👓 It’s Time For an RSS Revival | Wired

Read It's Time For an RSS Revival by Brian Barrett (WIRED)
After years of letting algorithms make up our minds for us, the time is right to go back to basics.

This article, which I’ve seen shared almost too widely on the internet since it came out, could almost have been written any time in the past decade really. They did do a somewhat better job of getting quotes from some of the big feed readers’ leaders to help to differentiate their philosophical differences, but there wasn’t much else here. Admittedly they did have a short snippet about Dave Winer’s new feedbase product, which I suspect, in combination with the recent spate of articles about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, motivated the article. (By the way, I love OPML as much as anyone could, but feedbase doesn’t even accept the OPML feeds out of my  core WordPress install though most feed readers do, which makes me wonder how successful feedbase might be in the long run without better legacy spec support.)

So what was missing from Wired’s coverage? More details on what has changed in the space in the past several years. There’s been a big movement afoot in the IndieWeb community which has been espousing a simpler and more DRY (don’t repeat yourself) version of feeds using simple semantic microformats markup like h-feed. There’s also been the emergence of JSON feed in the past year which many of the major feed readers already support.

On the front of people leaving Facebook (and their black box algorithmic monster that determines what you read rather than you making an implicit choice), they might have mentioned people who are looking for readers through which they can also use their own domains and websites where they own and maintain their own data for interaction. I’ve written about this in more depth last year: Feed reader revolution.

One of the more bleeding edge developments which I think is going to drastically change the landscape in the coming years for developers, feed readers, and the internet consumption space is the evolving Microsub spec which is being spearheaded by a group of projects known as the Aperture microsub server and the Together and Indigenous clients which already use it. Microsub is going to abstract away many of the technical hurdles that make it far more difficult to build a full-fledged feed reader. I have a feeling it’s going to level a lot of the playing field to allow a Cambrian explosion of readers and social related software to better leverage more easily reading content on the web without relying on third party black box services which people have been learning they cannot fully trust anymore. Aaron Parecki has done an excellent job of laying out some parts of it in Building an IndieWeb Reader as well as in recent episodes of his Percolator microcast. This lower hurdle is going to result in fewer people needing to rely solely on the biggest feed readers like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for both consuming content and posting their own content. The easier it becomes for people to use other readers to consume content from almost anywhere on the web, the less a monopoly the social networks will have on our lives.

I truly hope Wired circles around and gives some of these ideas additional follow up coverage in the coming months. They owe it to their readership to expand their coverage from what we all knew five years ago. If they want to go a step or two further, they might compare the web we had 15 years ago to some of the new and emerging open web technologies that are starting to take hold today.

Syndicated copies to:

❤️ Microsub bridge by Ryan Barrett

Liked Microsub bridge by Ryan Barrett (snarfed.org)
If you’re familiar with much of my IndieWeb work, you probably know I’m drawn to building translators, proxies, and bridges to connect different protocols and services that do similar things. There’s been a lot of activity recently around Microsub, a standard API for feed reader clients to talk to feed reader servers. Many existing readers have APIs, so I’ve been thinking about a bridge that would translate those APIs to Microsub, so that reader clients like Together and Indigenous could use traditional reader services like Feedly and NewsBlur as their backend.

This article brings such warmth to my heart. It’s even beyond what I had originally envisioned in Feed Reader Revolution.

I’m salivating what this portends for the web and my ability to read it better in the future!

Syndicated copies to:

Reply to Jon Mitchell on reading bots

Replied to Are you familiar with Reading.am by Jon Mitchell (Everything is ablaze!)
@brentsimmons Are you familiar with Reading.am and/or the many homespun varieties of feeds people use to share what they′re reading online with minimal friction? For me this solved the problem of wanting RSS to have a social component, but it needs no centralized back end. People build a reading bot however they want, and they fire it off when they want to tell the internet “I am reading this.” For example, I trigger mine by using Pinboard just the way I normally would, and its RSS feeds feed the bot.For me this solved the problem of wanting RSS to have a social component, but it needs no centralized back end. People build a reading ...

I like the general idea behind what you’re talking about here Jon, though I may be missing part of the conversation as I came across it via a GitHub issue and it’s taken some time to find even a portion of the conversation on micro.blog, though I suspect I’m missing what I’m sure might be a fragmented conversation.

I too love the idea of indicating what I’ve been reading online. The problem I see is that very few platforms, social or otherwise are focusing on what people are actually reading. Reading.am is the only one I’m aware of. Pocket and Instapaper let people bookmark things they want to read, but typically don’t present feeds of things after they’ve been checked off as having been read.

Most others are systems meant for a specific purpose that are being bent to various other purposes and it’s rarely ever explicit so that everyone knows their intention. As an example, I know people who star, like, favorite or do something else on various platforms to indicate what they’re reading. Some also use these to indicate bookmarks. As a personal example, on Twitter, I sometimes “star” a tweet to indicate I “like” it or it’s a “favorite” while most other times I’m really using the functionality to quickly bookmark an article and use an IFTTT.com recipe to automatically add the URLs of these starred posts to my Pocket account for later reading.

The overarching issue with these is that the general concept is painfully spread out and the meaning isn’t always concrete or explicit. Wouldn’t it be better if it were vastly more specific? In an attempt to do just this, I use my own website, in linkblog-like fashion, to indicate what I’m physically reading. It has an RSS feed that others could subscribe to if they wish to read it elsewhere. I also “syndicate” copies to places like Reading.am or occasionally to Twitter, Facebook, etc. for those who prefer to follow in those locations. Incidentally on Twitter, mine often look a lot like your Twitter feed with visual icons to indicate specific intents.

