Reply to Jan Cavan Boulas about WordPress Microsub feed reader

Replied to a tweet by Jan Cavan BoulasJan Cavan Boulas (Twitter)

Jan, as I had mentioned to you earlier this year at WordCamp Orange County, the work on the IndieWeb concept of Microsub with respect to feed readers is continuing apace. In the last few months Aaron Parecki has opened up beta versions of his Aperture microsub server as well as limited access to his Monocle reader interface in addition to the existing Indigenous and Together reader interfaces.

My friend Jack Jamieson is in the midst of building a WordPress-specific Microsub server implementation which he’s indicated still needs more work, but which he’s self-dogfooding on his own website as a feed reader currently.

If it’s of interest, you or your colleagues at Automattic might want to take a look at it in terms of potentially adding a related Microsub reader interface as the other half of his Microsub server. Given your prior work on the beautiful WordPress.com feed reader, this may be relatively easy work which you could very quickly leverage to provide the WordPress ecosystem with an incredibly powerful feed reader interface through which users can interact directly with other sites using the W3C’s Micropub and Webmention specifications for which there are already pre-existing plugins within the repository.[1][2]

For some reference I’ll include some helpful links below which might help you and others get a jump start if you wish:

While I understand most of the high level moving pieces, some of the technical specifics are beyond my coding abilities. Should you need help or assistance in cobbling together the front end, I’m positive that Jack, Aaron Parecki, David Shanske, and others in the IndieWeb chat (perhaps the #Dev or #WordPress channels–there are also bridges for using IRC, Slack, or Matrix if you prefer them) would be more than happy to lend a hand to get another implementation of a Microsub reader interface off the ground. I suspect your experience and design background could also help to shape the Microsub spec as well as potentially add things to it which others haven’t yet considered from a usability perspective.

In the erstwhile, I hope all is well with you. Warmest regards!

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IndieWeb Summit 2018 Recap

Last week was the 8th annual IndieWeb Summit held in Portland, Oregon. While IndieWeb Camps and Summits have traditionally been held on weekends during people’s free time, this one held in the middle of the week was a roaring success. With well over 50 people in attendance, this was almost certainly the largest attendance I’ve seen to date. I suspect since people who flew in for the event had really committed, the attendance on the second day was much higher than usual as well. It was great to see so many people hacking on their personal websites and tools to make their personal online experiences richer.

The year of the Indie Reader

Last year I wrote the post Feed Reader Revolution in response to an increasingly growing need I’ve seen in the social space for a new sort of functionality in feed readers. While there have been a few interesting attempts like Woodwind which have shown a proof-of-concept, not much work had been done until some initial work by Aaron Parecki and a session at last year’s IndieWeb Summit entitled Putting it all Together.

Over the past year I’ve been closely watching Aaron Parecki; Grant Richmond and Jonathan LaCour; Eddie Hinkle; and Kristof De Jaeger’s collective progress on the microsub specification as well as their respective projects Aperture/Monocle; Together; Indigenous/Indigenous for iOS; and Indigenous for Android. As a result in early May I was overjoyed to suggest a keynote session on readers and was stupefied this week as many of them have officially launched and are open to general registration as relatively solid beta web services.

I spent a few minutes in a session at the end of Tuesday and managed to log into Aperture and create an account (#16, though I suspect I may be one of the first to use it besides the initial group of five developers). I also managed to quickly and easily add a microsub endpoint to my website as well. Sadly I’ve got some tweaks to make to my own installation to properly log into any of the reader app front ends. Based on several of the demos I’ve seen over the past months, the functionality involved is not only impressive, but it’s a properly large step ahead of some of the basic user interface provided by the now-shuttered Woodwind.xyz service (though the code is still available for self-hosting.)

Several people have committed to make attempts at creating a microsub server including Jack Jamieson who has announced an attempt at creating one for WordPress after having recently built the Yarns reader for WordPress from scratch this past year. I suspect within the coming year we’ll see one or two additional servers as well as some additional reading front ends. In fact, Ryan Barrett spent the day on Wednesday hacking away at leveraging the News Blur API and leveraging it to make News Blur a front end for Aperture’s server functionality. I’m hoping others may do the same for other popular readers like Feedly or Inoreader to expand on the plurality of offerings. Increased competition for new reader offerings can only improve the entire space.

