Changes to subscription services

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry if this is a somewhat geeky post.

I am using the Feedburner feed service. It allows many of you to acquire this blog through various mechanisms that don’t actually require that you to come to the site, a great way to read the blog if you are busy and/or lazy. It either emails my posts to you or by caching it on the Feedburner site makes it highly available in your feed reader.

Feedburner was the first to succeed in this market. It hadn’t been in operation too many years before it was acquired and Google and stuffed into its vast holdings. There it has been languishing, still working, but ignored. I can tell it is not being maintained because Google turned off the Feedburner API. In addition, it can’t even bother to maintain the documentation on the site. For example, it references Google Reader and iGoogle, which it retired a year or so back. This means that Feedburner is becoming untrustworthy. Google will probably get rid of it at some point.

Syndication is an important way for me to distribute my blog posts. Feedburner says I had 118 subscribers on average over the last week. This includes 22 active email subscribers. Given Feedburner’s problematic and untrustworthy status, I need to take some actions.

Those of you who subscribe via email will start receiving posts from my blog instead. Mail will come from mark@occams-razor.info. It’s possible your email program will move this into spam or trash. You may need to create a rule or filter to put these in your inbox. Each email should contain a link allowing you to unsubscribe.

Those of you that subscribe via news aggregators like feedly.com may need to change the feed URL. Rather than get it from Feedburner, you need to get it directly from my site. This generic feed URL should work fine: https://www.occams-razor.info/feed/.

You can also choose feeds for a specific feed protocol:

Thank you and thanks for reading the blog.

Google, please don’t kill Reader!

The Thinker by Rodin

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

Google, the benevolent overlord of the Internet, last week bared its teeth and bit us. Oh maybe not you personally, but certainly those of us who depend on Google Reader. Reader is not the only product that Google announced that it is pulling. It is also pulling its user portal, iGoogle.

Unsurprisingly, I first learned about this in Google Reader, which is where I spend a good part of my day. First there was the announcement in Reader itself saying it was going away July 1, and providing a convenient link so that you can download your list of sites to import into a different newsreader. But also, my Google Reader soon became full of articles about Reader’s demise. Indeed, I used Google Reader to learn about an online petition on change.org to try to persuade Google to keep Reader. I immediately signed it, of course, as have more than 120,000 others, but the mighty overlord is likely to be tone deaf to our requests.

Secretly, I think that Google suffers from passive aggressive behavior. That’s because it now wants me to do everything in Google +, its latest social network, because it has a serious problem with Facebook envy. It has been aggressively pushing me to use G+. I believe that Reader’s demise is at least in part because people continue to doggedly use it rather than G+. It’s pretty obvious why we are still using Reader: it is a really elegant solution to reading lots of content that we care about.

Still, it is not popular like GMail. It is one of their niche products, something they threw together as newsfeeds began to take off. Newsfeeds are still all over the place. Most sites wanting to attract traffic wouldn’t be caught dead without a newsfeed, along with their Twitter account and Facebook page. It’s all part of building, promoting and sustaining a brand on the web.

With Reader, I don’t usually have to visit a web site to read its content. I simply grab its feed, which it usually advertises either explicitly with a link on its page or implicitly with HTML markup that my browser recognizes. With a couple of clicks the site’s news will be forever tucked inside Google Reader. Now I can go to one place, Google Reader, to read content for all my favorite sites and favorite bloggers. I don’t necessarily have to visit the site again, unless the publisher chooses to publish only teaser text and I choose to read more on the site. Infoword.com, one of the many sites I have in Reader, uses this approach. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with tech news without these site’s newsfeeds.

Reader saves so much time by keeping me from needlessly going to sites of interest. It’s like my own personal newspaper of the web, always topical, and always with stuff I am likely to care about. Okay, maybe 80% of it I don’t care all that much about. Most of what I read amounts to scanning headlines and then digging deeper if I find the content of more interest. I do the same thing with a newspaper. I scan the headlines but except for the front page rarely make it beyond the first couple of paragraphs of an article. That’s the whole point of a newsreader like Google Reader: to allow you to efficiently browse news and content. A good newspaper contains all sorts of divergent topical areas: national news, international news, sports, style, arts, local news, business, etc. Reader does this for the web except it customizes it based on your interests. It will even suggest feeds you might like based on what you are reading. It’s like getting the Washington Post without the sports section, which I never read, but with a bonus tech section stuffed with content it knows that I will want to read. In short, it’s brilliant!