For something like Evergreen, or any reader really, I’d much prefer if there was UI and functionality to allow me to directly interact with the content I’m reading and post that interaction to my own website (and own it) in a relatively frictionless way. This would be far better than using things like stars to do something that others may not grasp.

In the reading case, it would be cool if I could physically mark something explicitly as “read” in Evergreen, and the reader would post to my website that I’ve actually read the thing. While there are many ways to do this (including RSS), perhaps one of the most interesting currently is the open web standard called Micropub. So my WordPress site has a micropub endpoint (via a plugin) and apps that support it could post to my site on my behalf. If the reader could post to my site via micropub, I could use it to collect and create a feed of everything I’m reading. Similarly readers could also do similar things to explicitly indicate that I mean to bookmark something, or I could use the reader to compose a reply directly in the reader and post that reply to my website (which incidentally could send webmentions to the original website to publish those replies as comments on their site.)

As an example we’re all familiar with, micro.blog has micropub support, so I can use micro.blog’s app to post and micro.blog uses micropub to send the post to my own website.

With the proper micropub support, a reader could allow me to post explicit bookmarks, likes, favorites, replies, reads, etc. to my own website. All of these could then have individual feeds from my site back out. Thus people could subscribe to any (or all) of them as they choose. Want to know what I’m reading? Easy. Want to know what I’m bookmarking or liking? Which events I’ve RSVP’d to? Shazam!

My homepage has a full list of post types I’m currently supporting, and each one of them can be subscribed to individually by adding /feed/ onto the end of the URL.

In summary, let’s try not to impute too much meaning onto a simple star’s functionality when we can be imminently more specific about it. Of course, for completeness, for most readers, we’d also need to change the meaning of the traditional “mark as read” which in reality means, “mark as done” or “don’t show me this anymore”.

For more detail on how this could work in an advanced reader-based world I’ve written a more explicit set of details here: Feed Reader Revolution

And to quote Brent back:

…it’s okay if this is a work in progress and isn’t ready for everybody yet. It’s okay if it takes time. We don’t know how it will all work in the end.

We’re discovering the future as we build it.

Syndicated copies to:

A better way to subscribe to or follow sites on the open web

Just as I was getting sick last week, Colin Walker wrote “There has to be a better way to subscribe to sites.” He’s definitely hit the nail right on the head. The process is currently painful and disorganized, it’s also working on technology that’s almost two decades old and difficult for newcomers at best.

I’ve always posited that one of the reasons that social media silos have been so successful is that they’ve built some fantastic readers. Sure their UI is cleaner and just dead simple, but to a great extent 95% of their product is an evolved feed reader while the other 5% is a simple posting interface that makes it easy to interact. To compare, most CMSes are almost completely about posting interface, and spend very little time, if any, worrying about providing a reading experience.

The IndieWeb has been making some serious strides on making cross-site interactions easier with the Webmention and Micropub protocols, but the holy grail is still out there: allowing people to have an integrated feed reader built into their website (or alternately a standalone feed reader that’s tightly integrated with their site via Micropub or other means).

For those watching the space with as much interest as I have, there are a couple of interesting tools in the space and a few on the immediate horizon that are sure to make the process a whole lot easier and create a new renaissance in the open web.

SubToMe: a Universal Subscribe Button

First, for a relatively simple one-size-fits-all subscribe button, I recommend people take a look at SubToMe which touts itself as a “Universal Follow button” because it  “makes it easy for people to follow web sites,because browsers don’t do it.” The button is fairly straightforward and has an awful lot of flexibility built in. In the simplest sense it has some solid feed detection so it finds available feeds on a web page and then provides a handful of recommended major readers to the user. With two clicks, one can pretty quickly and almost immediately subscribe to almost any feed in their reader of choice. 

For publishers, one can quickly install a simple button on their site. They can further provide a list of specific feeds they want to advertise, and they can even recommend a particular feed reader if they choose.

For consumers, the service provides a simple browser bookmarklet so that if a site doesn’t have a button, they can click a subscribe button in their browser. Then click on a provider. Done. One can also choose a preferred provider to shorten the process.

Almost all the major feed readers are supported out of the box and the process of adding new ones is relatively simple.

Microsub

Since last June there’s been a quietly growing new web spec called Microsub  that will assuredly shake up the subscription and reader spaces. In short it provides a standardized way for clients to consume and interact with feeds collected by a server.

While it gets pretty deep pretty quickly, the spec is meant to help decouple some of the heavy architecture of building a feed reader. In some way it’s analogous to the separation of content and display that HTML and CSS allows, but applied to the mechanics of feed readers and how readers display their content.

There are already a few interesting projects by the names of Together and Indigenous that are taking advantage of the architecture

I can’t wait to see how it all dovetails together to make a more integrated reading and posting interface as well as the potential it has for individual CMSs to potentially leverage the idea to include integrated interfaces into their products. I can’t wait for the day when my own personal website is compatible with Microsub, so that I can use any Microsub client to read my timeline and follow people.

I’m also sure that decoupling the idea of displaying posts from actually fetching remote feeds will make it easier to build a reader clients in general. I hope this has a Cambrian explosion-type of effect on the state of the art of feed readers.

I’d recommend those interested in a high level discussion to have a listen to the following thee short episodes of Aaron Parecki’s Percolator microcast.

Episode 3: Following

Episode 10: Microsub for Readers

Episode 17: It’s 2018!

