Read Introducing aboutfeeds.com, a Getting Started guide for web feeds and RSS by Matt WebbMatt Webb (interconnected.org)

Introducing About Feeds

aboutfeeds.com is a single page website, for linking wherever you keep your web feed.

I’m still a fan of Julien Genestoux‘s SubToMe.com for related functionality and ease of use with RSS. If only more people used it or it was built into browsers.

I think it’d also be cool if this sort of simple UI were also easier to use with some of the newer IndieWeb social readers that are making it easier to follow websites and interact with them.

Read How to style RSS feed by Hsiaoming YangHsiaoming Yang (Just lepture)
Let's create a beautiful RSS feed UI for human before its dead in next year again.
This seems like quite a clever way of adding some human readable styling to RSS feeds. While it seems like yet another side-file, it could be a useful one. I think if I were implementing it I’d also want to include a SubToMe universal follow button on it as well
Replied to About this site by Dan MackinlayDan Mackinlay (danmackinlay.name)
Many ideas about how this site is used and presented are cribbed from the notebooks of Cosma Shalizi, which I find a pleasant format to read. The content is my own, except where otherwise stated. The fiddly details of how it works are here, and the really fiddly in-progress details are on my TODO list.
I love your site Dan and follow many of the same philosophies myself. Your notebook idea is a great one. If you want to extend it a bit, you could go full digital commonplace book to encompass even more.

I notice that in your follow me section you’ve got a handful of buttons that may eventually begin to give you a NASCAR Problem, or prompt others to say “What about feed reader XYZ?”

I’ve run into the issue before and used Julien Genestoux‘s excellent SubToMe follow button. It’s got a simple user interface, allows you to recommend a particular feed reader, but also gives readers the choice of several dozen other common feed readers. Best, it functions relatively well without getting into the whole what-is-RSS-and-how-do-I-use-it-issues. Obviously we have a long way to go to make some of these things simpler and easier to use, but slow iteration will get us there eventually.

How is it that a major podcast producer like Pushkin Industries doesn’t even have raw RSS feed link on their podcast pages? Why should I have to hunt for simple links like feeds.megaphone.fm/happinesslab on their website? If they’re worried about potential UI issues, why not use something like SubToMe?

How to follow the complete output of journalists and other writers?

In a digital era with a seemingly ever-decreasing number of larger news outlets paying journalists and other writers for their work, the number of working writers who find themselves working for one or more outlets is rapidly increasing. 

This is sure to leave journalists wondering how to better serve their own personal brand either when they leave a major publication for which they’ve long held an association (examples: Walt Mossberg leaving The New York Times or Leon Wieseltier leaving The New Republic)  or alternatively when they’re just starting out and writing for fifty publications and attempting to build a bigger personal following for their work which appears in many locations (examples include nearly everyone out there).

Increasingly I find myself doing insane things to try to follow the content of writers I love. The required gymnastics are increasingly complex to try to track writers across hundreds of different outlets and dozens of social media sites and other platforms (filtering out unwanted results is particularly irksome). One might think that in our current digital media society, it would be easy to find all the writing output of a professional writer like Ta-nehisi Coates, for example, in one centralized place.

I’m also far from the only one. In fact, I recently came across this note by Kevin:

I wish there was a way to subscribe to writers the same way you can use RSS. Obviously twitter gets you the closest, but usually a whole lot more than just the articles they’ve written. It would be awesome if every time Danny Chau or Wesley Morris published a piece I’d know.

The subsequent conversation in his comments or  on Micro.blog (a fairly digital savvy crowd) was less than heartening for further ideas.

As Kevin intimates, most writers and journalists are on Twitter because that’s where a lot of the attention is. But sadly Twitter can be a caustic and toxic place for many. It also means sifting through a lot of intermediary tweets to get to the few a week that are the actual work product articles that one wants to read. This also presumes that one’s favorite writer is on Twitter, still using Twitter, or hasn’t left because they feel it’s a time suck or because of abuse, threats, or other issues (examples: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lindy West, Sherman Alexie). 

What does the universe of potential solutions for this problem currently look like?

Potential Solutions

Aggregators

One might think that an aggregation platform like Muck Rack which is trying to get journalists to use their service and touts itself as “The easiest, unlimited way to build your portfolio, grow your following and quantify your impact—for free” might provide journalists the ability to easily import their content via RSS feeds and then provide those same feeds back out so that their readers/fans could subscribe to them easily. How exactly are they delivering on that promise to writers to “grow your following”?!