Google Reader is certainly not the only newsreader out there; it’s just the first I found that made reading newsfeeds elegant, simple, intuitive and fast. I had tried other newsreaders before Google Reader came out and they all sucked pretty badly. For one thing, Google Reader was web-based whereas most newsreaders were client programs. So you would see stuff at home you already read at work. Reader also has intelligent search algorithms, prefetching your content. Boom! It’s there. If you see something of interest that you want to read later, you just “star” it and it keeps your list of starred items indefinitely.

Clearly Reader is not for everyone since you have to be a bit geeky to get it. A little education on the business of “feeds” is in order. It helps to know what a newsfeed is, how to subscribe to it and why Atom formatted feeds may be better than RSS 2.0 feeds. (Actually, there’s a bit of a holy war about this.) Once you “get” it, and it’s generally the geeks that quickly grasp the enormous potential of a newsfeed, then the only question is “which newsreader?” After you try a half dozen and you try Google Reader, you don’t want to use anything else but Reader, even if it is boring black type on white pages.

The argument against newsfeeds is that you can get the same stuff by other means. Everyone is publishing to Twitter now, so follow the site on Twitter. And maybe that’s okay if you live your life on Twitter and find the most elegant Twitter client to organize it for you. But not everyone publishes to Twitter and there are only 120 characters there per tweet. Typically a tweet is full of annoying hashtags and @ symbols to parse. It comes across like Spanglish. Facebook is another sort of alternative. Often a site’s Facebook page will have similar content, or not, but again you have to be a Facebook aficionado and read your Facebook newsfeed, which likely includes tons of stuff from friends and family to throw you off stride. The whole point of newsfeeds though is that they are independent of proprietary delivery mechanisms. They are about liberating content on the web. One of its chief evangelists and founder of reddit.com Aaron Swartz recently committed suicide, arguably because he was pushing too hard for the idea that information should be free.

This stuff matters. Newsfeeds matter. No, I’m not kidding. They really matter, big time! In my case it matters because it is an incredibly efficient way to read or at least scan lots of relevant content. Newsfeeds are like Cliff Notes for recent content on the web that you care about. It may be geeky and unsexy but it matters. Most likely the people you read the most on the web also depend on newsfeeds and are probably spending most of their days in Google Reader. That’s how they maintain their edge. If in part I manage at all the project an erudite manner on this blog it comes across because I read a lot, I read it fast, and I read it efficiently in Google Reader.

But it will soon be gone! Which means that while newsfeeds will still be around that I must find another way to get my news. I am experimenting with alternatives, and the Feedly browser extension looks promising, but it’s still not Reader. I was used to Reader. It offered zero latency, i.e. I just didn’t have to think about it. Feedly looks gorgeous but I want to be absorbed in the content, not the window dressing.

I wish the mighty Google would rethink this decision. The intellectual brainpower of the Internet is going to decline sharply when they pull the plug on the unsexy but remarkable Google Reader.

The synergy of RSS to Email

The Thinker by Rodin

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about this new cool technology called RSS. Actually, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was hardly new in December 2003. It was introduced by Netscape in 1999 as “RDF Site Summary”. This original version is now quaintly referred to as RSS 0.91.

The problem in 2003 was that RSS had not caught on. Who really wants to manually check the same web sites periodically for new content when a solution like RSS was available? It took a couple trillion web clicks but eventually users realized this was stupid and inefficient. Instead, web savvy people like me were noisily petitioning content providers to create RSS feeds. Eventually web publishers took notice. They realized the cost of implementation was relatively small, the underlying XML dirt simple to generate and that it could expand their market for minimal cost. Now, it is hard to find any web content provider without news feeds. This blog, for example, is accessible in two RSS formats as well as the Atom 1.0 syndication format. According to Feedburner, approximately thirty of you access my blog via my RSS feed. Thanks for subscribing, by the way.