Featured photo credit: Flock of sheep flickr photo by Jo@net shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Syndicated copies to:

👓 02/02/2018, 12:41 | Colin Walker

Read There has to be a better way to subscribe to sites. by Colin Walker (colinwalker.blog)
There has to be a better way to subscribe to sites. While RSS readers are making a bit of a comeback in certain quarters there's no doubt that, as Sameer puts it, "subscribing to feeds definitely has fallen out of parlance." It's not just that sites need subscribe buttons again, but that using them should not be akin to a dark art. As Dave initially said, echoed by Frank, the social networks have made following easy - reading, writing, following, it's all within the same UI. That's what makes micro.blog unique, it has that familiar social feel but you are actually invisibly subscribing to people's RSS/JSON feeds when following them. The timeline is a glorified feed reader with integrated posting and social elements. That's fine within the confines of a service like micro.blog but what about on the open web when hitting "follow" isn't handled for you? "Remember when all the apps supported RSS? Browsers, email clients, everything!" It used to be so much better but, even then, implementation differed. Chrome just shows us the XML, Safari lost its "subscribe" feature, Firefox seems more feed aware but it's all still unintuitive. Some platforms allow you to set your default feed reader to "open in" - others don't - but this still needs you to understand what feeds are, how they are consumed and choose a reader. There needs to be a way to handle subscriptions on the open web like following a person on a social network. But how? Any solution would require everyone to get on board with compatible options for what most see as an antiquated technology. Perhaps it needs something new. But what? Are browser developers going to reintroduce native subscription options? Doubtful.

I’ve got some thoughts on this forthcoming. Need to get over my head cold soon.

Syndicated copies to:

Reply to What Was Known by Jim Groom

Replied to What Was Known by Jim Groom (bavatuesdays)
...the issue for me was Known was contextless for social media. I often post across various sites in response to things and share my photos as part of a conversation, so doing it through Known seemed a bit like working in a vacuum. I use Twitter less and less for discussion, so I wonder if I would feel different about this now, but what I wanted from Known was a way to also view and respond to Tweets, Facebooks statuses, photos on Flickr, Instagram, etc. A kind of reader for my content that would collapse those various conversations for me, and I could respond through my Known as if I was within those apps. I increasingly thought Known would make an awesome read//write feed reader if it had such a feature. The main reason Known fell by the wayside for me was I was not using it to publish in all these spaces, rather doing it post-facto if at all. Does that make sense?

Interestingly, Known had a lot of these features hidden in code under the hood. Sadly they weren’t all built out. It in fact, did have much of a reader (something which Ben indicated they were going to take out of the v1.0 release to slim down the code since it wasn’t being used). It also had a follow/following block of code (and even a bookmarklet at /account/settings/following) so you could follow specific sites and easily add them to your reader. Also unbeknownst to most was a built-in notifications UI which could have been found at /account/notifications.

It’s a shame that they put many of these half-built features on hold in their pivot to focus on the education market and creating a viable cash flow based company as this is the half that most CMSs lack. (If you think about what makes Twitter and Facebook both popular and really simple, I think it is that they’re 95% excellent feed readers with 5% built-in posting interfaces.)

I’ve managed to replace some of that missing functionality with Woodwind, a reader at http://woodwind.xyz, which one could connect with Known to do the reading and then integrate the posting, commenting, and replies to complete the loop. I do have a few very serious developer friends who are endeavoring to make this specific feed reader portion of the equation much easier to implement (and even self-host) to make the hurdle of this problem far lower, but I suspect it’ll be another 3-6 months before a usable product comes out of the process. For those looking to get more social into their feed readers, I often recommend Ryan Barrett’s appspot tools including https://twitter-atom.appspot.com/ which has instructions for extracting content from Twitter via Atom/RSS. It includes links at the bottom of the page for doing similar things with Facebook, Instagram and Google+ as well.

Interestingly there are now enough moving pieces (plugins) in the WordPress community to recreate all of the functionality Known has, one just needs to install them all separately and there are even a few different options for various portions depending on one’s needs. This includes adding reply contexts for social media as well as  both the ability to syndicate posts to multiple social sites for interaction as well as getting the comments, etc. backfeed from those social sites back into the comments section of your post the way Known did. Sadly, the feed reader problem still exists, but it may soon be greatly improved.

Syndicated copies to:

It’s not the bigger Twitter quit I’ve been debating for a while, but I’ve just taken the intermediate step of removing the Twitter app and its notifications from my phone. I’m going to be using a handful of feed readers to more purposefully consume curated content in the coming year.

I’ll still syndicate content into Twitter and can use my own website to receive @mentions, comments, and likes, so I won’t really be going anywhere. But I will be leaving behind a lot of the curation, maintenance, poor trained/engrained behaviors, as well as a lot of content that really isn’t doing me much good.

In particular, leaving behind a lot of the toxic content makes me feel lighter and happier already.

h/t Richard MacManus and Jonathan LaCour in the past few hours among many, many others in the near past.

Syndicated copies to:

Reply to Aggregating the Decentralized Social Web by Jason Green

Replied to Aggregating the Decentralized Social Web by Jason Green (þoht-hord)
There are actually three problems to solve, reading, which is relatively easy, posting, which is harder, and social graph management, which is quite complex.

Some brief thoughts:

There are actually three problems to solve, reading, which is relatively easy, posting, which is harder, and social graph management, which is quite complex.

I might submit that posting is possibly the easiest of the three and that the reader problem is the most difficult. This is based on the tremendous number of platforms and CMSs on which one can post, but the dearth of feed readers in existence.

