👓 The Case for RSS | MacSparky

The Case for RSS by David Sparks (MacSparky)
If you are thinking about using RSS, I have a little advice. Be wary feed inflation. RSS is so easy to implement that it's a slippery slope between having RSS feeds for just a few websites and instead of having RSS feeds for hundreds of websites. If you’re not careful, every time you open your RSS reader, there will be 1,000 unread articles waiting for you, which completely defeats the purpose of using RSS. The trick to using RSS is to be brutal with your subscriptions. I think the key is looking for websites with high signal and low noise. Sites that publish one or two articles a day (or even one to two articles a week) but make them good articles are much more valuable and RSS feed than sites that published 30 articles a day.
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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.
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Reply to Laying the Standards for a Blogging Renaissance by Aaron Davis

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?

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Reply toMeredith Fierro on Setting up a Feed with Feedly

Setting up a Feed with Feedly by Meredith Fierro (Meredith Fierro)
Working at Reclaim means I get to interact with people who do incredible work within the Ed Tech community. I was first exposed to this at #domains17 and I remember thinking that I wanted to keep up with all of these wonderful folks and the work their doing. At first, I had no idea how I could keep up with all the blog posts except through twitter. I didn’t really like that idea though because I could lose tweets within my feed. I wanted a place where I could keep them all together. I don’t know too much about RSS feeds but I knew that’s where I needed to start. I a little bit of experience using FeedWordPress to syndicate blog posts to the main class hub but I knew that would chew right through my storage limit.

If you want to take it a step further, you could consider making an open OPML file of the people you’re following from a conference like Domains ’17. Much like Twitter lists, these are sharable (so others don’t need to build them by hand), or more importantly for Feedly importable! Some RSS readers will also allow dynamic updating of these OPML lists so if someone is subscribed to your list and you add a new source, everyone following the list gets the change. I’ve written some thoughts relating to this with respect to the old school blogrolls and included an example here: http://boffosocko.com/2017/06/26/indieweb-blogroll/

If you do set up an OPML file for your Domains ’17, let me know. I’d love to subscribe to it!

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

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.

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Feed reader revolution

It's time to embrace open & disrupt social media
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at AltPlatform.org.

The state-of-the-art in feed readers was frozen in place sometime around 2010, if not before. By that time most of the format wars between RSS and Atom had long since died down and were all generally supported. The only new features to be added were simple functionalities like sharing out links from readers to social services like Facebook and Twitter. For fancier readers they also added the ability to share out to services like Evernote, OneNote, Pocket, Instapaper and other social silos or silo related services.

So the real question facing companies with stand alone traditional feed reader products–like Feedly, Digg Reader, The Old Reader, Inoreader, Reeder, NewsBlur, Netvibes, Tiny Tiny RSS, WordPress reader–and the cadre of others is:

  • What features could/should we add?
  • How can we improve?
  • How can we gain new users?
  • How can we increase our market share?

In short the primary question is:

What should a modern RSS feed reader be capable of doing?

Continue reading “Feed reader revolution”

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Reading my Facebook and Instagram Streams again via RSS

I’ve really been loving reading my Facebook and Instagram streams on my own website using Ryan Barrett’s versions of Facebook Atom and Instagram Atom webapps.

Twitter is coming next, but I need to tweak some lists to pare things down.

This feels so 2008, and I mean that in the best way.

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Transitioning from Pocket to PressForward

I’ve recently been attempting to own all of my online bookmarks and online articles I’d like to read to replace services like Pocket and Instapaper. While I feel like I’m almost there using PressForward, there are still one or two rough edges.

One of them is creating a simple mobile workflow to take headlines from Twitter and get them into my reading queue. Previously I had used an IFTTT.com recipe to take things I “liked” in my Twitter stream to strip off URLs and put them into Pocket for reading later. In fact, very few of my thousands of likes in Twitter are traditional “likes” because I’m really using that functionality to indicate “I’d like to read the article linked to in this Tweet at a later date”. Somewhere in the past couple of months I’ve mused to at least one person on the PressForward team that it would be nice to have a simple indicator to send articles from Twitter to PressForward like this, but even if I were building it all by hand, this would be a bit further down the list of priorities. What to do in the erstwhile?