So RSS has caught on to the point where it is widely available, but it is still not as widely used as it should be. Only about 10% of us web surfers regularly fetch web content through news feeds. I can only speculate on why this is so. I know I often prefer the rich content available on a web site to the relatively dry text that comes through with RSS. Both Internet Explorer and Firefox let you subscribe to a site’s news feed with a couple clicks, providing the site adds appropriate tags to its HTML.

Syndication formats like RSS and Atom thus serve a different purpose than a browser. We visit web sites for the relative ease of finding the depth of information at a site. We subscribe to news feeds because we want its regular content on a small range of specialized topics. Those of us who are religious about reading content via a newsreader know that it is very efficient at aggregating feeds for us. Yet it lacks the breadth of information that is available on the web site. A newsreader does not facilitate curiosity the way a browser does.

Many of us would probably like to subscribe to hundreds of news sources but really do not have time to read all of them, even with the efficiency built into a newsreader. For example, there may be a site that you only want to read quarterly. In addition, these sites may have pertinent information, but much of it may be irrelevant to our needs.

The problems with email are well known. Given the overwhelming amount of spam, it is hard to legitimate email to make it to your inbox. There is never any assurance that you have received all email sent to you. More email than you think gets lost, but much of it probably ends up in spam folders because spam filters generate too many false positives. As dreadful as missing an important email is to us, many of us fear the alternative even more: having to sift through the dozens or hundreds of spam emails we would get daily if we turned off our spam filters.

I have been wondering if RSS might be an effective solution to broadcasting certain kinds of information. Generally you do not have to worry about an RSS feed containing spam, since you typically verify that the site is legitimate by visiting the site. Once you know it is legitimate, you then can add its RSS feed. However, as I noted, unless you are meticulous about using your newsreader on a daily basis, it is easy to lose these timely notifications.

For those feeds where I need certain information, but only sporadically, it would be nice to get an email with the feed content when the feed changes, or when certain keywords appear in the feed. Moreover, when I no longer need to receive a feed from a particular source, it would be nice to have a fast way of unsubscribing from the feed.

As usual, industry is way ahead of me. A simple Google search eventually led me to the RSSReaderLive site, which I have been testing out. You could also choose one of the many other alternatives out there. Among them are RSSFWD, SendMeRSS, and FeedBlitz. FeedBurner also has a notification service. Using RSSReaderLive, the only thing I had to remember is to program my spam filter to let all emails from it go into my inbox automatically. I just have to hope that the email will not end up dropped in some digital bit bucket on its way to my inbox.

As you might expect these services are not necessarily free. You generally have to either pay a small fee for the service or deal with ads in the email. I hope that email clients will get smarter and start polling RSS feeds for you automatically, and include feed items as emails in your inbox. For those who like to diddle with their PCs, there are programs like rss2email that you can install that will act as an RSS to email proxy for you.

I like it when a confluence of standard web technologies (email, the web and newsfeeds) can be leveraged together to solve a problem like this, minor though it may be. It neatly solves the timely broadcast notification dilemma in a way that works for both content providers and consumers.

Content is King: All Hail RSS

The Thinker by Rodin

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) will be for this decade what HTML was for the 1990s. I knew that RSS had arrived when a couple months back no less than Yahoo News began offering its news content in RSS format. Now it seems everyone is jumping on the RSS bandwagon. I’m no exception: both my forum and this web log are exposed as news feeds. (Click on that link on my main page titled “Syndicate this site (XML)” to see an example of a raw news feed.)

If you clicked on that link you are probably wondering why this RSS stuff excites me. It’s just text, for crying out loud you are likely thinking. RSS is nothing but another basic standard for wrapping data, but this time it’s wrapping categorized data, which means that this data is not just data, it’s data on steroids. It is truly information. If the author categorizes an article as Philosophy, for example, it is very likely to be an article about philosophy. This cannot be done with HTML. HTML is only used to instruct a browser on how to present the content. HTML requires a human being to read the page and a human being must infer its categorization, if any.