Managing your social graph

Something akin to a following list could help this. Or a modified version of OPML subscription lists could work. They just need to be opened up a tad. Some are working on the idea of an open microsub spec which could be transformative as well: https://indieweb.org/Microsub-spec


How do we decentralize the web without so decentralizing our own social presence that it becomes unmanageable?

You’ve already got a huge headstart in doing this with your own website. Why bother to have thousands of accounts (trust me when I say this) when you could have one? Then, as you suggest, password protected RSS (or other) feeds out to others could allow you to control which audiences get to see which content on your own site.


It looks as if Withknown has made some progress in this area with syndication plugins.

WordPress has lots of ways to syndicate content too. Ideally if everyone had their own website as a central hub, the idea of syndication would ultimately die out altogether. At best syndication is really just a stopgap until that point.


Subscribing to my personal timeline(s) with my favorite RSS reader would bring everything together,

I’ve written some thoughts about how feed readers could continue to evolve for the open web here: http://boffosocko.com/2017/06/09/how-feed-readers-can-grow-market-share-and-take-over-social-media/


listed items chronologically independent of source

Having a variety of ways to chop and dice up content are really required. We need more means of filtering content, not less. I know many who have given up on chronological feed reading. While it can be nice, there are many other useful means as well.

Syndicated copies to:

A Following Page (aka some significant updates to my Blogroll)

The humble blogroll is long overdue for some updates in form and functionality on the open web.

I’ve been slowly but surely working on compiling a list of people I’m following online. In older iterations of the web, this would have been known as a blogroll, but I think it’s time to update the concept and potentially add some new features and functionality to it. It’s also time to upgrade its status on my site, so I’m moving it from a widgetized sidebar area on my front page to its own page under my “About” menu.

Why

Information Overload

As a member of more social sites that I have desire to count, I’m often overwhelmed with email, text, and other notifications from many of them. When I do dip into their streams, I sometimes find some reasonable value, but, more often that not, I’m presented with a melange of advertisements and somewhat meaningless and context-less posts that are more like addictive fat, sugar, and salt than healthy protein and complex carbohydrates.

I’ve read books like Clay Johnson’s Information Diet: a Case for Conscious Consumption and P.M. Forni’s excellent Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction which describe an overwhelming media and online social atmosphere with some prescriptive measures for cutting down on the noise. More people obviously need this type of advice and I’m regularly thinking about how to cut down on the noise and get more valuable signal out of my online tools.

An Inventory of Sources

As a result of all this noise from too many sources and social platforms, I’ve found that having a manifest or complete inventory of all my online reading sources can be immensely valuable. It will make it easier to see what I’m reading and consuming on a regular basis and therefor easier to prune or update this list based on how often I’m reading these sources compared to the value I’m getting out of them.

I can look at the titles of the sources and better get a feel for exactly what I’m consuming and possibly how much. Those I don’t read as often can be pruned out of the list or can serve as a reminder of why I wanted to add them in the first place and what I wanted to get out of them.  Better that I be nagged to read things I know I’ll get value out of than defaulting to the fast food-esque fluff that, like many others, I turn to on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram because it’s “easy” to consume.

I’ve also now compiled a year’s worth of reading data for things that I’ve read online. I’ve saved links to literally everything I’ve read in the past full calendar year to my website (though I only choose to show a subsection of those links to the public). This has given me a more solid data set of what I’ve read and interacted with to better guide my decisions about what I should put on the list and what I shouldn’t.

Notifications

As for the notification overload, by moving some of my reading onto my site via the excellent PressForward reader, I can drastically cut down on the number of notifications I get in email or via phone. I can more directly control exactly which notifications (and when they’re sent) that are originating from my own website.

Fighting Algorithms (and winning!)

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the rapid rise of algorithms. In some cases they’ve provided worthwhile improvements to our lives, while in others they’re downright malicious and destructive. This has become drastically more apparent in the past year or so, and I invite those who aren’t aware of their dramatic effects on our lives to read Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction, which does a great job of outlining them for the lay person with no technical background.

Every day these black box algorithms are choosing more and more of what we read and consume. (The only thing worse than the lack of a free press coupled with government controlled media is a corporate algorithmically controlled media which gives you the illusion of freedom.) Because most companies that are using these algorithms in the social space are doing so to keep us more “engaged” and on their sites for longer and clicking their ads with out any transparency, I can no longer trust them. My goals and ideals when reading online content are drastically different than theirs. I want to become more informed, challenged, and made to think. I don’t want their programmatic “reversion to the mean” forcing me to read more memes, jokes, political vitriol, and useless content.

To fight these algorithms, particularly those found in Facebook and to a lesser extent in Twitter, I’m going to cut them off at the knees and consciously choose a set of specific streams to read and engage with. Because I control what goes in to the system, I’ll know exactly what comes out. To touch on the food analogy again, when I cook for myself, I know exactly what the ingredients are and can thus eat a more healthy and well-balanced diet compared to going out and eating fast-food where I’m not ever quite sure if the “beef” is really beef, much less if it’s safe. Yes, I’ll say it, I’m going to go both organic as well as farm-to-table in my online social life.

