Homo homini rodentius est

A Beginner Guide to RSS (Feeds)

RSS cartoon

Well, you got to this page either from clicking the link in the sidebar or perhaps because The Great Google sent you here from a search approximating “what the hell is a (RSS) feed?” So you’d like to get your feet wet in syndicated web content? Nothing to it. The process is painless and almost interesting. All you have to do is just follow a few simple steps and within minutes you’ll be feeding with the best of them. Promise.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Brand Called Who?

In the blogging world, weekends are for housecleaning and inside baseball. This past weekend, a conversation sprang up around Robert Scoble’s views on the (un-)likelihood that the micro-blogging application FriendFeed would reach critical mass with “mainstream” users. (A moment for definitional clarity here — in a country where [one out of every five] people has never sent or received an email, Robert does not really mean mainstream — he means adoption by bloggers and the kind of SMS-loving professionals and kids who live to share every moment of their lives online.) One of the reasons for resistance, he suggested, was that bloggers wouldn’t like seeing conversations generated by their work migrated to a foreign platform. This led Duncan Riley to [confess] a change of heart on just this subject, declaring that Blogging 2.0 is “all about the user” — and users want to take the conversation in any direction, via any platform, they choose. His use of the word “user” was interesting, if oblique. What he might have said was “customer” — but that would take this particular conversation into an area that is radioactive in the Web 2.0 world: who benefits most from [commoditized] content?

Brand Called You
But who owns “You”?

Way back in 1997, during the heyday of New Economy 1.0 (you remember, the beta version that lost its funding..?), the bible of the time, Fast Company magazine, generated a lot of buzz with a cover story called, [“The Brand Called You.”] It was a pitch-perfect manifesto that boldly declared the importance to every Tom, Dick and Harriet of self-branding in a world where 1) traditional means of professional advancement were fracturing and 2) technology provided everyone the ability to burnish their personal “brand” and stand out from the undifferentiated masses. Underneath the glossy hoopla, of course, was a not very pretty implication: branding is most important when you are trying to differentiate a commodity product from others just like it. This is something I know about — at exactly the time that article appeared in Fast Company I was a foot-soldier for one of the big three phone companies in the telecom wars of the late 90’s. The commodity we had to brand was long-distance minutes and how did we do it? Largely through owning Share of Voice (SOV). Share of voice refers to the proportion of available media space that your branding is exposed to the target audience. The brand with the greatest SOV will (usually) carry the day. That implies that, in an established market, the incumbents have a huge advantage over new brands that hope to challenge them.

To bring it back to the debate over bloggers vs. the “social aggregator” sites like FriendFeed — the knock on traditional blogging (“Blogging 1.0”) was that the very small cadre of “A-list” bloggers owned all the SOV and basically sucked the air out of the market. One didn’t stand a chance of collecting an audience unless one of the elite [deigned] to bestow a link upon the less-fortunate. Social sites like FriendFeed promise to flatten that hierarchy — which is all to the good — but what is really being debated is the value of individual brands in an online economy where brands can be “absorbed” by other brands. It is not surprising to me at all that FriendFeed was started by two veterans of Google — the brand that consumes all brands and that has generated enormous profit by repackaging and indexing the output of others. That is not to say that there is no value left over for those who become commoditized in such a scheme — many companies thrive within the Google ecosystem — but we need to be clear about exactly what is of value to bloggers. It’s not money — very few will ever see a dime from their dedicated investment. It’s attention. And the currency of attention is commentary. A conversation about their work going on somewhere they are not provides no direct value. What they need to see, however, is that there are peripheral benefits in increased SOV that help to build their online brand. Whether that is a fair trade is the 64 million dollar Web 2.0 question, isn’t it?

Managing Robert Scoble

Managing high volume writers with Google Reader
Filtering info volume with Google Reader

I was going to title this post “Managing Information Overload with Google Reader”, because it deals with how to filter the flood of output that comes from the currently popular micro-blogging platforms [Twitter] and [FriendFeed] — but it really has to do with filtering the output from just those participants in those apps who generate extraordinary amounts of information and the poster child of that phenomenon is… Robert Scoble.