Even more reading related support

Just before the Summit, gRegor Morrill unveiled the beta version of his micropub client Indiebookclub.biz which allows one to log in with their own website and use it to post reading updates to their own website. For those who don’t yet support micropub, the service saves the data for eventual export. His work on it continued through the summit to continue to improve an already impressive product. It’s the fist micropub client of its kind amidst a growing field of websites (including WordPress and WithKnown which both have plugins) that offer reading post support. Micro.blog has recently updated its code to allow users of the platform the ability to post reads with indiebookclub.biz as well. As a result of this spurt of reading related support there’s now a draft proposal to add read-of and read-status support as new Microformats. Perhaps reads will be included in future updates of the post-type-discovery algorithm as well?

Given the growth of reading post support and a new micropub read client, I suspect it won’t take long before some of the new microsub-related readers begin supporting read post micropub functionality as well.

IndieAuth Servers

In addition to David Shanske’s recent valiant update to the IndieAuth plugin for WordPress, Manton Reece managed to finish up coding work to unveil another implementation of IndieAuth at the Summit. His version is for the micro.blog platform which is a significant addition to the community and will add several hundred additional users who will have broader access to a wide assortment of functionality as a result.

The Future

While work continues apace on a broad variety of fronts, I was happy to see that my proposal for a session on IndieAlgorithms was accepted (despite my leading another topic earlier in the day). It was well attended and sparked some interesting discussion about how individuals might also be able to exert greater control over what they’re presented to consume. With the rise of Indie feed readers this year, the ability to better control and filter one’s incoming content is going to take on a greater importance in the very near future. With an increasing number of readers to choose from, more people will hopefully be able to free themselves from the vagaries of the blackbox algorithms that drive content distribution and presentation in products like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. Based on the architecture of servers like Aperture, perhaps we might be able to modify some of the microsub spec to allow more freedom and flexibility in what will assuredly be the next step in the evolution of the IndieWeb?

Diversity

While there are miles and miles to go before we sleep, I was happy to have seen a session on diversity pop up at the Summit. I hope we can all take the general topic to heart to be more inclusive and actively invite friends into our fold. Thanks to Jean for suggesting and guiding the conversation and everyone else for continuing it throughout the rest of the summit and beyond.

Other Highlights

Naturally, the above are just a few of the bigger highlights as I perceive them. I’m sure others will appear in the IndieNews feed or other blogposts about the summit. The IndieWeb is something subtly different to each person, so I hope everyone takes a moment to share (on your own sites naturally) what you got out of all the sessions and discussions. There was a tremendous amount of discussion, debate, and advancement of the state of the art of the continually growing IndieWeb. Fortunately almost all of it was captured in the IndieWeb chat, on Twitter, and on video available through either the IndieWeb wiki pages for the summit or directly from the IndieWeb YouTube channel.

I suspect David Shanske and I will have more to say in what is sure to be a recap episode in our next podcast.

Photos

Finally, below I’m including a bunch of photos I took over the course of my trip. I’m far from a professional photographer, but hopefully they’ll give a small representation of some of the fun we all had at camp.

Final Thanks

People

While I’m thinking about it, I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who came to the summit. You all really made it a fantastic event!

I’d particularly like to thank Aaron Parecki, Tantek Çelik, gRegor Morrill, Marty McGuire, and David Shanske who did a lot of the organizing and volunteer work to help make the summit happen as well as to capture it so well for others to participate remotely or even view major portions of it after-the-fact. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Martijn van der Ven for some herculean efforts on IRC/Chat in documenting things in real time as well as for some serious wiki gardening along the way. As always, there are a huge crew of others whose contributions large and small help to make up the rich fabric of the community and we wouldn’t be who we are without your help. Thank you all! (Or as I might say in chat: community++).

And finally, a special personal thanks to Greg McVerry for kindly letting me join him at the Hotel deLuxe for some late night discussions on the intersection of IndieWeb and Domain of One’s Own philosophies as they dovetail with the education sector.  With growing interest and a wealth of ideas in this area, I’m confident it’s going to be a rapidly growing one over the coming years.

Sponsors

I’d also like to take a moment to say thanks to all the sponsors who helped to make the event a success including Name.com, GoDaddy, Okta, Mozilla, DreamHost, and likely a few others who I’m missing at the moment.

I’d also like to thank the Eliot Center for letting us hosting the event at their fabulous facility.

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👓 It’s Time For an RSS Revival | Wired

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.

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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

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