Twitter thought experiment

Initially I had contemplated declaring Twitter bankrupcy. It seemed like a brilliant and cathartic-ly wonderful idea! But cleaning out my Twitter feed to a much smaller subset ultimately seemed like way too much work. I can only think about the hours and hours of time I’ve spent even creating and categorizing Twitter feeds into lists on my account. (Fortunately others can also follow those curated lists to find some value, so it’s not a total loss.) Starting over again from scratch on my main feed seemed untenable. Even if I did clean it all out, I would potentially have a better feed, but it’s still a feed on a  silo which I don’t own or control and it doesn’t have any effect on needing to repeat the same work on dozens of other silos. Heavy pruning and weeding within someone else’s walled garden seemed like a painful and unscalable time-suck that I would potentially need to repeat on an ongoing basis. It’s akin to the sharecropping of content that I had previously been doing for them and refuse to continue to do so.

The better option seems to be to use open web technologies to create and maintain my own personal list. It’s something I own and can control. I can update it as often as I want. Even better, I only need to do it in one place instead of dozens and the results can be distributed across multiple sites almost instantaneously!

As I’ll also discuss below, my open list is still easily shareable and modifiable by others. So I’m not accruing benefits just to myself, but my work can become scale-able and usable by others.

What

So I’ve gone back to some of the original web technology including blogrolls and OPML files.  I’ve created a Following page where I’m going to share my data. Here’s that page: http://boffosocko.com/about/following/

Context

In creating my list I wanted to go above the traditional blogroll and add additional context that most of them often didn’t originally have. I’ve tried to add a photo, logo, or  avatar of some sort for all the sources to provide some visual context. I’ve also added either a description of the site or a snippet from the site’s owner to give an idea of what it is about (in addition to categorizing them by one or more tags) as well as an optional reason why I’m following them. I’ve also included a link to the site as well as an RSS, atom, or h-entry feed for the site to make subscribing easier for others. Where appropriate, I’ve added the microformats XFN data to these sites as well so others will have an idea of my relationship to those entities or people I’m following. Disclosure is a good thing, right? Just ask a journalist. (Viewing this last part is currently only available via parsers or by viewing the page source within a browser, but it’s there for potential future use.) In aggregate, these bits of context are not only valuable for page viewers who are considering subscribing/following them for themselves, but they also make a statement about me as a reader, a topic I’ll touch on further below.

Promotion of position: from sidebar to a full page

Given the value of social following/friending in the past decade, it’s long overdue to promote the old-school blogroll, which was traditionally placed in a diminutive position in one’s sidebar, to a more prominent position on its own page (or others may even choose to span it over multiple pages).

Social media platforms do their best to hide our social graphs from us thereby making more of what they do seem magical. Many have even bent over backwards to prevent other possibly competing social startups from leveraging our own social graphs on their platform to help build them up. Just where do they think that data came from initially? It came from me! I own it and should continue owning it.

To that end, my follow list in some sense is an implicit statement of me owning that data once again. While it may take me a bit to import and arrange it all, I’ll have ownership and agency over it. Perhaps an outside service may want pieces or parts of it, and in some cases having it open and portable may provide continued future value to me.

As an analogy for what this means, think back to the days of arduously making mix tapes in the 80’s. You’d spend hours and hours diligently copying and pasting songs together onto a cassette tape to give to a favored someone. The gift usually meant more than just the songs on the tape. This type of thing is far easier now with digital music services to the point of devaluing part of the original meaning of a mix tape. However, almost no modern music service will allow you to take your hand-crafted playlists out of their service to other competing services to make it easier to switch from something like iTunes to Amazon Music or Google Music. It’s painful and annoying in an age chock full of digital exhaust. I’m hoping that my open following list might be a lot like the portable digital music play list I wish I had.

Identity

I’m placing my follow list as a submenu item underneath my “About Me” page. Why? On most social networks there are a few simple fields, typically in a profile or on an explicit profile page, which give others some basic data about who the account holder is and what they do. Often people use this data to make relatively quick decisions about whether they should follow (or follow back) another person. Sadly I’m of the opinion that the amount and richness of the data on these pages is too sparse to be of much use. Fortunately by owning my own site, I can remedy this problem for others who visit it.

My website has thousands to potentially hundreds of thousands of posts. What data can I easily provide people who are interested in learning more about me without reading the whole book as it were? My About page is a good quick place to start, but it can’t necessarily give the whole picture. I’ve also got a few other sub-pages under my About page which helps to round out the snapshot picture of who I am. These include:

  • my /now page, which tells others what I’m up to most recently, but at a higher level than reading a month’s worth of status updates;
  • my /Favorites page, which is a list of some of my favorite things and things I use on a regular basis; it’s not dissimilar to a “What I’m Using” page or regular posts concept;
  • my /Bucketlist page, which is a list of some things I’ve done or would like to do before I “kick the bucket”;
  • my /Social Media (or as I call it, my rel=”me”) page, which is a list of my too-many-presences on other social platforms;
  • I’ve also recently added an  /AMA or Ask Me Anything page, so that if there’s something pressing you need to know that isn’t written or find-able on my site, you can easily ask it.

Finally, there’s now also a source for others to quickly see what I’m regularly reading and find valuable enough on the web to have created a list of it all.

I think that in evaluating others, this last page (the following page) may actually provide the most value, and so I hope it does to others in return. I can’t help noting here how I’ll often judge others by which books they have on their shelves at home, or this great judgmental quote from John Waters:

“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”

I hope others I’m following will follow suit and create their own following pages as I’d honestly love nothing more than to know who and what they find valuable, and to be able to extract it quickly to add to my own list! The value of discovery here can be tremendous.

Intellectual Antecedents

I know that academics like to give credit to their sources when writing papers, though they often do so in explicit footnote form. Abstracted out to a more general form, I’m hoping that my following page can also help to provide some meta data about which sources I regularly find valuable and which ones are most likely influencing me even if they’re not explicitly footnoted within my writings.

