” (never, never confuse people who sign up after a Scobelizer post or TechCrunch article with “adopters” — they’re love-em-and-leave-em early “sign-uppers”).* I’ll skip a sidebar on this topic, and simply encourage you to read Rework.

Another trap the company is falling into is trying to talk its way out of the scrutiny and push-back that comes with massive hoopla by responding to it with well-rehearsed but remarkably unbelievable verbage. Here’s what I mean: In an interview that appears on the website Business Insider, the company’s co-founder and CEO was asked the following, and provided this response:

Flipboard pulls in a lot of text and a lot of photos from online publishers. What do you say to people who say you’re stealing content?

Answer: Actually, there have been probably about 130 publishers that have reached out to us in the last 4 days or so, and unanimously the reaction has been very positive. People want to work with us, partner with us, do Flipboard-optimized content and feature their content in our sections. It’s been universally positive. These publishers basically include all the big guys. If any publishers are at all concerned about the way were using Readability to get the content, or if they feel were showing too much content, it’s very easy for us in a server file to dial that down and do something that they’re more comfortable with.

First off, anyone who has ever talked with — or even heard of — 130 publishers know there is no such thing as a “unanimous” and “universally positive” response to anything, much less to a product that is even remotely associated with something they may be working on, say, an app on which they’ve bet the future of their company. Such bold-faced hyperbole does nothing but sink ones credibility with companies they must work with over the long run.

Secondly, anything that smacks of implying that you know better than the publisher what can “help them” or “save them” may have worked 15 years ago, but forget it today. (The dilemma of trying to use a playbook from a game played a couple of seasons ago.)

The last thing is this. If you don’t think big publishers are going to react negatively to the way Flipbook is trying to draft off magazine brands and content, then you haven’t seen such “recommended sections” as the one pictured above: “New Yorker Writers.” Collecting feeds and content posted on a wide array of websites by writers who have had their work appear in the New Yorker, and then packaging it up in a “social magazine” section called “New Yorker Writers” is not the kind of approach that will receive “universally positive response” from publishers. (See photo above.)

Good luck, guys. I think your app is wonderful. But your key to success will be how you pivot away from the “scraping” practices and “we’re here to save publishing, not compete with it” BS. Your success will come from being honest with publishers, working with them in ways that do something more than hollow-sounding decade-old spin.

*At last count, that sentence mixed about 3-4 metaphors.

Facebook goes River of News


For a few people who are obsessed with the way content flows from creator to consumer (to use a food metaphor), today is a rather interesting day. It’s the day when a concept that started out being called an RSS news reader — and specifically, a concept called “River of News” — goes as mainstream as anything can go in contemporary culture — the concept became the default front page a user sees when logging onto Facebook. Today, however, few people will use the term RSS news reader to describe what’s taking place. And “River of News” will not be discussed — unless it’s by people who like to argue over such things.

Today, the “news” will be about how outraged some people are going be that Facebook has its second new re-design of the year. (I haven’t seen the “outrage” stories yet, I’m just guessing based on previous coverage of any time anyone changes anything.)

More on the re-design in a minute, but first let me say something that needs to be noted: What Vint Cerf is to the Internet or Tim Berners Lee is to the World Wide Web, Dave Winer is to content “feeds.” (And please, before you start telling me that feeds have been around since 19-whatever, I’ll agree that feeds have been around since cave drawings — I’m talking here about feeds that depend on a contemporary conceptualized approach that utilizes XML protocols and standards (i.e., RSS, but not just RSS), APIs and other means to power all sorts of content syndication.)

Let me be clear: Just as I wouldn’t say Vint Cerf or Tim Berners Lee are to be credited with (or blamed) for what people have done with news feeds and the River of News concept (i.e., the ways in which it has been bastardized or attempts to “commercialize” it), I wouldn’t say Dave Winer should be credited with (or blamed) for how “feeds” are used today.

What I’m saying is this: When I look at the redesign of Facebook, I see Dave’s influence all over it, from permalinks, attached media files, to the entire concept of having content from lots of different sources flow into one “reader.” (Again, please, don’t jump in with the “there were newsreaders before RSS came along — that’s another argument for another post.)