RSS has long been going out of fashion, particularly among the major social silos who want to keep you in their clutches, but it dawned on me to check to see if Pocket or Instapaper provide RSS feeds. Sure and gloriously enough, they do! In fact, Pocket has an unread feed, an archive feed, an all items feed (that includes both of the other two), and as a lovely additional touch, they’ve even got the ability to make feeds private. Instapaper has RSS feeds too, though they were a bit more hidden and took a right click/view source along with a manual completion of their base URL. The nice part is that one can take these RSS feeds and plug them straight into one’s PressForward RSS feed et voilà there they are on my own site! (From the viewpoint of PressForward, this is also very close to being able to nominate items directly from Twitter.) While this is more of a PESOS feed, the result is a no-brainer and provides a near real-time experience that’s more than adequate for my needs (at least until yet another silo goes down).

And as added bonuses, if I feel like using Pocket or Instapaper from time to time, I can do so without loss of data along the stream and the small handful of people with whom I interact on Pocket won’t notice the fact that I’ve disappeared.

For the millionth time, G-d bless RSS, a wonderful tool I use every single day.

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PressForward as an IndieWeb WordPress-based RSS Feed Reader & Pocket/Instapaper Replacement

As many know, for the past 6 months or so, I’ve been slowly improving some of the IndieWeb tools and workflow I use to own what I’m reading both online and in physical print as well as status updates indicating those things. [1][2][3]

Since just before IndieWebCamp LA, I’ve been working on better ways to own the articles I’ve been reading and syndicate/share them out to other social platforms. The concept initially started out as a simple linkblog idea and has continually been growing, particularly with influence from my attendance of the Dodging the Memory Hole 2016: Saving Online News conference at UCLA in October. Around that same time, it was announced that Pinterest was purchasing Instapaper and they were shutting down some of Instapaper’s development and functionality. I’ve been primarily using Pocket for several years now and have desperately wanted to bring that functionality into my own site. I had also been looking at the self-hostable Wallabag alternative which is under heavy active development, but since most of my site is built on WordPress, I really preferred having a solution that integrated better into that as a workflow.

Enter PressForward

I’ve been looking closely at PressForward for the past week and change as a self-contained replacement for third party services like Pocket and Instapaper. I’ve been looking around for this type of self-hosted functionality for a while.

PressForward was originally intended for journalists and news organizations to aggregate new content, add it to their newsroom workflow, and then use it to publish new content. From what I can see it’s also got a nice following in academia as a tool for aggregating content for researchers focused on a particular area.

It only took a minute or two of looking at PressForward to realize that it had another off-label use case: as a spectacular replacement for read-later type apps!

In an IndieWeb fashion, this fantastic WordPress plugin allows me to easily own private bookmarks of things I’d like to read (PressForward calles these “Nominations” in keeping with its original use case). I can then later read them on my own website (with Mercury f.k.a Readability functionality built in), add commentary, and publish them as a read post. [Note: To my knowledge the creators of PressForward are unaware of the IndieWeb concept or philosophies.]

After some playing around for a bit and contemplating several variations, configurations, and options, I thought I’d share some thoughts about it for others considering using it in such an off-label manner. Hopefully these may also spur the developers to open up their initial concept to a broader audience as it seems very well designed and logically laid out.

Examples

The developers obviously know the value of dogfooding as at least two of them are using it in a Pocket-like fashion (as they many not have other direct use-cases).

Pros

PressForward includes a beautiful, full built-in RSS Feed Reader!

This feature alone is enough to recommend using it even without any other feature. I’ve tried Orbit Reader and WhisperFollow (among others) which are both interesting in their own rights but are somewhat limited and have relatively clunky interfaces. The best part of WhisperFollow’s premise is that it has webactions built in, but I suspect these could easily be added onto PressForward.

In fact, not just hours before I’d discovered PressFoward, I’d made this comment on the WordPress Reader Refresh post announcing the refresh of WordPress.com’s own (separate) reader:

Some nice visual changes in this iteration. Makes it one of the most visually pretty feed readers out there now while still maintaining a relatively light weight.

I still wish there were more functionality pieces built into it like the indie-reader Woodwind.xyz or even Feedly. While WordPress in some sense is more creator oriented than consumption oriented, I still think that not having a more closely integrated reader built into it is still a drawback to the overall WordPress platform.