Benefit of following members of the IndieWeb

Having been using a version of my following page for a while, I’ve found one particularly nice feature of following people who are adherents of the IndieWeb movement. Because they’ve chosen to post on their own site first (and optionally syndicate to other silos), their internet presence is far more centralized for subscription and consumption. I don’t have to follow them on dozens of multiple social silos to attempt to capture all their content. I can subscribe in one place and get as much or as little as I like! You can do much the same with my site, which I’ve discussed in the past.

Now of course this isn’t the case for everyone yet, and there can be some exceptions (since not everyone owns every post-type yet nor has quit all their silos), but it does tremendously cut down on the noise, cruft, and duplicated messages that live on multiple platforms.

I’ve experimented in the past with following even a subset of researchers and their work online. The amount of time needed to catalog them all, find their various presences in sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Academia, ResearchGate, etc., etc. was painful, but then setting up notifications and creating a workflow was even worse–particularly since I want to read or see everything they’re putting out over time. I think I’d have been better off building them all custom websites to publish their content instead.

OPML means sharing

OPML really stands for Outline Processor Markup Language. It is an XML-based format and standard used for feed lists interchange. All this to mean that it’s a standardized specially formatted document that allows one to share all the data in it easily by means that make sense to certain machines that would want it.

The most common example is that most feed readers allow you to import and export OPML files (with the .xml extension) so that you can quickly and easily move all of your feeds from one reader to another. (This is kind of like the playlist analogy for music that I mentioned–it’s just a playlist, or readlist if you prefer, for feed readers.) This is great if you want to try out a or move to a new feed reader.

Even better, because you can find and save a copy of my list, others can easily port it into their feed readers and sample the things that I’m seeing and often reading.

But wait! There’s more…

Many modern feed readers are supporting OPML subscription functionality! (What’s that you ask?) It’s fine to download my OPML list and import it into your reader. But what happens when I update it next week with three new great sources and remove a dead feed that no longer works? You’re stuck missing out on the new stuff and have to manually find and remove the broken one yourself. Instead, if you’ve subscribed to my OPML in your feed reader, the reader knows the URL where my list lives and checks it frequently for updates so you don’t have to worry about syncing the changes yourself! Shazam! It’s now a lot like a shared/synced playlist for articles. For those who are familiar with Twitter lists and following those, it’s very similar to how those work, except in this case they’re open and work on multiple sites and apps instead of being stuck in a proprietary service.

How

Now the part you’ve been waiting for: How can I do this myself?

For those who are on WordPress, much of the base functionality is already built into WordPress core. Below I’ll provide a few means and tips for getting you most of the way while still having some flexibility in where and how you choose to display your particular version.

(For those not on WordPress, check out some of the details and documentation on the IndieWeb wiki and ask in their chat how you might go about doing it.)

Re-enable Links Manager interface

The code for the WordPress blogroll functionality was built into core and was known as the Links Manager, but it was removed in version 3.5 for new installs that didn’t have any pre-existing links. I’ll note that the functionality was removed in late 2012 long after social media had already begun to make functionality like blogrolls (and even blogs themselves) fall out of fashion.

Fortunately, while it’s now hidden for most, it can be brought back with one line of code. (Hooray for backwards compatibility!) You can bring this functionality back to your website by adding the following snippet of code into your theme’s functions.php file:

add_filter( 'pre_option_link_manager_enabled', '__return_true' );

You can do this manually in the administrative user interface of your WordPress install by going to Appearance » Editor, which will bring up your theme files. Then in the right hand sidebar there should be a link for editing your functions.php file. Cut and paste the line of code into the file on its own line and then click Update File.

That’s easy enough, but what do you do if you’re scared of code? (You shouldn’t be, by the way…) The same functionality can be brought back with the Link Manager plugin. Just download it in the admin UI under Plugins » Installed Plugins and click Add New at the top of the page. Search for the plugin name Link Manager to download and then activate. That’s it.

Note: some may worry at the fact that the details for this plugin include the warning words:

This plugin hasn’t been updated in over 2 years. It may no longer be maintained or supported and may have compatibility issues when used with more recent versions of WordPress.

On a scale of 1-10 for warnings, this one is really less than a 1. This has to be one of the simplest plugins in all of WordPress because it really only includes the single line of code above. There’s really almost nothing with it that could change, break, or need to be updated. It’s old, but it will work.

You’ve now re-enabled the Links Manager which will put a Links tab into your admin UI. You can click on it to start adding your links, feeds, photos, and data. The WordPress codex has great documentation for how to do this: https://codex.wordpress.org/Links_Manager

Within the admin UI you can now display a blogroll widget by going to Appearance » Widgets and moving the Links widget into one of the widgetizable areas in your theme.

Put your following list onto a page by itself

Sadly, because the Links Manager is so old and is now hidden, development on it seems to have long since stalled. This means you’ll require some simple code to get things working a bit better in terms of display. I’ll do my best to give you instructions for cutting and pasting with as little code as possible.

Plugin and Code

There’s a convenient plugin called Links Page which will get us most of the way. Go ahead and download and activate it. From the plugin interface, click the edit link for the Links Page.

The Links Page plugin displayed in the Plugin page of the WordPress admin UI.