Anything good about the new Facebook news feed, I’ll credit Dave. Anything bad, I’ll blame others.

Okay, here’s some other thoughts on the re-design of Facebook:

The last “re-design” took place earlier this year and at the time, I wrote a post called, “Users are great for helping you tweak products, but don’t ask when you want break through ideas.” At the bottom of this post, I’ve am re-posting that in full, as it’s as applicable today as it was then.

First, however, I want to review a timeline for those reading this who don’t obsess over such things (which, I hope, is most of you):

1. The FaceBook redesign of March 22 was a direct rip-off of inspired by the service FriendFeed. (FriendFeed aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses and streams it into one nice flow: See my FriendFeed page for an example, or look at the widget over in the righ-hand column to see the most recent “gestures” of mine it has picked up.)

2. On August 10, FaceBook acqhired FriendFeed and I wrote, “Facebook needs the people they’ve acqhired via the acquisition of FriendFeed. Whether they’ll actually listen is another story.”

3. On October 23, the new FriendFeed people stage a coup and take over the Newsfeed page (which is the default “front page” for users).

RexBlog ReRun

Users are great for helping you tweak products,
but don’t ask when you want break through ideas

(Originally posted on March 22.)

Robert Scoble has jumped into the debate over the new interface design of Facebook. Scoble’s piece expresses an insight I believe is too often missed by those who confuse the concept of “pleasing the user” with “creating breakthrough ideas.” In his post, Scoble does a tremendous job of describing why “like” is the breakthrough idea that is the foundation of the new Facebook design. Of course, the whole “like” idea is not Facebook’s idea (more on this later), but making “like” and “comment” central to the idea of what Facebook is is (to quote a former President).

Scoble (and I) are fans of Kathy Sierra, creator of O’Reilly’s Head First book series and a presenter extraordinaire. Over the years, in evangelizing what software developers need to do to create “passionate users,” she has addressed the need to create “breakthrough ideas” instead of merely better products. Last week in Austin, I was able to catch Kathy presenting to 1,500 of her fans and was reminded once more of how she can explain in a polite, yet explicit way, that focus groups and user research has its place, but that place is not in helping you design great software. It helps you tweak software, she says, but it’s no help when you want to create breakthrough ideas.

Another incredible discussion thread that is bouncing around the tech blogosphere this week about “research-driven design decisions” vs. “break through ideas” was started with this essay by Douglas Bowman, in which he announced his departure as the lead visual designer at Google. Design, of course, is merely one aspect of breakthrough ideas, however, the process of design at Google, as Bowman describes it (and as revealed in recent profiles of Marissa Mayer), seems obsessed with research into iterative changes (as in, what shade of blue gets more clicks) rather than creating something that changes everything. Bowman admits (who wouldn’t?) it’s hard to question anything Google does, as they have the users and money to prove they’re right and everyone else is wrong. However, as someone who uses Google products to the point of considering turning everything over to them (heck, even moving this blog to Blogger.com), I’m more impressed by their ability to make products solid and simple than with their ability to come up with anything new. (And, frankly, to me making web applications solid and simple is a breakthrough idea.)

I say all this to emphasize that I agree with Scoble: What Facebook is doing is not necessarily original, but it is building on a foundation they have that will help create the opportunity for breakthrough ideas. While most of the analysis I’ve read has compared the new Facebook design to Twitter, I believe that comparison is wrong. To me, it seems obvious the benchmark for “the new Facebook design” is FriendFeed. (As those who’ve made it this far likely know, FriendFeed was created by some Google alumni and is one of many services — but the most popular among the A-List geeks — that aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses (i.e., sharing a photo via Flickr, favoring a video on YouTube, reviewing a restaurant on Yelp). If you’re reading this on my blog (vs. via an RSS reader or on Facebook), over on the right you can see a sidebar box (widget) that displays the headlines from my FriendFeed account, something I call jokingly, “The River of Rex.”

