The level aggregator field

Dave says:

RSS creates a level playing field that’s open to all. Amateurs and pros, young and old, rich and poor, the homeless, the uninsured and people with AIDS, you name it — they all can slug it out for readers in the same venue.

Ev asks:

Yeah, but isn’t that what just the web does? RSS makes keeping up on all these sources more managable, perhaps, but does it make the playing field any more level than it was?

Sorry, Ev, but I think you’re showing how little you still use and grok RSS. Give me a full item RSS feed from a newspaper, and a full item feed from a blogger who knows how to write, so that I’m reading both of them in my aggregator instead of reading one on a page built with a multi-million dollar CMS and a team of designers and the other on a Blog*Spot page with your flashing ad banner at the top and a template with cute puppies, and they’ve got a level playing field. Certainly there are some people whose HTML makes their report on their cheese sandwich for lunch look better than most newspapers horribly busy and distracting design, but for the most part, most people are going to pay more attention to a page with “New York Times” in a big banner at the top of the page than they will to “Anyone’s Blog”, but in an aggregator (in my aggregator v. newsreader sense of “aggregator” especially), the writing and what’s said matters a lot more than who’s saying it.

And on the subject of being rude about Ev’s grasp on RSS: Ev, your RSS feed sucks. You are perfectly free to only include just a teaser of your entry in the feed. I hate it, but it’s your content and you are free to do whatever you want with it. You are also free to keep alive the idea of using the <link> element to point to the site your entry links to rather than to the permalink for your entry. I hate it, I think it’s horrible for usability now that there’s a total of, what, one person doing it?, but it’s your RSS element, and you can do what you want with it. But you may not combine the two, giving me only part of the content and no link to get to the rest of it. That’s unacceptable behavior, and you have to stop doing it right now. I have spoken.


2003-02-01 01:14:05

I wonder if my RSS feed sucks, too. Probably, as I don’t even recall, uh, making it feedify, and I haven’t done anything with it since, I don’t think.

As someone who believes that the presentation of one’s words (when written) is almost as important as what is said (in the same sense that if, when speaking, you talk like a drooling moron, people will find it hard to take what you say seriously), I’ve paid little attention to RSS and all of that so far. But I hear your points about the newspaper/blogger feed, and even though I don’t necessarily agree that that’s a good thing (for reasons I’ll need to go away and think about, just talking off the top of my head here, as usual), it is certainly an important thing.

Comment by Mark #
2003-02-01 11:00:13

So are we finally admitting that the sole purpose of RSS is to compensate for certain people’s lack of design skills?

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-02-01 11:39:51

Well, just this once I won’t presume to speak for anyone else, but it certainly is a reason why I would recommend that people read me through an aggregator rather than through a browser. I wouldn’t say skills so much as talent, since I’m far more capable of building things than I am of conceiving of them, or knowing the difference between good and ugly. If someone’s weblog is all about the design of their web page (as it is for a couple that I follow), then I either don’t subscribe to their RSS feed or I use it as a notification service. But for a lot of us, a stock template is far better looking than anything we’ll come up with, and it’s going to look the same tomorrow and next week and next month, so you really don’t need to come look at it every single time we post more than just a link-and-a-snark. Also, since I lack much of a sense of style, I’m afraid that when I look at someone’s wonderfully designed weblog, with just the perfect shade of pale grey for the text, in just the most precious 9pt font, I think ”how lovely, hope you didn’t say anything interesting, because I’m off to read something readable.”

But back to the NYT v. Jane Blogger’s design: if a BigCo’s site isn’t better looking and better designed than the average weblogger’s site, then their designer better give back that hundred thousand dollars and admit that the whole web design industry is a fraud, and that site design should be done by high school students between the time that school gets out and the time they have to go to work at McDonalds.

Chris: whether or not your feed sucks depends on what you want it to do. If you want to use the title and the first twenty words of the entry as a notification service with a link to the full entry, then it’s doing just what you want. If I was subscribing to it, I’d be happpier if you entered an excerpt that sort of approximately described the entry (at least, a bit better than the average first twenty words does), but since I’m going to read every word of your every entry in the browser so I can see the category icon anyway, I just use’s IM notification instead of RSS as notification for you. Maybe a longer excerpt than just twenty words would do the trick for people who do use your RSS?