The editor will pop up with the code for the plugin, which looks like this:

function linkspage($text) {
if (preg_match("|<!--links-page-->|", $text)) {
$links = wp_list_bookmarks();
$text = preg_replace("|<!--links-page-->|", $links, $text);
}
return $text;
}
add_filter('the_content', 'linkspage', 2);

In between the parenthesis for the function wp_list_bookmarks(), you’ll want to add something like the following code snippet I’ve customized for my following lists:

'categorize=1&category_orderby=count&category_order=DESC&orderby=rating&order=DESC&show_name=1&between= - &show_description=1&category_before=<h2>&category_after=</h2>'

Yours doesn’t necessarily need to be exactly the same, but it should reflect how you’d like your own list to look. To accomplish this take a look at the documentation and examples for this function to pick and choose among the options you’d like to display. You’ll just string the options together between two single quotes and separate them with an ampersand (&) as in my example above.

Caveat: Since we’ve done some “cowboy coding” here and modified the code directly in the plugin, we run the risk of the accidentally updating the plugin and overwriting our changes. I would suggest that this risk is fairly low given the simplicity of the plugin and the unlikelihood that it would need an update. More advanced WordPress users will know that the better option is to roll up all the code in the plugin and all their changes and put it into their functions.phpfile or just fork the plugin with a new name and go from there.

CSS for styling and display

You may want to put in a bit of CSS to modify how our following list is displayed on the page. Without some tweaks or taking some extreme care when uploading or linking to the photos/avatars, we may run into some display issues.

As a result I’ve added the following snippet of CSS to my theme’s style.css file:

ul.xoxo.blogroll > li > a > img {
width: 20px;
height: 20px;
}
ul.xoxo.blogroll li{
list-style-type: none;
}

You can accomplish this by going to Appearance » Editor in the admin UI and editing the file by cutting and pasting the segment above into it and clicking Update file when you’re done.

The Page itself

We’ve now got all the big pieces in place. If you haven’t already, add some data into the Links Manager (documented here). You then need to create a new page on your site in the admin UI. I’ve named mine Following, but you can name yours Blogroll, Links, or anything you’d like really–it is your site after all.

Next, as described in the instructions for the Links Page plugin add the following text into the body of your post:

<!--links-page-->

When you’re done, save the page. The plugin will then replace the text above with your following list based on the output properties you specified.

Optionally you may want to go to Appearance » Menus to modify your menu to show your follow page in your menu structure so people can easily get to it.

Other Options

Those who’d like a different way of doing all of the above might also consider trying out other blogroll-related plugins in the WordPress repository. There are likely some other excellent options and methods to accomplish some of this functionality in a way that’s acceptable for your needs.

Future

So where do we go from here? This is certainly not complete by any means and there could be additional functionalities built on top of and even beside all of this.

I haven’t delved into it deeply, but I know there are developers like Dave Winer who have created services like Share Your OPML which allow you to upload your own file and then get recommendations of similar feeds in which you might also have some interest. Services like this that take advantage of my open data to provide me with value in return could be truly awesome.

I’m sure others smarter than I will come up with better UI. I’d personally love to have a bookmarklet similar to SubToMe that allows me to quickly and easily scrape a page and post the data from a person’s site to my following list (SubToMe currently redirects one to third party readers instead.)

I’ve also been enamored by Colin Walker’s “webmention roll” in which he creates a blogroll of all the people who have interacted with his website via Webmention.

New functionality

The future might also bring increased ease-of-use as well as expanded functionality. I’m curious what value might be extracted by adding microfomats like h-cards to my follow lists? What could parsers do with a microformat like ‘p-following’ to more quickly create social graphs like Ryan Barrett’s Indie Map?

What might we expect with simpler formats than OPML, which could likely be done with microformat classes the same way that h-entry and h-feed have made supporting clunkier specs like RSS and Atom far easier?

I’m feeling itchy with all the potential possibilities…

Comments

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and comments on the usefulness of any of the above. Is it something you’d attempt to do yourself? (If you attempted it, did it actually work?) What would you change? How could it be extended? What UI/UX improvements could be added? Other interactivity suggestions? How can the discoverability of such a thing be improved? What could be built on top of it all?

Also feel free to share your following pages, blogrolls, and OPML feeds in the comments below. Have you added your examples to the IndieWeb wiki to help others improve?

Are there people or sources missing from my following page that you’d recommend? (Keep in mind I’m far from done adding sources…)

A final thanks

Here’s a big thank you and h/t to all those who’ve been working on their own versions of this type of technology (either recently or for decades) including: Dave Winer (thanks for OPML by the way), Richard MacManus, Colin DevroeColin WalkerKhürt Williams, James Shelly, Bryan Alexander, Aaron Davis, and many, many others.
​​​​​

Syndicated copies to:

Reply to Laying the Standards for a Blogging Renaissance by Aaron Davis

Replied to Laying the Standards for a Blogging Renaissance by Aaron Davis (Read Write Respond)
With the potential demise of social media, does this offer a possible rebirth of blogging communities and the standards they are built upon?

Aaron, some excellent thoughts and pointers.

A lot of your post also reminds me of Bryan Alexander’s relatively recent post I defy the world and to go back to RSS.

I completely get the concept of what you’re getting at with harkening back to the halcyon days of RSS. I certainly love, use, and rely on it heavily both for consumption as well as production. Of course there’s also still the competing standard of Atom still powering large parts of the web (including GNU Social networks like Mastodon). But almost no one looks back fondly on the feed format wars…

I think that while many are looking back on the “good old days” of the web, that we not forget the difficult and fraught history that has gotten us to where we are. We should learn from the mistakes made during the feed format wars and try to simplify things to not only move back, but to move forward at the same time.

