2004 is obviously the year of RSS, with article popping up left and right in mainstream publications. However, RSS can also be a source of much stress, if you subscribe to too much.
A few weeks ago, my list of subscribed feeds went over 300. That was the beginning of a sobering experiment. While it is technically possible to follow 300 sites via RSS, it’s not for the faint-hearted. I’ve since been pruning the list a little as it became more and more time consuming to go through all the entries. While I felt like I must be failing somehow, Sebastien Paquet pointed out that the median number of subscriptions people have is under 100.
I suspect this is where the power laws actually become useful. Because some blogs are disproportionally read, they can be seen as flag-bearers in the blogosphere. Because they are so powerful, they can easily shape opinions in the blog world. And because they do so, one can limit the number of blogs they read in order to get an idea as to consensus among blogsters. This is great in that those powerful bloggers become editors of sorts.
There is, however, a problem with that. As recently reported in a Wired News story, the most-read webloggers aren’t necessarily the ones with the most original ideas. This means that the power laws succeed in a mainstreaming of ideas but fails in terms of coming up with new ones. This, unfortunately, means that there is a bit of a pack mentality among power bloggers which can only be counter-balanced by reading blogs that are not as popular.
But blogs represent only part of the RSS world. If one adds news sources from mainstream publications, one gets a fuller picture of a subject, mixing expert opinion (from the bloggers) which general overviews (from the media). From this mix, one can get a fuller picture. What we now need is a tool that would create something akin to a self-organizing system within the RSS world. Tools like Blogdex provide an idea as to what’s popular right now; Tools like Feedster give search capabilities; and tools like Share your OPML provide data as to what people subscribe to.
The next step is finding a merger of those three categories, along with some better tracking mechanism as to what is actually read and what links are followed vs. what is subscribed to. If, based on the stuff I read (and not necessarily the stuff I subscribe to), I could get some changes in behavior in my aggregator (as in “the following articles in feeds you subscribe to are seen as important by other people who read similar stuff and are related to categories you are interested in”), I might be able to tame the flow of information I get. Think of it as the equivalent of the karma system on Slashdot. This would give me an idea as to what is popular and of interest to me.
The next step would be to also provide a serendipity factor. Ideas that are out on their own should have their own basket. If a particular site is a good source of original content, then that source should move up in my personal ranking if I am subscribed to it.
Of course, the classification provided in RSS 2.0 and in OPML also needs to be considered as part of this. If there was a way to sort feeds by categories (and identify categories based on how people classified things in their OPML file), it would make things easier. For example, I classify some feeds in the Gear category but others might classify them in the Gadgets category. I should be able to then create an associate between those two words so that when I peruse someone’s else feed, entries and blogs listed under Gadgets would pop up in my Gear section.
This seems like a lot to code but could truly give some semantic to the web. Already, the world wide web, as it was used pre-RSS is becoming an archival medium and RSS is becoming the updated world (as a side note, this is going to have a huge impact on web-side design and marketing as one has to rethink how to reach reader in a space where all entries look alike).