An illustrative example I’ve found on Muck Rack is Ryan O’Hanlon, a Los Angeles-based writer, who writes for  a variety of outlets including The Guardian, The New York Times, ESPN, BuzzFeed, ESPN Deportes, Salon, ESPN Brasil, FiveThirtyEight, The Ringer, and others. As of today they’ve got 410 of his articles archived and linked there. Sadly, there’s no way for a fan of his work to follow him there. Even if the site provided an RSS feed of titles and synopses that forced one to read his work on the original outlet, that would be a big win for readers, for Ryan, and for the outlets he’s writing for–not to mention a big win for Muck Rack and their promise.

I’m sure there have to be a dozen or so other aggregation sites like Muck Rack hiding out there doing something similar, but I’ve yet to find the real tool for which I’m looking. And if that tool exists, it’s poorly distributed and unlikely to help me for 80% of the writers I’m interested in following much less 5%.

Author Controlled Websites

Possibly the best choice for everyone involved would be for writers to have their own websites where they archive their own written work and provide a centralized portfolio for their fans and readers to follow them regardless of where they go or which outlet they’re writing for. They could keep their full pieces privately on the back end, but give titles, names of outlets, photos, and synopses on their sites with links back to the original as traditional blog posts. This pushes the eyeballs towards the outlets that are paying their bills while still allowing their fans to easily follow everything they’re writing. Best of all the writer could own and control it all from soup to nuts.

If I were a journalist doing this on the cheap and didn’t want it to become a timesuck, I’d probably spin up a simple WordPress website and use the excellent and well-documented PressForward project/plugin to completely archive and aggregate my published work, but use their awesome forwarding functionality so that those visiting the URLs of the individual pieces would be automatically redirected to the original outlet. This is a great benefit for writers many of whom know the pain of having written for outlets that have gone out of business, been bought out, or even completely disappeared from the web. 

Of course, from a website, it’s relatively easy to automatically cross-post your work to any number of other social platforms to notify the masses if necessary, but at least there is one canonical and centralized place to find a writer’s proverbial “meat and potatoes”. If you’re not doing something like this at a minimum, you’re just making it hard for your fans and failing at the very basics of building your own brand, which in part is to get even more readers. (Hint, the more readers and fans you’ve got, the more eyeballs you bring to the outlets you’re writing for, and in a market economy built on clicks, more eyeballs means more traffic, which means more money in the writer’s pocket. Since a portion of the web traffic would be going through an author’s website, they’ll have at least a proportional idea of how many eyeballs they’re pushing.)

I can’t help but point out that even some who have set up their own websites aren’t quite doing any of this right or even well. We can look back at Ryan O’Hanlon above with a website at https://www.ryanwohanlon.com/. Sadly he’s obviously let the domain registration lapse, and it has been taken over by a company selling shoes. We can compare this with the slight step up that Mssr. Coates has made by not only owning his own domain and having an informative website featuring his books, but alas there’s not even a link to his work for The Atlantic or any other writing anywhere else. Devastatingly his RSS feed isn’t linked, but if you manage to find it on his website, you’ll be less-than-enthralled by three posts of Lorem ipsum from 2017. Ugh! What has the world devolved to? (I can only suspect that his website is run by his publisher who cares about the book revenue and can’t be bothered to update his homepage with events that are now long past.)

Examples of some journalists/writers who are doing some interesting work, experimentation, or making an effort in this area include: Richard MacManus,  Marina Gerner, Dan Gillmor, Jay RosenBill Bennett, Jeff JarvisAram Zucker-Scharff, and Tim Harford

One of my favorite examples is John Naughton who writes a regular column for the Guardian. He has his own site where he posts links, quotes, what he’s reading, his commentary, and quotes of his long form writing elsewhere along with links to full pieces on those sites. I have no problem following some or all of his output there since his (WordPress-based) site has individual feeds for either small portions or all of it. (I’ve also written a short case study on Ms. Gerner’s site in the past as well.)

Newsletters

Before anyone says, “What about their newsletters?” I’ll admit that both O’Hanlon and Coates both have newsletters, but what’s to guarantee that they’re doing a better job of pushing all of their content though those outlets? Most of my experience with newsletters would indicate that’s definitely not the case with most writers, and again, not all writers are going to have newsletters, which seem to be the flavor-of-the month in terms of media distribution. What are we to do when newsletters are passé in 6 months? (If you don’t believe me, just recall the parable of all the magazines and writers that moved from their own websites or Tumblr to Medium.com.)

