Blazing trails with RSS

Few would doubt that RSS has an important role in content syndication. Some might even say, myself included, that we have yet to see the full potential of RSS, especially given the opportunity of RSS extension by namespaces and modularisation.

It’s probably a fact that at present the most popular way of creating an RSS file is as a result of writing for a weblog. I should mention at this stage that I’ll use RSS file and RSS feed interchangeably throughout this piece. Most weblogging software automatically creates RSS feeds based upon weblog posts. This article for example is destined to become part of the RSS feed for my weblog home page, at least until it falls off then end of the feed in a couple of weeks as I write newer pieces for my blog.

Immediately there are two issues introduced by this. The lack of permanence and the lack of control over what goes into an RSS file. Let’s explore each of these in a bit more detail:

1. Lack of permanence.

I’ve already talked about this in another context, that of RSS search engines. My weblog includes the last 10 or so days in my home page RSS feed. After that old items get replaced by newer items. This is fine and probably what I’d expect for a weblog RSS feed. The number of days in the feed is configurable in my weblogging software so if I wanted more days in the feed I can have them. But sooner or later old data is lost, at least from the feed. Is this a problem? Well, it could be depending upon what you want from my home page feed but most likely not, at least not for RSS feeds based upon weblog posts. But are there other uses of RSS feeds? Maybe, but more about that later.

2. Lack of control over what goes into a feed

By this I mean that the RSS feed for my home page has a bunch of unrelated stuff in it at the moment. Some stuff about RSS search engines, some personal stuff, something about my Bluetooth mobile phone. You get the idea. Where’s the context? I guess it’s that I wrote the pieces at one time or another in my weblog but there’s certainly no theme. I could of course make a weblog category (or whatever the metaphor is for a weblog sub-section in your own weblogging system). As it happens I have a weblog category for educational technology. But even then the posts are only loosely associated by that common theme and the RSS feed for this category is still governed by the chronological order in which I wrote the individual weblog posts.

What if I wanted to group together several items on a specific theme and keep these items separate from other items, even items in my weblog that I’ve written. In other words what if I want to actively create an RSS feed of items on a particular topic. I would probably want complete control over this feed, the order of items it contains, and of course I’d want it to be permanent.

Here’s an example. Suppose I wanted to create a list of all the resources I find useful about RSS. There’d be web sites I’ve found and maybe even pieces I’ve written. I don’t want to create a separate weblog category for these because that’s not the right metaphor. Put another way, what if I was a teacher and I wanted to create lists of resources for my students on several topics as part of some learning opportunity. In my own teaching I could thing of 10’s, maybe 100’s of subjects I’d want to collate for my students but I wouldn’t want to create a weblog category for each one. In simple terms I’d want to create bookmark lists of websites plus my own annotations. Teaching is just one example, I’m sure you can think of many different contexts of your own for the same kind of exercise.

I’d want to do this through my web browser because it’s a familiar tool and I’d want to create these lists in such a way as to be compatible with the widest possible range of browsers and data aggregators, in short, I’d want to create RSS feeds for all of these.

So now we have a new role for RSS, content syndication under full control of the user rather than as a by-product of some other activity (such as blogging).

Let’s take it further. Now I want to share these RSS feeds. So I send you my feed on RSS resources using an earlier example. You receive it, like it, but want to add some of your own links and re-annotate some of mine. By doing so you then make a new feed that can be shared back with me or with a 3rd party and so on. The RSS feed becomes a commodity.

These are not new ideas, not by a long way. I was inspired a decade ago by reading Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’, written in 1945. Ever since reading that piece I’ve been fascinated by the idea of sharing ‘trails’ of information or as Bush put it “There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.“.

So anyway, I’ve been thinking about RSS and thinking about trails. RSS feeds are certainly not the trails that Bush described but I like the analogy, particularly the emphasis on sharing. I want to be able to create a trail through the web that I can share with you, that you can read in any number of ways, using RSS aggregators or using directly in your weblog, that you can repurpose and share with others.

For those who are brave enough to humour me in my wild ramblings I’ve created a new tool for Radio UserLand that allows you to make and publish your own RSS trails. I call it my trailBlazer tool! It’s in alpha right now but you’re welcome to give it a whirl. Comments are particularly welcome.

Get your copy here and let me know what you’d like it to do for you!

Oh, and that trail I mentioned about RSS resources, here it is!

Have fun!