Sadly the general concept presented here, while it sounds potentially useful, is far too little and misdirected. Hopefully better potential solutions are still not too late.
First, let’s step back a moment. The bigger problem with feeds was that website designers and developers spent far too long in the format wars between RSS and Atom while the social media giants focused on cleaner and easier UI. This allowed the social silos to dramatically close the gap in functionality and usability. While website owners were spending time on formats and writing long articles about what RSS was, how it worked, and how to use it, the public lost interest. We need something really dramatic to regain this ground and
/feeds just is not going to cut it.
The first problem I see with this is that on it’s face
/feeds both looks and sounds like code. No user really wants to interact with code if they don’t have to. Why not simply have a page or button called something much more user friendly like “subscribe” or “follow”? Almost every major social silo has a common pattern like this and has a simple “follow” button on every user’s page. A quick click and one is done with the transaction!
Instead the solution offered here is to have not only yet-another-page but one that needs to be maintained. (As good as the /now idea may seem, the fact that it needs to be regularly and manually updated makes it a failure out of the gate. I’ll bet that less than half the /now pages out there have been updated in the last 6 months. I know mine hasn’t.) Worse, suppose I click over to a
/feeds page, as an average person I’m still stuck with the additional burden of knowing or learning about what a feed reader is, why I’d need or want one, and then knowing what RSS is and how I might use that. I might see a one click option for Twitter or Mastodon, but then I’m a mile away from your website and unlikely to see you again in the noise of my Twitter feed which has many other lurking problems.
One of the best solutions I’ve seen in the past few years is that posited by SubToMe.com which provides a single, customizable, and universal follow button. One click and it automatically finds the feeds hidden in the page’s code and presents me with one or more options for following it in a feed reader. Once I’ve chosen a reader, it remembers my choice and makes the following pattern easier in future transactions. This is a far superior option over
/feeds because it takes away a huge amount of cognitive burden for the user. As a developer, I’ve got a browser bookmarklet that provides this functionality for sites that don’t provide it for me. How nice would it be if browsers went back and offered such a one button collection mechanism?
Want to give this a try? I’ve got a “Follow Me” button in the side bar of my website. And if that doesn’t float your boat, I’ve tinkered with other methods of subscribing to my content that you can find at my subscribe page. Some developers might not be too scared of what’s on my subscribe page (a
/feed page by a slightly friendlier name), but less technically minded people are sure to have a dramatically different perspective.
The other piece here that I might take umbrage with is the offering to provide feeds to subscriptions to alternate services like Twitter and Mastodon. (This doesn’t take into any account that RSS feeds of social services are positively atrocious, not to mention that attempting to access Marcus’ Twitter feed in RSS Box returns the interminable error message: “There was a problem talking to Twitter. Please try again in a moment.”)
Ideally I see a future in which every person has the ability to own both their own domain name and their content in a simple manner. If this happens and it’s easier to subscribe to the sites of my friends, then I don’t need corporate social media to intermediate the transactions on my behalf. I also don’t need them to intermediate what I’m actually seeing with their blackbox algorithmic feeds either. Friends, family, and colleagues could simply come to my website and subscribe to all or portions of my content in which they’re interested. While I still presently syndicate some of my content to silos like Twitter and Mastodon for the ease of friends or family who don’t know about the technical side of potential solutions, I post everything on my website first where one can subscribe in a feed reader or by email. Subscriptions in Twitter or Mastodon, while nice to have, are just a poor simulacrum of the real things being served by my site in better ways with more context and a design that better reflects what I’d like to portray online. A
/feed page is going to be a failure from the start if you’re going to cede all the subsequent power directly to Twitter, Mastodon, and others anyway.
While I like the volume of the reactions to the post (indicating that there’s not only a readership, but a desire for this sort of functionality), I’m disheartened that so many designers and developers think that the idea of
/feeds is “enough” to stem the tide.
For those who might be truly interested in designing our way out of this problem, I’d recommend looking at some of the design and development work of the IndieWeb community which is trying (slowly, but surely) to improve these sorts of technical hurdles. Their wiki has large number of examples of things that do and don’t work, discussion of where problems lie, and a community conversing about how to potentially make them better through actual examples of things that are currently working on peoples’ websites.