Comment by steve #
2003-02-02 12:16:39

Phil, I think you’re misunderstanding RSS here. The link element is supposed to point to the URL that is the subject of the description and is not ever intended to be a permalink to where description can live.

What it seems that you’re really asking is for Ev to start producing RSS 1.0 and to use mod_link to specify a permalink for each article.

At least, that’s how it seems to me.

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-02-02 14:11:22

I don’t think it’s a matter of misunderstanding so much as disapproval, mild in the case of the idea, and very strong in the case of the particular implementation.

I do know what Rich Site Summary was intended to be, and I know what Really Simple Syndication mostly is, and I think there are good and bad ways to mix the two.

Take Ev’s post on the clerk who might have seen Laci Peterson as an example: in the feed description we have

”The Daily News of Longview reported Thursday that the clerk told police a pregnant woman came into Market Place in this southwest Washington town and said: ’This is serious. I was kidnapped. Call the authorities when I leave.’ The 45-year-old clerk said

That’s not a description of the Yahoo story, it’s an excerpt of Ev’s post, which happens to only include part of his quote of the story. Or, how about the level playing field post itself? For the description in the feed, we have:

that’s open to all,” Dave says. ”Amateurs and pros, young and old, rich and poor, the homeless, the uninsured and people with AIDS, you name it — they all can slug it out for readers in the same venue.” Yeah, but isn’t that what just the web does? RSS m

That’s not a description of Dave’s post, it’s not a description of Ev’s post, it’s a mangled artifact resulting from the HTML layout on Ev’s web page. In some RSS readers, where the title is displayed fairly close to the description, it will only be a bit odd looking, but in three-pane readers that display the titles in the top pane and the selected post in the bottom pane it’ll just be a muddle.

If Ev never did anything but ”a [single] link and a snark”, then having the full post in the description and the outside link in the link would work (though it would still be a bit confusing to people who haven’t ever seen another weblog feed that does it that way), but mixing posts where the link goes to the rest of the post and posts where the link goes elsewhere and nothing goes to the rest of the post is confusing (confusing to someone who uses an RSS reader all day every day, and has some experience with weblogs, not just confusing to someone who’s new to the whole thing).

So while I understand that Ev doesn’t really want titles, and he (or his RSS programmer ;)) doesn’t want full posts with encoded HTML in the description element, and he wants to hang onto the idea that when RSS is bent to the needs of a weblog the link element should point to the linked page rather than the weblog page, I don’t think it’s working. If he pinged directly rather than indirectly through, so that I could get notification through Yahoo IM (much better than AIM, since you get offline messages and the AIMbot seems to die a lot), I wouldn’t subscribe to his feed at all, because for me a feed of the link, part of the quote, and generally none of the snark is useless. I could try to train myself to treat that one feed out of 105 as an update notification service, where I click the link that comes from the channel link element to go to the weblog main page instead of doing anything, click or read, with the item itself, but I doubt that I will. I may not have made this very clear, but I am a huge fan of RSS, and Ev’s RSS feed is so unusable that I’m very tempted to drop it. I usually try to avoid the temptation to chew people out over the way they choose to deliver their content, but that fact seems to me to be significant enough to be worth airing.

And surely you already know as well as I do just how incomprehensible the whole ”show URL field” and ”why is my RSS feed different than everyone else’s feed?” situation is with Blogger’s RSS newbies; you must be having to support a lot more of them than I am, and I’m having to do plenty.

Comment by Adam Kalsey #
2003-02-02 21:38:14

I just removed Ev’s feed from Aggie for an entirely different reason.

Two to three times a week I had to manually edit his feed to remove crappy HTML. You see, his feed is generated by grabbing the first N words or characters and using that for a description. The problem is, the mechanism that does this includes HTML tags in the description. If there’s an HTML tag in the first few words, that tag is included in the RSS description but the closing tag isn’t usually present. So you get opened EM tags without closing them. Or the opening bracket of a tag without the closing bracket.

That just sucks.

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