RSS Chinese whispers

Is the context of a post to a web site important? When you read something from the web how important is the source, other material on the same site, the look-and-feel of the site even? When reading items gathered by an RSS news aggregator much of this context is lost. True, other posts collected in the same RSS feed (most often from the same site) can provide congruity but it’s not uncommon for RSS feeds from weblogs for example to contain incongruent posts. A post on the state of world politics in between posts on a favourite pop song or what someone had to eat the night before would not be out of place on many weblogs. Now add to this RSS feed snippets or extracts from other weblogs, again a common practice on many weblogs, and very quickly you have a mix of decontextualized data where the original source isn’t always apparent.

An interesting example of RSS decontextualization is doing the rounds in some aggregators this week. On Wednesday 25th Feb Mark Schalofski of the HACT website posted a spoof article ‘revealing’ that the Orkut online community web service was in fact a data gathering exercise for a masters thesis. Orkut’s registered users had been duped into unwittingly providing the site’s creators with valuable data on the social habits of netizens. This is of course false although a disclaimer at the foot of the original HACT article proclaims “except in that it rings true in a scary way”. Who knows, Schalofski may have accidentally exposed the secret truth behind the Orkut phenomena but for now that’s not the point. The real point behind this is that already I’ve seen items in my RSS reader that have picked up on the HACT piece by reading other web sites, and by a kind of Internet Chinese whispers the HACT piece has transformed into truth. Without the context of the original piece, the meaning has changed or at least people’s interpretation of it has. It’ll be interesting to see how far this HACT meme about Orkut travels. In fact as an experiment in the transfer of information through social networks it’d be interesting to deliberately start spreading false information. Only the naive would refuse to believe that this doesn’t happen all the time anyway. Indeed, why do you believe what you read?

Any Internet publishing technology is susceptible to misinterpretation due to decontextualization but as weblogs and RSS news aggregators become ever more popular these kinds of contextual mistakes are likely to increase. The veracity of certain weblogs will doubtless increase due to authoritative reporting until they transform into well-used sources of information. Just like the situation we have now with more traditional print media. The rest of use will be participant in an unedited free for all where anything written or read must be taken on trust, precisely the situation we have now.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


UKeU gets restructured

The UKeU is being 'restructured'. After a fairly massive investment of cash (£62m) the UK's flagship higher education e-learning venture had enrolled a total of 900 students. Not surprisingly the UKeU has found stiff competition from conventional universities who are also offering their own e-learning courses. Well what did they expect?

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is now intending to refocus on “the development of e-learning in universities and colleges”.

UKeU reportedly spent £10 million on developing their learning environment.

Safari so far

I’ve been using Apple’s Safari web browser since it first became publicly available. So how come only tonight I spotted the Activity window? How long has this feature been in Safari? It’s incredibly useful. It lists all the components of a web page during and after a page is rendered. You can use the list of a page’s objects to see where all the objects are stored (i.e on which web server – a feature useful when designing or debugging weblog templates for example) allowing you to troubleshoot slowly downloading objects. We’ve all seen web pages, particularly weblog pages, seemingly take ages to finish downloading, even after all the apparently visible objects have rendered. Well using Safari’s Activity window you can see exactly what’s going on. What’s more, once a page has fully downloaded and rendered you can see that object’s size (another useful feature when constructing bandwidth-conscious web pages) plus double-clicking on any object in the Activity window to open that object in its own window, or download it to disk. A very handy feature. Surprisingly Apple doesn’t mention the Activity window on its own Safari web page. Anyway, now you know.

My blogging in-tray

Given sufficient time (but let’s be realistic – it ain’t ever going to happen) I’d like to have commented on the following topics:

  • Why Orkut Doesn’t Work

Following interesting pieces on the Corante weblog and in Wired I would have liked to comment on the trend for social networking services, and why ultimately most will fail because they’re networking the wrong people.

A follow up to my earlier piece about this new service involving mobile phone shortcuts, automated text response & data gathering and premium-rate text messaging.

This learning object editor, content packager and SCORM player goes from strength to strength.

  • The Internet as physician

recent article in the British Medical Journal evaluates the efficacy of two Internet interventions for community-dwelling individuals with symptoms of depression. The results? Web sites that provided cognitive behaviour therapy were more effective than a control intervention in reducing symptoms of depression. Reason enough to keep on reading weblogs then.

  • ePortfolios

An interesting community project on creating electronic learning portfolios by Chandler-Gilbert Community College. This site is interesting because the portfolios are reflective learning tools rather than the more common but less interesting performance achievement portfolios.

Hey, what do you know, Mark Forster’s advice really does work. I feel my blogging blockage shifting.


Blogger’s block

I expect many of you have experienced blogger’s block, so I’d welcome any suggestions for getting unblocked. Lately I’ve been collecting ideas for blog posts and have now reached a point where I don’t know where to start. It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time thinking about blogging than writing. I guess this is fairly typical procrastination. Thankfully there are tricks for overcoming it but I’d particularly welcome the thoughts of fellow bloggers who’ve bounced back from the block.