A good example of this is the increasing improvement of social readers that allow one to subscribe to a variety of sources in a reader which also allows one to respond to posts in-line and then own that content on one’s website. If I can subscribe to almost anything out there in one interface and sort and filter it in any way I’d like, that’s far better than having twenty different feed readers named Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Soundcloud, etc. which I have to separately and independent manage and check. Now I’ve yet to see an IndieWeb reader with a one click SubToMe-type of solution for adding feeds to it, but I don’t think it will be very long before that’s a reality. The slowly improving Microsub spec that splits some of the heavy lifting needed to build and design a stand alone feed reader is certainly helping to make some massive headway on these issues.
Maybe we’ll soon have an easy way for people to post who they’re following on their own websites, and their readers will be able to read or parse those pages and aggregate those followed posts directly into a nice reading interface? Maybe someone will figure out a way to redesign or re-imagine the old blogroll? Maybe we’ll leverage the idea of OPML subscriptions so that a personal blogroll (maybe we rename this something friendlier like a following page or personal recommendations, subscriptions, etc.) can feed a person’s subscriptions into their social reader? There are certainly a lot of solid ideas being experimented on and in actual use out there.
We obviously still have a long way to go to make things better and more usable, not only for ourselves as designers and developers, but for the coding averse. I feel like there’s already a flourishing space out there doing this that’s miles ahead of solutions like
/feeds. Why don’t we start at that point and then move forward?
If you haven’t been following along, here are some relevant pieces for background:
- The beginnings of a blogroll
- A Following Page (aka some significant updates to my Blogroll)
- OPML files for categories within WordPress’s Links Manager
- Was WP Links the Perfect Blogroll All Along? by Ton Zijlstra
Generally I’ve been adding data into my Following Page (aka blogroll on steroids) using the old WordPress Links Manager pseudo-manually. (There’s also a way to bulk import to it via OPML, using the WordPress Tools Menu or via
example.com, so change that part if you’re modifying for your own use. (I haven’t tested it, but it may require the Press This plugin which replaces some of the functionality that was taken out of WordPress core in version 4.9. It will certainly require one to enable using the Links Manager either via code or via plugin.)
Since I’ve been digging around a bit, I’ll note that Yannick Lefebvre’s Link Library plugin seems to have a similar sort of functionality to Links Manager and adds in the ability to add a variety of additional data fields including tags, which he would like (and I wouldn’t mind either). Unfortunately I’m not seeing any OPML functionality in the plugin, so it wins at doing display (with a huge variety of settings) for a stand-alone blogroll, but it may fail at the data portability for doing the additional OPML portion we’ve been looking at. Of course I’m happy to be corrected, but I don’t see anything in the documentation or a cursory glance at the code.
In the most ideal world, I’d love to be able to use the Post Kinds Plugin to create follow posts (see my examples). This plugin is already able to generally use bookmarklet functionality to pull in a variety of meta data using the Parse This code which is also built into Post Kinds.
It would be nice if these follow posts would also copy their data into the Links Manager (to keep things DRY), so that the blogroll and the OPML files are automatically updated all at once. (Barring Post Kinds transferring the data, it would be nice to have an improved bookmarklet for pulling data into the Links Manager piece directly.)
Naturally having the ability for these OPML files be readable/usable by Jack Jamieson’s forthcoming Yarns Microsub Server for WordPress (for use with social readers) would be phenomenal. (I believe there are already one or two OPML to h-feed converters for Microsub in the wild.) All of this would be a nice end -to-end solution for quickly and easily following people (or sites) with a variety of feeds and feed types (RSS, Atom, JSONfeed, h-feed).
An additional refinement of the blogroll display portion would be to have that page display as an h-feed of h-entries each including properly marked up h-cards with appropriate microformats and discoverable RSS feeds to make it easier for other sites to find and use that data. (This may be a more IndieWeb-based method of displaying such a page compared with the OPML spec.) I’ll also note that the Links Manager uses v1 of the OPML spec and it would potentially be nice to have an update on that as well for newer discovery tools/methods like Dave Winer’s Share Your OPML Subscription list, which I’m noting seems to be down/not functioning at the moment.