Additionally,

  • It’s IndieWeb and POSSE friendly
  • It does automatic link forwarding in a flexible/responsible manner with canonical URLs
  • Allows for proper attributions for the original author and content source/news outlet
  • Keeps lots of metadata for analyzing reading behavior
  • Taggable and categorizable
  • Allows for comments/commenting
  • Could be used for creating a linkblog on steroids
  • Archives the original article on the day it was read.
  • Is searchable
  • Could be used for collaboration and curation
  • Has Mercury (formerly known as Readability) integrated for a cleaner reading interface
  • Has a pre-configured browser bookmarklet
  • Is open source and incredibly well documented
  • One can count clicks to ones’ own site as the referer while still pushing the reader to the original
  • Along with other plugins like JetPack’s Publicize or Social Networks Auto-Poster, one can automatically share their reads to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media silos. In this case, you own the link, but the original publisher also gets the traffic.

Cons

No clear path for nominating articles on mobile.

This can be a dealbreaker for some, so I’ve outlined a pretty quick and simple solution below.

No direct statistics

Statistics for gauging ones’ reading aren’t built in directly (yet?), but some scripts are available. [4][5][6]

No larger data aggregation

Services like Pocket are able to aggregate the data of thousands of users to recommend and reveal articles I might also like. Sadly this self-hosted concept makes it difficult (or impossible) do have this type of functionality. However, I usually have far too much good stuff to read anyway, so maybe this isn’t such a loss.

Suggested Improvements

Adding the ability to do webactions directly from the “Nominated” screen would be fantastic, particularly for the RSS reader portion.

Default to an unread view of the current “All Content” page. I find that I have to filter the view every time I visit the page to make it usable. I suspect this would be a better default for most newsrooms too.

It would be nice to have a pre-configured archive template page in a simple linkblog format that filters posts that were nominated/drafted/published via the Plugin. This will prevent users from needing to create one that’s compatible with their current theme. Something with a date read, Title linked to the original, Author, and Source attribution could be useful for many users.

A PressForward Nomination “Bookmarklet” for Mobile

One of the big issues I came up against immediately with PressForward is ease of use on mobile. A lot of the content I read is on mobile, so being able to bookmark (nominate) articles via mobile or apps like Nuzzel or Twitter is very important. I suspect this may also be the case for many of their current user base.

Earlier this year I came across a great little Android mobile app called URL Forwarder which can be used to share things with the ubiquitous mobile sharing icons. Essentially one can use it to share the URL of the mobile page one is on to a mobile Nomination form within PressForward.

I’d suspect that there’s also a similar app for iOS, but I haven’t checked. If not available, URL Forwarder is open source on Github and could potentially be ported. There’s also a similar Android app called Bookmarklet Free which could be used instead of URL Forwarder.

PressForward’s built in bookmarklet kindly has a pre-configured URL for creating nominations, so it’s a simple case of configuring it. These details follow below for those interested.

Configuring URL Forwarder for PressForward

  1. Open URL Forwarder
  2. Click the “+” icon to create a filter.
  3. Give the filter a name, “Nominate This” is a reasonable suggestion. (See photo below.)
  4. Use the following entry for the “Filter URL” replacing example.com with your site’s domain name: http://example.com/wp-content/plugins/pressforward/includes/nomthis/nominate-this.php?u=@url
  5. Leave the “Replaceable text” as “@url”
  6. Finish by clicking on the checkmark in the top right corner.

Simple right?

Nominating a post via mobile

With the configuration above set up, do the following:

  1. On the mobile page one wants to nominate, click the ubiquitous “share this” mobile icon (or share via a pull down menu, depending on your mobile browser or other app.)
  2. Choose to share through URL Forwarder
  3. Click on the “Nominate” option just created above.
  4. Change/modify any data within your website administrative interface and either nominate or post as a draft. (This part is the same as one would experience using the desktop bookmarklet.)

What’s next?

Given the data intensity of both the feed reader and what portends to be years of article data, I’m left with the question of hosting it within my primary site or putting it on a subdomain?