Tangential projects

I’m aware of some one-off tools that come close to the sort of notifications of writers’ work that might be leveraged or modified into a bigger tool or stand alone platform. Still, most of these are simple uni-taskers and only fix small portions of the overall problem.

Extra Extra

Savemy.News

Ben Walsh of the Los Angeles Times Data Desk has created a simple web interface at www.SaveMy.News that journalists can use to quickly archive their stories to the Internet Archive and WebCite. One can log into the service via Twitter and later download a .csv file with a running list of all their works with links to the archived copies. Adding on some functionality to add feeds and make them discoverable to a tool like this could be a boon.

Granary

Ryan Barrett has a fantastic open source tool called Granary that “Fetches and converts data between social networks, HTML and JSON with microformats2, ActivityStreams 1 and 2, AtomRSSJSON Feed, and more.” This could be a solid piece of a bigger process that pulls from multiple sources, converts them into a common format, and outputs them in a single subscribe-able location.

Splash page image and social logos from Granary.io

SubToMe

A big problem that has pushed us away from RSS and other formatted feed readers is providing an easy method of subscribing to content. Want to follow someone on Twitter? Just click a button and go. Wishing it were similar for a variety of feed types, Julien Genestoux‘s SubToMe has created a universal follow button that allows a one-click subscription option (with lots of flexibility and even bookmarklets) for following content feeds on the open web.

Splash image on SubToMe's home page

Others?

Have you seen any other writers/technologists who have solved this problem? Are there aggregation platforms that solve the problem in reverse? Small pieces that could be loosely joined into a better solution? What else am I missing?

How can we encourage more writers to take this work into their own hands to provide a cleaner solution for their audiences? Isn’t it in their own best interest to help their readers find their work?

I’ve curated portions of a journalism page on  IndieWeb wiki to include some useful examples, pointers, and resources that may help in solving portions of this problem. Other ideas and solutions are most welcome!

Cleaning up feeds, easier social following, and feed readers

I’ve been doing a bit of clean up in my feed reader(s)–cleaning out dead feeds, fixing broken ones, etc. I thought I’d take a quick peek at some of the feeds I’m pushing out as well. I remember doing some serious updates on the feeds my site advertises three years ago this week, but it’s been a while since I’ve revisited it. While every post kind/type, category, and tag on my site has a feed (often found by simply adding /feed/ to the end of those URLs), I’ve made a few custom feeds for aggregated content.

However, knowing that some feeds are broadly available from my site isn’t always either obvious or the same as being able to use them easily–one might think of it as a(n) (technical) accessibility problem. I thought I’d make a few tweaks to smooth out that user interface and hopefully provide a better user experience–especially since I’m publishing everything from my website first rather than in 30 different places online (which is a whole other UI problem for those wishing to follow me and my content). Since most pages on my site have a “Follow Me” button (courtesy of SubToMe), I just needed to have a list of generally useful feeds to provide it. While SubToMe has some instructions for suggesting lists of feeds, I’ve never gotten it to work the way I expected (or feed readers didn’t respect it, I’m not sure which?) But since most feed readers have feed discovery built in as a feature, I thought I’d leverage that aspect. Thus I threw into the <head> of my website a dozen or so links from some of the most typical feeds people may be most interested in from my site. Now you can click on the follow button, choose your favorite feed reader, and then your reader should provide you with a large list of feeds which you might want to subscribe. These now broadly include the full feed, a comments feed, feeds for all the individual kinds (bookmarks, likes, favorites, replies, listens, etc.) but potentially more useful: a “microblog feed” of all my status-related updates and a “linkblog feed” for all my link-related updates (generally favorites, likes, reads, and bookmarks).

Some of these sub-feeds may be useful in some feed readers which don’t yet have the ability for you to choose within the reader what you’d like to see. I suspect that in the future social readers will allow you to subscribe to my primary firehose or comments feeds, which are putting out about 85 and 125 posts a week right now, and you’ll be able to subscribe to those, but then within their interface be able to choose individual types by means of filters to more quickly see what I’ve been bookmarking, reading, listening to or watching. Then if you want to curl up with some longer reads, filter by articles; or if you just want some quick hits, filter by notes. And of course naturally you’ll be able to do this sort of filtering across your network too. I also suspect some of them will build in velocity filters and friend-proximity filters so that you’ll be able to see material from people who don’t post as often highlighted or to see people’s content based on your personal rankings or categories (math friends, knitting circle, family, reading group, IndieWeb community, book club, etc.). I’ve recently been enjoying Kicks Condor’s FraidyCat reader which touches on some of this work though it’s not what most people would consider a full-featured feed reader but might think of as a filter/reader dashboard sort of product.