Like HTML, RSS is a format that has developed critical mass because enough people have agreed to follow it. It has now taken flight. Aided by web sites like Bloglines and lots of easily downloadable desktop newsreader applications like FeedReader it becomes possible to put news that matters to you in one virtual space, aggregated and filtered from numerous sources.

Why is this important? Consider what you have to do now. If for example you want to read Salon.com regularly you have to explicitly decide to go to that site. And while you are there, you may have no interest in the Politics section, but only care about the Life and Entertainment sections. It’s really a waste of your time to go there every day and to drill down to get the content you need. And frankly even with high-speed Internet access it’s still a pain just to wait for pages on the site to load. And then there are other sites you might want to hit on a daily or weekly basis. To get there you have to remember their URLs, or have them book marked. Regardless you must explicitly go there.

It’s like driving to every store you want to go to. How much more convenient life would be if the stores would come to you, at a time that you choose, and show you only things that you are interested in. On the information level, this is what RSS is all about and why it makes geeks like me more than a little giddy. It is also why eventually everyone will use it and wonder how they lived without it.

To a Webmaster like myself this is a bit of a paradigm shift. One of the joys of web mastering to me has been presentation: making my web pages look nice and pretty and inviting. But in reality most people don’t care about pretty web pages. They want content. You probably don’t pick up The New York Times because you admire the pictures or the font type that was used. As a Webmaster the onus now goes back to me to put in place content of value to other people. The format will be streamed as text to RSS newsreaders and web sites. It the content is good enough the user may choose to hit my web site for the full article or similar articles and become more involved in my corner of cyberspace.

We’ve seen things like RSS before. My Yahoo, for example, let’s you organize a web page to show you only the Yahoo content that interests you. These portals though tend to limit the scope of tailored news to a particular domain. RSS provides a generic means to integrate any content from multiple content providers into one tailored presentation space. To make it work though content providers must routinely expose their content as RSS.

On my forum I’ve been playing with RSS for more than a year now. Jim Goldbloom (who runs his own forum called Access Denied BBS) and I have agreed to exchange and present each other’s news feeds. He shows the most recent topics on my site on his site, and I show his most recent topics on my site. This is convenient to both communities of users because some inhabit both sites, and people who routinely hang out on one site might well start hanging out on the other. But I also integrate news feeds that I think are relevant to a forum that strives to bring together a geographical community. So I have a Washington Post Metro stories news feed, and a news feed for local Craigslist discussions, and I even found a site called LocalFeeds.com that allows me to locate blog entries that are geographically close to the Washington area.

The virtue of RSS, like HTML, is that it is really simple. Most web content that is dynamic in nature is stored on a web server in some sort of database. In my case, the content is stored in a MySQL database and rendered on demand via engines like PHP and Perl. It doesn’t take a genius programmer to write a program or two to turn this information into an XML compliant RSS news feed.

It won’t be much longer before people who routinely read my forum and my web log will see it in their newsreader or newsreader website first. They may not actually visit my site for months at a time. There is no need to do so if the content is delivered to their electronic door for them.

With Yahoo News exposing its news as RSS we can expect other large media companies to join in, if they haven’t already. It is still frustrating at times that more of content is not exposed as RSS. Washingtonpost.com, for example, appears to be RSS free, although there are companies like NewsIsFree that parse their content and turn them into RSS news feeds. I’ve contracted with NewsIsFree for headline news for my forums and it works great. But their business model is I think ultimately doomed. With the cost of providing an RSS news feed rapidly dropping, people will get the news feeds they need directly or through online RSS directories, rather than through intermediaries that parse HTML into RSS.

RSS will need to continue to evolve. Content providers will need to find ways to provide more flexible news feeds. For example, I might want a customized news feed from WashingtonPost.com of any article with the words “President Bush” and “national security” in it posted over the last 24 hours. Again, this is not difficult to do. Arguably content providers may eventually figure out there is money to be made and offer these features as a subscription web service.

But it’s exciting technology. I like the idea of news I care about pushed to my desktop, or centralized on one web site I can hit at my leisure. RSS provides a means for busy people like me to get more relevant content from the web more quickly. It should minimize my web surfing and make my time spent on line much more efficient.