I desperately want to keep it on the main site, but perhaps hosting it on a subdomain, similar to how both Aram Zucker-Scharff and James Digioia do it may be better advised?

I’ve also run across an issue with the automatic redirect which needs some troubleshooting as well. Hopefully this will be cleared up quickly and we’ll be off to the races.

References

[1]
C. Aldrich, “A New Reading Post-type for Bookmarking and Reading Workflow,” BoffoSocko | Musings of a Modern Day Cyberneticist, 22-Aug-2016. [Online]. Available: http://boffosocko.com/2016/08/22/a-new-reading-post-type-for-bookmarking-and-reading-workflow/. [Accessed: 31-Dec-2016]
[2]
C. Aldrich, “Owning my Online Reading Status Updates,” BoffoSocko | Musings of a Modern Day Cyberneticist, 20-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: http://boffosocko.com/2016/11/20/owning-my-online-reading-status-updates/. [Accessed: 31-Dec-2016]
[3]
C. Aldrich, “Notes, Highlights, and Marginalia from E-books to Online,” BoffoSocko | Musings of a Modern Day Cyberneticist, 24-Oct-2016. [Online]. Available: http://boffosocko.com/2016/10/24/notes-highlights-and-marginalia/. [Accessed: 31-Dec-2016]
[4]
A. Zucker-Scharff, “Personal Statistics from 3 Months of Internet Reading,” Medium, 05-Sep-2015. [Online]. Available: https://medium.com/@aramzs/3-month-internet-reading-stats-f41fa15d63f0#.dez80up7y. [Accessed: 31-Dec-2016]
[5]
A. Zucker-Scharff, “Test functions based on PF stats for collecting data,” Gist. [Online]. Available: https://gist.github.com/AramZS/d10fe64dc33fc9ffc2d8. [Accessed: 31-Dec-2016]
[6]
A. Zucker-Scharff, “PressForward/pf_stats,” GitHub. [Online]. Available: https://github.com/PressForward/pf_stats. [Accessed: 31-Dec-2016]
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Using WordPress RSS Feeds | Elegant Themes Blog

Using WordPress RSS Feeds (Elegant Themes)
RSS is a standard web feed format that was released in 1999. It was quickly adopted by all major publishing platforms. The word RSS stems from the phrase “Rich Site Summary”, though the term “Really Simple Syndication” has become more synonymous with the standard over the years. It...

Continue reading “Using WordPress RSS Feeds | Elegant Themes Blog”

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RSS Feeds: A Follow up on My IndieWeb Commitment 2017

Over the past two years I’ve been owning more and more of the data that I used to sharecrop into various social media silos. Instead of posting it to those sites which I don’t own, don’t control, and can’t rely on them staying up forever, I’m posting on my own site first and when it seems worthwhile, I’m syndicating my content back out to them to take advantage of their network effects.

A Crowded Stream

As a result of owning all this data, my blog/site has become MUCH more active than it had been before. (It’s also been interesting to see just how much data I’d been giving to social media sites.) This extra activity has caused a few to tip me off that they’re seeing a lot of email notifications and additional material in their RSS feeds that they’re not used to seeing (and may not necessarily care about). So rather than risk them unsubscribing from everything and allow them to receive what they’re used to seeing, I’ve spent some time in the last couple of days to work on my IndieWeb Commitment 2017 which was to:

Fix my site’s subscription/mail functionality so that I can better control what current subscribers get and allow for more options for future subscribers.

Because a lot of the recent additions to my site have been things like owning all my Instagram posts, my bookmarks, what I’m watching, updates about books I’m reading, and links to everything I’ve been reading online, I’ve been using a category on the site called “Social Stream” with each of these posts as sub-categories. In most cases, social stream could be synonymous with microblog to some extent though it covers a broader range of content than just simply Twitter-like status updates.

Filtering Social Stream Posts out of My Email Subscriptions

I added a filter in my functions.php file for the JetPack-based plugin that prevents my site from emailing those who have used the JetPack subscription service from receiving emails for each and every post in those categories.

I had previously been preventing some of these emails from firing on a manual basis, but with their increased frequency, it was becoming unsustainable.