Scoble provides value in proportion to the amount of information he generates — acting as a human filter on the deluge of New New Things that bombard the internet daily. That’s his job and I use him (and a few others) as the first pass at filtering the wheat from the chaff. But there are serious design problems with the platforms we’re using which is symptomatic of the Web 2.0 design space — they are released to the world before they are ready and often suffer from near-fatal design flaws. In the case of Twitter and FriendFeed they present posts in a stream or “timeline” where all posts are presented sequentially and all are of equal weight. The result is that a prolific writer, like Scoble or Dave Winer, can swamp the system and push out others I want to follow who write less frequently. This was most obvious today when I logged into Twitter to find that Scoble’s overnight reporting on the Chinese earthquake literally pushed everyone else I was following off the page. The platforms need a way to assign weights to subscriptions so that posts from people I don’t want to miss (say personal friends) have priority over others.

Until that is possible, one way I have found to hack a weighting algorithm is through Google Reader. I’ve set up two sets of FriendFeed accounts — on one I subscribe to those people who I want to read who post at “normal” rates. On the other, I subscribe only to Scoble. I then subscribe to the RSS feeds for each account with Google Reader which allows me a central place to track both streams of info. There is minimal overlap in feeds and it allows me to track the posts and related conversations of those people I’m following with a low probability that I’ll miss anything they’ve published either on FriendFeed, Twitter or their blogs. It’s a kludge but it works.

Clay Shirky: Death to Television!

The Death of TV

Clay Shirky, professor of Interactive Telecommunications at NYU, lit up the room at the recent Web 2.0 Expo conference with his keynote presentation titled, “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”. In it, he proclaims the half-century long era of passive television watching in its death throes — soon to be replaced by an era where the audience seizes control of the media they consume. What do you think… is he on to something?

Yahoo needs a strong husband

Yang Drone
Haven’t you heard? Resistance is futile.

While the ongoing Yahoo-Microsoft nuptials play out (picture a lumbering brutish Steve Ballmer of Microsoft dragging Yahoo’s squealing Yang by the hair to the altar), those of us who actually consume their services are left wondering what the impact will be of the seemingly inevitable consummation. Up until today I was in the camp who thinks it would be a bad marriage from the start because of cultural and technological differences. As a web developer who does more and more work outside of the Microsoft ecosystem I’ve come to depend on the tools and expertise that Yahoo makes freely available to those developing against open standards. There is a veritable treasure trove of material available from the [Yahoo Developer Network] site, including invaluable guidance on development best practices for “exceptional performance”. I admit, working fast and (often) dirty in a fast-paced company, I usually can only aspire to the kind of clean coding that Yahoo advocates — but it was comforting knowing that there were places like Yahoo where passionate people did the right thing as a matter of their culture. And it was the loss of that kind of culture that seemed at risk in the Microsoft takeover.

Then I did a little test. I compared the client-side code delivered to my browser by the portals of Yahoo (Yahoo.com), Google (iGoogle) and Microsoft (MSN.com). What I found surprised me: by far, Microsoft’s code was cleaner and more efficient. The entire MSN homepage clocked in at just 192K of code (html + javascript). Google unloaded 234K of code, but Yahoo dumped 384K of code — a huge amount for a web page. What was more surprising (and disappointing) was that inspection of the Yahoo code showed that it was a hopeless hairball of CSS and Javascript that violated most of the recommendations their own [“exceptional performance”] evangelists tout. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who has to maintain that site… Just for kicks I submitted all three sites to the W3C [site validator] — the code cop of the interweb. Only Microsoft’s site passed. Now I understand why the Yahoo Developer Network has videos showing their standards evangelists presenting internally — they’re trying to convert the brethren.

In retrospect, it kind of makes sense. The dope on Yahoo and Google is that they are cool places to work; very young, very quick. Microsoft, on the other hand is the Borg — a collective of corporate drones; not young, not quick. But as anyone who has worked in a large company knows — youth and speed is often a deadly combination. Young workers — and young companies, too — can benefit from the structure that a boring established organization can confer. I think Yahoo could benefit from the cultural embrace of the Borg — and the collective could benefit from an infusion of new ideas. Time will tell.

Portal War

« Previous Entries   Next Entries »