I’ll see you your blogroll and add in images and descriptions as well! https://boffosocko.com/about/following/
A while back I did something similar to what you and Peter have done, I just did it with the old built in Link Manager feature of WordPress. The primary difference is that I’ve got some meta data about what the site/feed is about in addition to an image. I left out the feed in the human readable version as it’s less likely to be used, while it’s more valuable to the computer readable version. I’ve also figured out the a URL query parameter for breaking my blogroll up by category, so that folks can copy smaller subsections of it.
Another added bonus is that I’m using Inoreader which supports OPML subscriptions so that any time I update my OPML file, my feed reader auto-updates for me without needing to manually upload the new OPML file! This means I just add the follow in one place and everything else follows without any additional work.
Here are the details for how I did most of it:
- The beginnings of a blogroll
- A Following Page (aka some significant updates to my Blogroll)
- OPML files for categories within WordPress’s Links Manager
Perhaps what we really need is to give some love to that Link Manager in core to update it to OPML v2 and add in the rel attributes from XFN microformats to the links?
Thanks for experimenting to bring back the blogroll! (And thanks for sharing, there are a few of your feeds I see that I ought to be following and I also recognize those we have in common of many educators I already do follow.)
I’ve also got a regularly updated OPML file for many of the same people if you prefer to subscribe to/follow their websites directly (this method is more Domains-friendly right!?!). If you use Inoreader or other services that support OPML subscription technology, this feed will auto-update for you as new people are added to the list, preventing you from needing to regularly refresh the OPML file manually. I’ll try to update this OPML file this evening for today’s/tomorrow’s attendees based on their websites in their Twitter profiles.
Don’t hesitate to ping me if you’d like to be added to the lists, or if I’m missing anyone. Be sure to include your most relevant RSS feed(s) for the OPML portion of that list. Feel free to copy/modify either of the lists to your heart’s content.
Much like your version piped into an LMS, it could be used used to create a planet of all of the participants in a course, but set up in such a way that only one person needs to create and maintain an OPML file that everyone else can use instead of needing to manually find and subscribe to a bunch of feeds or worry about missing out on that one feed of the student who joined the course two weeks late.
As an example, here’s an OPML file on my own website (through my following page) of all the educators I’m following who are tangentially involved in the IndieWeb movement. If you subscribe to the OPML file in Inoreader, when I update it with additional feeds, you get all the changes synced automatically.
I’d be interested to see exactly how you’re using Inoreader–particularly the off-label methods. Have you written up any of the details anywhere? It looks like you’re using tags in Inoreader and piping those details back to the LMS so that you can filter portions of the class content?
I recently documented some of my personal use here: Using Inoreader as an IndieWeb feed reader. A big portion of it is about being able to use Inoreader to interact within its interface, but also have those interactions reflected on my own website (aka digital commonplace book) which sends notifications to the original content on the web instead of just leaving it siloed within Inoreader.
I ask because I’m curious about the ease of maintaining contacts if one wanted a different reader experience, were to leave micro.blog, or simply wanted to transfer from following 100s within micro.blog to follow them using other interfaces?
Any thoughts perhaps of providing an exportable OPML file for making functionality like this easier? Or for taking an OPML file and putting it into a feed reader that supports subscribing to OPML files?
Throw it into a feed reader like Inoreader that will let you import or subscribe to OPML lists and then come back to thank him all over again.
Link Manager Update
The Link Manager still seems relatively solid and much of the infrastructure still works well, despite the warnings and lack of updates over the past several years. It would be nice to see it make a comeback and I can personally see many ways it could come back as a means of allowing people to better own their personal social graph as well as dovetail with readers. (This could also be the cornerstone of helping to make WordPress it’s own decentralized social network so that those who want to leave Facebook, Twitter, et al. could more easily do so and maintain their own data and infrastructure.)
If it were being updated, here are a few things that I might suggest as being imminently useful:
- Update to the latest version of OPML; While the old version still works, there are some new toys that folks like Dave Winer have been iterating on including OPML subscription1,2 as well as some discovery tools.
