The mission of RSS

Sam Ruby asks : " Jon - if I read your suggestion correctly, are you suggesting that we give up on ever converging?"

The context for my answer is this message from Sébastien Paquet , which I'm quoting with permission.

Hi Jon,

Following your post on the barriers to weblog/RSS uptake in scientific and other communities, I thought I'd send you a note, as much of my recent work focuses on pushing weblogs in research. I'm a computer science researcher, on the social informatics side, and my weblog is about the evolution of scholarly communication.

First, there is a growing number of blogs by researchers. If these pioneers can organize (which I'm tring to help them do), become more visible and evangelize, they'll be much more effective than outsiders at getting others to jump on the blogtrain. For a sample, follow the links in this post .

Second, the primary obstacles to widespread blogging are cultural, not technological. Perhaps the biggest is that (regrettably) researchers are not used to sharing widely information about work in progress. A relevant note is here .

Third, I'm also interested in the general issue of why certain professions pick up blogging more easily than others. See here and here .

I'd be very interested to know more about your views/lessons learned on how to promote blogging and syndication, if you find time to write them up in your blog or elsewhere.

Here are reasons why Sébastien thinks blogging and research culture should naturally go together:

  1. Scholars value knowledge. They have a lot of it to manage and track.
  2. A scholar's professional survival depends on name recognition. A K-log can help provide visibility and recognition.
  3. Scholars are used to writing; most of them can write well.
  4. Scholars are geographically disparate. They need to nurture relationships with people that they seldom meet in person.
  5. Scholars need to interlink in a person-to-person fashion (see Interlinktual )
  6. Scholars already rely heavily on interpersonal trust and direct communication to determine what new stuff is worth looking at. Such filtering is one of the central functions weblog communities excel at.
  7. For many scholars, the best collaborations come about when they find someone who shares their values and goals (this is argued e.g. in section 3 of Phil Agre's excellent Networking on the Network ). The personal output that is reflected in one's weblog makes it much easier to check for such a match than work that is published through other channels.
  8. Scholars recognize the value of serendipity. Serendipity can come pretty quickly through weblogging; see Manufactured Serendipity .
  9. Every scholar must strive to be a knowledge hub in his niche, and an expert in related areas. A K-log is a good medium for this, as it is a way of letting knowledge flow through you while adding your personal spin.
  10. Scholars pride themselves on being independent thinkers. K-logs epitomize independent thought.

Here are reasons why Sébastien thinks blogging has failed to become a research nexus:

  1. It takes time.
  2. "The technology is not well-established and tested at this point."
  3. Many people don't like being among the first ones doing something.
  4. Not all scholars are used to the Web and hypertext.
  5. Shyness and fear of public mistakes. Many scholars won't write unless they have to. They may especially be reluctant to publicly expose ideas that they haven't tested.
  6. Fear that someone else will pick up their ideas and work them out before they do.

I agree with both sets of reasons. I find it fascinating that nowhere in the second list do these objections appear:

  1. RSS is becoming too complex. It needs to remain simple, human-readable and -writable.
  2. RSS is too monolithic. It needs modular extensibility.

In fact both objections are valid. But neither is preventing RSS from achieving what I take to be its primary mission, which is to supercharge professional communication in the many disciplines that it has yet to penetrate.

RSS .94 looks fine to me. So does RSS 1.0 (with its .91 module). So do other proposals . The interoperable core shared by all these is what matters most, and since all are related by simple transformation, I regard them as being the same from the perspective of the primary mission. For users who don't understand or have access to transformation technologies, though, these different manifestations of the core are confusing and may account for the perception that "the technology is not well-established."

Few have argued for metadata as long and (I hope) persuasively as me. So I hope that qualifies me to say: it's not the first thing that matters here. If the primary mission is achieved, extensible metadata will matter more -- though perhaps less than we geeks like to imagine. I see RSS .9x as a basic syndication format, and RSS 1.0 as a framework for advanced metadata enrichment. My conclusions at this point are as follows:

  1. The two functions are different enough to warrant different names.

  2. Use the name RSS to denote the interoperable core.

  3. Have optional namespaces in the RSS core for basic/general/ad-hoc metadata extension.

  4. Use XSS (or whatever) for advanced/domain-specific/mature metadata syndication. But when an XSS site serves up a feed to a client looking for the interoperable core, call that feed RSS.

If you carve the world up this way, RSS is what the vast majority of sites will produce, and the vast majority of users will consume. XSS will be written and read by a small minority of sites and users who are involved in really interesting and important stuff. It will be mildly confusing to see a site offering both flavors. But the proliferation of iconography can perhaps be offset by streamlining elsewhere. With LINK REL="subscriptions" and bookmarklets for the one-click-subscribe function, for example, we could cut down on this kind of clutter:

So, would differentiating an RSS from an XSS mean giving up on convergence? I guess so. I don't see convergence as a problem to be solved for its own sake. Nor do I see convergence as a solution to Sébastien's much more fundamental problem.

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