Perhaps sometime in the future I’ll write a bit of code so that each individual page on my site that you visit will provide feeds in the header for all the particular categories, tags, and post kinds that appear on that page?That might make a clever, and simple little plugin, though honestly that’s the sort of code I would expect CMSes like WordPress to provide out of the box. Of course, perhaps broader adoption of microformats and clever readers will obviate the need for all these bits?

 

Improving RSS Subscription Workflows with SubToMe

I love that WordPress has some built-in functionality within WordPress.com and many themes to allow one to easily build and display a social media menu on a website. Frequently these are displayed in headers, footers, or even sidebars of websites.  I have one in the footer of my website that looks like this:

Screencapture of my social links for email, RSS, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.

The RSS icon and links are automatically generated for me by simply putting in any RSS feed that has a /feed/ path in its URL. 

While this is great, clicking on the RSS icon link goes to a page with a hodgepodge of markup, content, and meta data and typically requires multiple additional steps and prior advanced knowledge of what those steps should be to do something useful with that link/page. In other words the UI around this (and far too many other RSS icons) is atrocious, unwelcoming, and generally incomprehensible to the general public. (Remember those long and elaborate pages newspapers and magazines had to define RSS and how to use it? It’s a HUGE amount of cognitive load compared to social media following UI in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. which just works™.) 

Fortunately Julien Genestoux and friends have created an elegant solution in SubToMe, described as a Universal Follow button, that is open, non-intrusive, protects privacy, and works with virtually any feed reader. It uses some JavaScript to create a pop-up that encourages users to use any of various popular feed readers (or the one of their choice). The UI flow for this is far superior and useful for the casual web-user and has the potential to help along the renaissance of feed readers and consumption of web content in a way that allows readers more control over their reading than social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that mandate their own proprietary reading algorithms.

While one can embed SubToMe directly into a website (I do this with a Follow button in my site’s top right sidebar, for example) or using Julien and MatthiasWordPress plugin, I suspect it would be far easier if some of this functionality were built directly into WordPress core in some way. Or alternately, is there an easy way to put data into one of the common fields (or wrap it) in these social links menus, so that when a user clicks on the relatively ubiquitous RSS icon in those social links menus, that it triggers a SubToMe-like subscription workflow? 

I would suspect that WordPress.com might try something like this and naturally recommend their own beautiful reader, which was relatively recently redesigned by Jan Cavan Boulas et al., using a bit of functionality which SubToMe kindly provides.

I think that the simplification of this RSS reader subscription workflow would go a LONG way toward making it more successful and usable. It could also provide massive influence on increasing the use of feed readers in general and the WordPress Reader in particular.

I do note that there is a form of follow functionality built into WordPress.com-based websites, but that’s locked into the .com platform or needs a plugin for self-hosted sites. It also only benefits the WordPress.com reader rather than other readers in the space. Some of the issue here is to fix the NASCAR problem of needing dozens of plugin solutions and widgets to have what amounts to the same functionality on each platform in existence. I think it’s far more important for the open web to be able to do these sorts of simple functionalities in a more standardized way to give users more freedom, flexibility and choice. The standardization makes it easier for competition in a market economy to gradually improve this sort of user interface over time.

If someone did undertake some development in this area, I’d give bonus development points on this for:

  • Is there a way to do this without JavaScript to get around the js;dr potentiality?
  • Is there a way for this to find not only the common main and comments feeds for posts, but also for the affiliated /category/feed/ and /tag/feed/ taxonomy feeds on posts to allow for subscriptions to niche areas of websites that cover multiple broad topics? I know David Shanske has done some work on feed discovery in WordPress recently for the Yarns Microsub Server that may be useful here.
  • Is there a way to talk major browsers into adding this into their products?

I wonder if Jeffrey Paul, Jeremy Felt, Matthias Pfefferle, Jeffrey Zeldman or others may have some ideas about broader implementation and execution of something like this for improved UI in these areas? 

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

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

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.
​​​​​