- Add in additional microformats support, particularly for display. Things like h-card, u-url, u-photo, etc. could make displaying these more useful for the growing number of microformats parsers. I also suspect that having OPML subscription support could be a major boon to the feed reader resurgence that is happening with the split of the server side/display side split occurring with the improving Microsub spec which now has one server implementation with several more coming and at least three front end implementations. I know of one person building a Microsub server for WordPress already.
- It’s non-obvious where one’s OPML file lives within the plugin or that one can have or target OPML files by category. Making this more apparent from a UI perspective would be both useful and help adoption.
- Provide a bookmarklet or browser extension to make it easier to scrape data off of someone’s homepage (or any page for that matter) and put it into the Links Manager data fields. This would allow people to do a one (or two click) solution for quickly and immediately following someone, saving their data into their site, and then via OPML subscription, they’ll automatically be following that feed in their reader of choice.
- For doing the parsing portion of this, I might recommend the parsing algorithm being used by the Post Kinds Plugin, which parses a web page and searches for microformats, open graph protocol, and one or two other standards to return all or most all of the data that would be needed to fill out the data Links Manager can take. As I recall, this parser was being discussed by Kraft for potential inclusion into the Press This bookmarklet functionality to expand on what it had already provided.
- From a UI perspective this would allow people to follow friends or others via a WordPress workflow almost as easily as any of the social media silos.
- Another UI approach for comparison can be found by looking at the SubToMe universal follow button which was developed by Julien Genestoux (also of PubSub/WebSub fame). This version also uses some of the standard feed discovery mechanisms which a bookmarklet would want to be able to do as well.
- As I’d written, following/subscribing has become more central to the social space, so upgrading the humble blogroll from a widget to a full page would certainly be in order. Having the infrastructure (short link perhaps?) to easily create a WordPress page out of the data would be quite helpful.
As Ryan indicates, the planet-like features that OPML subscriptions provide are immensely valuable in general, but also solves a tough problem that some of the best minds in the educational tech space have found perennially problematic.3
As for the title-less post types that are proliferating by the independent microblogging community (including the recent micro.blog as well as post types in the vein of likes, favorites, reads, replies, etc. which mimic functionality within the broader social space), the so-called
(no title) problem can be somewhat difficult since so many things are built to expect a title. Many feed readers don’t know how to react to them as a result. The Post Kinds Plugin faced a similar issue and recently pushed an update so that within the admin UI at
/wp-admin/edit.php the title field would still indicate (no title) but it would also include a 28 character synopsis from
the_excerpt to provide at least some indication of what the post was about. This also seems to be a potential issue in other areas of WordPress including widgets like “Recent Posts” which want to display a title where none exists. As the aside post format can attest, not all themes deal with this well, though there are other alternate methods for displaying some useful data.
I had used Feedly for several years, but made the switch to Inoreader last year, in part because it has one additional useful feature that Feedly doesn’t: OPML subscription. While it’s nice to be able to import and export OPML files, needing to remember to update them can be an unnecessary step, particularly if 20+ people need to do the update to capture all the new RSS feeds added. (As an example, say one or two students join a class late and everyone has already got the original OPML export and now needs to update to add a few more feeds to keep track of classroom activity.) OPML subscription improves this by allowing the subscription to an OPML link with multiple feeds in it. If the original OPML file updates with new feeds, then the reader automatically updates them and pushes them out to everyone subscribed to that OPML file!
Think of an OPML subscription as an updating subscription to a bundle of RSS feeds which all also provide their own individual updates. Instead of subscribing to a bunch of individual feeds, you can subscribe to whole bundles of feeds.
For those looking for some sample OPML links to subscribe to, try some of mine which are listed at the bottom of the linked page. For some ideas about building your own data stores with OPML links for WordPress, try my Following Page solution. WordPress’s old Link Manager described on that page will provide the ability to store the data and provide the OPML links, the rest of the page discusses publishing it on one’s site so that it’s publicly available if you wish. URL schemes for sub-categories are discussed separately.
Depending on your infrastructure, you could potentially leverage the old Link Manager within WordPress which provided OPML outputs as well as outputs arranged by category. This would prevent you from needing to rebuild the side-files unless you’re doing that already.