While the FriendFeed creators seemed purposeful in not trying to replicate or compete head-on with Facebook (Exhibit #1: The service has no user profile page), they obviously served as a proof of concepts that didn’t go unnoticed by Zuckerberg & Co. Concept #1: You don’t need lots of complicated “invite and display” applications to get users to aggregate every social media thing they do. Concept #2: Those “like” and “comment” fields make every tidbit of content a launchpad for conversation and insight.

Unlike past attempts by Facebook to change the service in ways that violated principles of trust or privacy, I believe the new design will actually be of great benefit to Facebook users — after they get over the whinning. So put me in the 5% group: I like the new Facebook design. I believe it serves the user (rather than screws them like the previous changes). In fact, I like it a lot.

However, I think soon the word “like” will be as confusing as the word “friend” is today.

Happy “5th” Anniversary, Podcasting (well, not actually)


First off: Today is not actually the fifth anniversary of podcasting. Dave Winer had demo’d file enclosures distributed via RSS over three years earlier. In other words, RSS-enabled audio and video distribution was almost four years old, five years ago today.

However, today is the 5th anniversary of Doc Searls writing a seminal post in which he explained what podcasting was to those folks like me who look to Doc to help us understand stuff we don’t quite get. (Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of me repeating what I learned from Doc.)

Despite being almost four years after Dave Winer demonstrated how podcasting could work, how early was September 28, 2004 in the era of podcasting? Well, here’s a pretty good indication from what Doc wrote five years ago today:

“But now most of my radio listening is to what Adam Curry and others are starting to call podcasts. That last link currently brings up 24 results on Google. A year from now, it will pull up hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions.

For the record, the Google link to the word “podcasts” now has 61+ million results.

However, rather than look back over the past five years, I’m celebrating this anniversary by linking to a post that Doc wrote over the weekend. It’s something that you may not think about for another four years. And it might take nine years for what he’s writing about to really sink in. But by then, you’ll be able to do a Google search and get 65-million results on a word that may not even be used today to describe what this quote is about.

At this point in history, Twitter soaks up nearly all the oxygen the microblogging room. Thus there is no widely adopted open infrastructure for microblogging. (Identi.ca and the OpenMicroBlogger folks have worked hard on that, but adoption so far is relatively small.) But, given time, something will take. I’d place a bet Dave’s RSS Cloud. It’s live, or real-time. It’s open infrastructure. And, as Dave put it here, it has no fail whale.

Read the whole thing. And then ponder over the coincidence of the time-frame on which it was posted. I doubt even Doc had any idea of the anniversary.

If I think back hard enough, I can start making connections between RSS Cloud and podcasting and Twitter and Dave and Doc. But this is about the future.

When it comes to microblogging — or short-message relay services — or real-time syndication — or whatever it’s one-day called, the future will be here before you know it.

A blog post from me-to-you in ‘real-time’


[via: ReadWriteWeb.com]:

“All blogs on the WordPress.com platform and any WordPress.org blogs that opt-in will now make instant updates available to any RSS readers subscribed to a new feature called RSSCloud. There is currently only one RSS aggregator that supports RSSCloud, Dave Winer’s brand-new reader River2. That will probably change very soon.”

By “change very soon,” Marshall Kirkpatrick (who wrote that post) is suggesting other publishers of RSS feeds (and the newsreaders, etc., that read them) will likely follow WordPress.com in supporting the <cloud> element which, according to Dave Winer, first appeared in January, 2001.

Without getting too technical (something that would require me to actually understand how it works), this means that blog posts (or anything that is published to an RSS feed) can be distributed with the real-time speed of Twitter tweets or text-messages or Instant Messaging.

While you may not recognize the current delay between when a post is published and when it shows up on your (virtual) doorstep, you will during the next breaking news event if you see it being covered in an online story that is being updated tweet-like, sentence-by-sentence, in realtime — with no concern for the 140-character limitation, or lack of media attachments, that make Twitter less-than-optimal in providing paragraph-length information.

Bonus: Matt Mullenweg officially announces the WordPress support of RSSCloud.