For those interested, the code and some useful tips can be found at the JetPack site. A copy of the specific code I’m currently using in my functions.php file appears below:

add_filter( 'jetpack_subscriptions_exclude_these_categories', 'exclude_these' );
function exclude_these( $categories ) {
$categories = array( 'social-stream');
return $categories;
}

More Flexible RSS Feeds and Discovery

For future subscribers, I wanted to allow some easier subscription options, particularly when it comes to RSS. Fortunately WordPress does a pretty good job of not only providing RSS feeds but makes them relatively configurable and customizeable with good documentation. [1] [2]

Custom URLs for RSS Syndication and .htcacess Modifications

I wanted to create a few human-readable RSS feed names and feeds including:

With somewhat canonical feed URLs, I can always change where they point to in the future. To do this and have them map over into the actual feeds for these things, I did a bit of remapping in my .htaccess file based on some thoughts I’d run across recently.  The code I used appears below:

# BEGIN rss
<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteRule ^rss\.xml$ "/feed?cat=-484"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^microblog\.xml$ "/feed?cat=484"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^articles\.xml$ "/feed?kind=article"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^instagram\.xml$ "/feed?cat=936"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^linkblog\.xml$ "/feed?cat=964,945"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^read\.xml$ "/feed?cat=945"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^math\.xml$ "/feed?cat=10"[L,R]
RewriteRule ^informationtheory\.xml$ "/feed?cat=687"[L,R]
RewriteCond %{Query_STRING} ^$
RewriteRule ^feed$ "/rss.xml" [L,R]
</IfModule>
# END rss

Each of the cat=### are the numbers for the particular category numbers I’m mapping within WordPress for the associated category names.

RSS Feed Pattern for IndieWeb Post Kinds Plugin

I also spent a few minutes to figure out the RSS feed patterns to allow for the additional feeds provided by the Post Kinds plugin to work. While Post Kinds is similar to the native WordPress post formats, it’s designed particularly with IndieWeb posts in mind and uses a custom taxonomy which also wraps particular post kinds in the appropriate microformats automatically. The general form for these RSS feeds would be:

Other feeds could be constructed similarly by replacing “article” with the other kinds including:  bookmark, favorite, jam, like, listen, note, photo, read, recipe, reply, repost, watch, and wish. I suspect that most will only want the articles while those who are really interested in the others can either “build” them themselves for subscribing, or given the sporadic nature of some, they would more likely be interested in the “social stream” feed noted above.

Discoverability

Finally there’s the most important question of what feed readers like Feedly or Woodwind can actually discover when someone searches for an RSS feed on my domain. It’s one thing to have customized feeds, but if feed readers can’t easily find them, the subscriber is never likely to see them or know they exist to want to consume them. Most advanced feed readers will parse the headers of my site for discover-able feeds and present them to the user for possible subscription.

Out of the box WordPress provides two RSS feeds as standard: one for posts (essentially everything) and one for comments.  I added several additional ones (like those mentioned above), which I thought might be most requested/useful, into my page header to provide a slightly broader range of subscription options. I even included a few feeds for alternate sites I run, like my WithKnown-based site. I suppose if I wanted I could advertise feeds for my favorite sites anywhere.

To add these additional feeds, I added several additional lines into my page header similar to the following example which makes my posts categorized or tagged as mathematics discoverable:

<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Chris Aldrich » Mathematics Feed" href="http://boffosocko.com/math.xml" />

Wrap up

Hopefully with these few simple changes, those who wish to subscribe to my blog by email won’t be inundated with a lot of the social details. Those who want all or even smaller portions of my feed can consume them more easily, and there’s a way to be able to consume almost anything you’d like by category, tag, or post format/post kind.

Now on to my stretch goal:

Finish my monthly email newsletter

Comments/Questions?

Is there a particular type of content I’m creating here that you’d like to subscribe to? Let me know in the comments below if there’s a feed of a post format/kind, category, or tag you’d like to have that isn’t mentioned above.

References

[1]
“WordPress Feeds « WordPress Codex,” WordPress.org. [Online]. Available: https://codex.wordpress.org/WordPress_Feeds. [Accessed: 18-Dec-2016]
[2]
“Customizing Feeds « WordPress Codex,” WordPress.org. [Online]. Available: https://codex.wordpress.org/Customizing_Feeds. [Accessed: 18-Dec-2016]
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