Today, the easier pared-down standards that are better and simpler than either of these old and and difficult specs is simply adding Microformat classes to HTML (aka P.O.S.H) to create feeds. Unless one is relying on pre-existing infrastructure like WordPress, building and maintaining RSS feed infrastructure can be difficult at best, and updates almost never occur, particularly for specifications that support new social media related feeds including replies, likes, favorites, reposts, etc. The nice part is that if one knows how to write basic html, then one can create a simple feed by hand without having to learn the mark up or specifics of RSS. Most modern feed readers (except perhaps Feedly) support these new h-feeds as they’re known. Interestingly, some CMSes like WordPress support Microformats as part of their core functionality, though in WordPress’ case they only support a subsection of Microformats v1 instead of the more modern v2.

For those like you who are looking both backward and simultaneously forward there’s a nice chart of “Lost Infractructure” on the IndieWeb wiki which was created following a post by Anil Dash entitled The Lost Infrastructure of Social Media. Hopefully we can take back a lot of the ground the web has lost to social media and refashion it for a better and more flexible future. I’m not looking for just a “hipster-web”, but a new and demonstrably better web.

The Lost Infrastructure of the Web from the IndieWeb Wiki (CC0)

Some of the desire to go back to RSS is built into the problems we’re looking at with respect to algorithmic filtering of our streams (we’re looking at you Facebook.) While algorithms might help to filter out some of the cruft we’re not looking for, we’ve been ceding too much control to third parties like Facebook who have different motivations in presenting us material to read. I’d rather my feeds were closer to the model of fine dining rather than the junk food that the-McDonald’s-of-the-internet Facebook is providing. As I’m reading Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Distraction, I’m also reminded that the black box that Facebook’s algorithm is is causing scale and visibility/transparency problems like the Russian ad buys which could have potentially heavily influenced the 2017 election in the United States. The fact that we can’t see or influence the algorithm is both painful and potentially destructive. If I could have access to tweaking a third-party transparent algorithm, I think it would provide me a lot more value.

As for OPML, it’s amazing what kind of power it has to help one find and subscribe to all sorts of content, particularly when it’s been hand curated and is continually self-dogfooded. One of my favorite tools are readers that allow one to subscribe to the OPML feeds of others, that way if a person adds new feeds to an interesting collection, the changes propagate to everyone following that feed. With this kind of simple technology those who are interested in curating things for particular topics (like the newsletter crowd) or even creating master feeds for class material in a planet-like fashion can easily do so. I can also see some worthwhile uses for this in journalism for newspapers and magazines. As an example, imagine if one could subscribe not only to 100 people writing about #edtech, but to only their bookmarked articles that have the tag edtech (thus filtering out their personal posts, or things not having to do with edtech). I don’t believe that Feedly supports subscribing to OPML (though it does support importing OPML files, which is subtly different), but other readers like Inoreader do.

I’m hoping to finish up some work on my own available OPML feeds to make subscribing to interesting curated content a bit easier within WordPress (over the built in, but now deprecated link manager functionality.) Since you mentioned it, I tried checking out the OPML file on your blog hoping for something interesting in the #edtech space. Alas… 😉 Perhaps something in the future?

Syndicated copies to:

Reply to I defy the world and go back to RSS by Bryan Alexander

Replied to I defy the world and go back to RSS by Bryan Alexander (bryanalexander.org)
It may be perverse, but in this age of Facebook (now 2 billion strong) I’ve decided to rededicate myself to RSS reading. That’s right: old school, Web 2.0 style. Why? A big reason is that Facebook’s front page is so, so massively unreliable. Despite having huge numbers of people that are my friends, clients, and contacts, it’s just not a good reading and writing service. Facebook’s black box algorithm(s) may or may not present a given’s user’s post for reasons generally inscrutable. I’ve missed friends’ news about new jobs, divorces, and deaths because the Zuckerbergmachine deems them unworthy of inclusion in my personalized river of news. In turn, I have little sense of who will see my posts, so it’s hard to get responses and very hard to pitch my writing for an intended audience. Together, this makes the FB experience sketchy at best. To improve our use of it we have to turn to experiments and research that remind me of Cold War Kremlinology.

Bryan, so much of what you’re saying is not only not backwards, but truly awesome and inspiring, and not just with respect to RSS.

I’ve lately become more enamored of not only RSS, but new methods for feeds including lighter weight versions like microformats h-feeds. A few months ago I was inspired to embed the awesome PressForward plugin for WordPress into my site, so I could have an integrated feed reader built right in. This makes it far easier to not only quickly share the content from my site, but it means I can also own archival copies of what I’m reading and consuming for later reference, some of which I store privately on the back end of my site as a sort of online commonplace book.

There also seems to be a recent renaissance with the revival of blogrolls. I’ve even recently revived my own to provide subscribe-able OPML lists that others can take advantage of as well. Like your reading list, it’s a work in progress.

On the subject of blogs not being dead and decrying the abuses of the social silos, you might be interested to hear about the Indieweb movement which is helping to both decentralize and re-democratize the web in useful and intelligent ways. They’re helping people to take back their identities online and let them own their own content again. They’re also using open protocols like Webmention (a platform agnostic and universal @mention) and Micropub or syndication methods like POSSE to make it easier to publish, share, and interact with people online anywhere, regardless of the platform(s) on which they’re publishing.

As an example of what they’re doing, I’m publishing this comment on my own site first, and only then sending it as a comment to your post. If you supported Webmention, this would have happened seamlessly and automatically. I’ll also syndicate it as a reply to your tweet, and if you reply on twitter, the comment will be pulled back into my comment stream at the original.

As you may expect, some educators are also using some of these tools and specs for educational reasons.

Syndicated copies to: