Older blog entries for louie (starting at number 691)

I’m Donating to the Ada Initiative, and You Should Too

I was going to write a long, involved post about why I donated again to the Ada Initiative, and why you should too, especially in the concluding days of this year’s fundraising drive (which ends Friday).

Lady Ada Lovelace, by Alfred Edward Chalon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But instead Jacob Kaplan-Moss said it better than I can. Some key bits:

I’m been working with (and on) open source software for over half my life, and open source has been incredibly good for me. The best things in my life — a career I love, the ability to live how and where I want, opportunities to travel around the world — they’ve all been a direct result of the open source communities I’ve become involved in.

I’m male, so I get to take advantage of the assumed competency our industry heaps on men. … I’ve never had my ideas poached by other men, something that happens to women all the time. … I’ve never been refused a job out of fears that I might get pregnant. I can go to conferences without worrying I might be harassed or raped.

So, I’ve been incredibly successful making a life out of open source, but I’m playing on the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This needs to change.

Amen to all that. The Ada Initiative is not enough – each of us needs to dig into the problem ourselves, not just delegate to others. But Ada is an important tool we have to attack the problem, doing great work to discuss, evangelize, and provide support. I hope you’ll join me (and Jacob, and many other people) in doing our part to support it in turn.
Donate now

Syndicated 2013-08-28 13:00:19 from Luis Villa » Blog

Final(?) Wikimania 2013 idea and notes dump

Luis at Victoria Peak, the morning after
Me at Victoria Peak, the day after Wikimania, with thanks to Coren.

More random, more-or-less stream-of-(un)consciousness notes on the last few days of Wikimania:

  • The cab driver who got me to the airport had (at least) five cellphones. Two were mounted on each side of the steering wheel, and then a fifth appeared from somewhere else half-way through our drive to the airport. Two were Android(-ish?) smartphones, the others older phones. I’m sure there is some perfectly good reason for this, but no idea what it could be.
  • I had been under the impression that the island was essentially entirely either built up or too vertical to build on, so I had wondered how they’d managed to squeeze an entire Disneyland in there. Now I know; it is really quite amazing how much green, open space there is.
  • I was glad to hear Sue say that she cried while watching the South African Wikipedia Zero video, because I did too. As did lots of others, apparently. Still such a long way to reach the 13 out of 14 people on Earth who don’t use us every month, and so many different challenges to surmount – first access, then language, then engagement… oof. But obviously a worth challenge.
  • The 7-11s and Starbucks everywhere in HK are a reminder that the lines between national cultures are blurring faster than they ever have. I still got chicken feet as an unrequested pre-dinner appetizer one night, and unidentifiable fungus of some sort another afternoon. And I did get to see the very interesting, traditional Man Mo temple. But the trend is in favor of homogenization. This is in some ways very sad, as distinctive cultures make the world a richer place, but it will also over the long run make it easier for various contributors to understand each other – the classic mixed bag.
  • At the same time, was reminded in a few ways that barriers to communication are often surprisingly high- for example, a Chinese Wikipedian asked me (quite earnestly) about whether people disagreed about edits on English Wikipedia, which suggested we’re not very good at communicating to new Wikipedians in other languages even the most basic facts. (Asking “do English Wikipedians argue” feels to me like asking “is the sky blue for English Wikipedians?” – almost inconceivable that we haven’t already communicated that.)
  • Chinese Wikipedians are also working on an “intro to Wikipedia editing” tutorial that looks pretty cool. Made me sort of wonder if translating the newly-released How WP Works wikibook (or perhaps a shortened version of same?) might be a good/useful project for young Wiki movements, or if it is better to learn the same lessons through trial and error?
  • The German chapter has three policy people; the Foundation has zero (though all WMF’s lawyers pitch in on policy issues from time to time). I had sort of known this before, but not really internalized it. Still thinking through what that implies. (I had many great conversations with a bunch of the German chapter, and look forward to working with many of them.)
  • Very curious about the economics of the Octopus card. My impression as an outsider is that, through the Octopus cards, Hong Kong has established a defacto digital standard currency without relying on the inefficient, uninnovative, tax-on-the-body-politic leeches known as Visa and Mastercard. But that sounds too good to be true; there must be a catch to it.
  • Several Germans raved about the efficiency, politeness, etc. of the Hong Kong medical system. I chalk this up as a point for the Matt Yglesias “how government services are delivered and executed matters a lot and the US government should pay a lot more attention to that” school of thought.
  • The London organizers are extremely Bold; I wish them great luck in their planning and endeavors. I don’t think it’ll hurt the core conference to try these new experiments, and the payoff if it works could be huge, but I can understand the trepidation on the part of many long-time Wikimaniacs.
  • Had the opportunity to talk to a great variety of people who are passionate about the project; most who were excited and optimistic, some really concerned for a variety of reasons. I hope, of course, with my lawyer hat on, that I was able to calm those fears; in the mean time, it was a good reminder of the depth of passion for the project. (This was one of the many ways where I felt right at home, coming from years of GUADECs- the passion is real and deep and unfakeable in both places.)
  • That said, my biggest personal goal for the conference was to meet a broad cross-section of the community, rather than just the usual suspects from chapters, the board, etc. I feel like I had mixed achievement in this respect- I did have some pretty good conversations with non-chapter, non- (especially with people I met in line for food!) but at the end it was hard to do quite as much of it as I would have liked, especially for non-hacker folks. (The hacking days before the conference made meeting hackers much easier for me than it was to meet non-hacker editors.)
  • This really drove home that in the future, when I go somewhere for a non-Wiki conference, I really need to drop the local village pump or other comms channel an email and see if there is a meetup, editathon, etc. that I can crash.
  • We are deeply adaptable creatures, of course; I was quite overwhelmed by Hong Kong on day one and reasonably comfortable running around it on the free half-day I had before I flew home, and wish I’d had more time tosee it.  Still, it seems to me a city that would be very difficult for me to live happily in without gigantic piles of money.
  • Surprising to me to realize (once it was pointed out by Mako) that many WP articles about a place don’t have a clear link to the equivalent WV page. That seems like low-hanging fruit; I found a couple Monday while seeing the town before my flight and will try to remember to fix them once I’m back on a real network connection.
  • Pretty happy with the two LCA team talks I was part of – we received a bunch of compliments on them, and many great questions from the audience. That said, I think we probably went too broad on the open licensing talk. It either needs to be narrower (only one license or class of licenses) or longer (time-wise) next year, if we make this subject an annual thing. But that is a quibble – overall, I’m pretty happy with the quality of my first impression.
  • I admit that I played buzzword bingo during the Board’s Q&A. I actually think it helped me pay attention to certain topics I might have zoned out a little bit on otherwise, which is good, but the fact that it seems to be played fairly widely may suggest something about the format. I’m not sure what I’d change, though – doing that sort of interaction really does seem like an important way to build trust in the board. (You can mark “social capital” off your Luis Blog Post Bingo card if you’ve read this far.)
  • The closing beach party was a lot of fun, but (with no slight intended to the HK organizers) the top for me will always be the various beach parties at GUADEC Vilanova. For those of you who weren’t there in Vilanova, imagine something like the WM party, but with the broadest beach I’ve ever seen in my whole life, the bar literally in the middle of the sand, and the bar open until 4am. Now that the bar has been raised, I look forward to London’s beach party! ;)
  • Real joy to meet Risker; reminder that these sorts of meetings really allow you to get context and build up a mental model of someone in a way that you just can’t do offline, which makes these soooo important.
  • Copyright reform was a constant and recurring theme of discussion. In six years, certain aspects of Mickey Mouse will start creeping into the public domain, and that means we’re going to have another copyright bill in that time period. I suspect that the as a movement have to be ready and prepared for that, shape and form To Be Determined.

Bottom line: I’m exhausted, and (as I hit my six-months-iversary) more glad than ever I took this plunge. :) See everyone in London!

Syndicated 2013-08-16 09:26:36 from Luis Villa » Blog

Wikimania, Day 3

Soooo much. As with the first two days, these are fragmentary notes as much for my benefit as for anyone else’s, so take with bullet points of salt:

Ceremonia_de_inauguración_de_Wikimania_2013,_Hong_Kong,_2013-08-09,_DD_20
Ceremonia de inauguración, by Diego Delso, used under CC BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • The lion dance in the opening ceremony was exactly as advertised – a good way to wake up.
  • It was nice to hear the French issue called out in Jimmy’s talk, even if he didn’t call out LCA’s role in it :)
  • The session on the internet in China was informative, but frustratingly brief- needs a lot more detail. Key takeaway: the mainland Chinese Wikipedians appear to believe that turning off http access would be a bad idea. This is a frustrating tension, between access and surveillance.
  • The talk on how Swedish parliamentarians see Wikimedia was not perfect science (response rates were low-ish and skewed in a variety of ways) but the data was still fun and informative. Key takeaways: MPs in .se have pretty positive feelings about WP, and high usage, but assume their co-workers do not have a high opinion of it themselves. I would love to see data similar to this for American politicians, and perhaps as importantly for political staffs.
  • The friendly virtual space policy discussion was interesting, but I am having to recalibrate my timescales and expectations of progress, just because of the vastness and multi-faceted-ness of this community. (At the same time I hope not to become accepting of inaction.)
  • Mako and Aaron’s Wiki Ecology talk was hard to summarize, but very interesting. So much research to be done to understand how FOSS and wiki ticks; I’m glad Mako is doing it.
  • Not all talks are home runs, unfortunately; I like Foucault as much as the next guy (and am quite sympathetic to the notion that pervasive recording influences behavior) but if it comes up in your talk focus may be an issue :)
  • The government copyright talk was interesting, and mostly informative. Good reminder that we should think about if/how to support the state-level government code freeing being done by Carl Malamud.
  • Hallway conversations are great; not surprising.
  • (More?) importantly, for the first time tonight had the great, long, passionate, late night conversations that make you want to say “can’t wait to have a beer with you again next year”. Had a long enough night that I had that kind of conversation with quite a series of people, actually.

Syndicated 2013-08-09 20:39:25 from Luis Villa » Blog

Random notes on Wikimania, Day 2

I’m pretty sure this is a cold, not jet lag. Not sure which would be better/worse. More notes:

  • Continue to hear Wikidata licensing concerns; need to work on communicating about that.
  • Multimedia round-table is well-attended (to the point of people sitting on the floor), even as someone points out that the day when “multimedia” was an exciting word was a long time ago.
  • Fabrice is a real pro at running a session – well-prepared and a great, positive guide to a topic; seemingly also getting solid, constructive feedback. The resulting discussion was quite high-quality for this sort of session.
  • Relatedly, I did not attend the session on preparation/constructive critique for speakers, but (1) it’s a really good idea and (2) maybe something similar could be done for panels? And of course should happen online before we come to the venue :)
  • Great to meet Jon Davies of WMUK, Dimitar, Niko, and a bunch of other interesting folks.
  • It is minor, but someone at the multimedia roundtable suggested that there should be a WordPress plugin to allow easy insertion and use of Common content into WordPress. To which I say: amen! It’s weird how often open projects neglect to promote their platform by building plugins for popular open content platforms (like WordPress) . [Later: apparently there is such a thing, but not updated in two years - too bad.]
  • I won’t call attribution in commons a minefield, exactly, but it’s extremely complex; was reminded of that today in the discussion of a media viewer that could show a more “black box” popup around images when viewing them. I’m adding it to my long-term radar…
  • Editor motivation is implicit in a lot of discussions, but can be hard to focus on or explicitly surface (or maybe more correctly, easy to lose track of when you’re focused on other things). I don’t mean this as a criticism, just an observation – I find myself also making the same mistake in conversations.
  • The EU-based chapters have a very interesting set of challenges around changing Brussels. Was interesting to discuss, and will be interesting to see how it goes.
  • Spent some time reviewing the schedule for the next few days to figure out what I’ll attend; it is more overwhelming than I’d even really realized.
  • Party was fun and views were insane. This HK factoid was pointed out and is also insane.

Syndicated 2013-08-09 06:52:43 from Luis Villa » Blog

Notes on day 1 of my first Wikimania

Collected bullet points:

* Hong Kong is intense. I am used to, and like, big cities, but HK feels like a scale different even from, say, Cairo, New York, Delhi, or Bangalore. Had great fun last night walking around with a few friends, ended up at the Spicy Crab and along the waterfront.

* Doing surprisingly well with jet lag, so far. We will see.

* This is such deja vu from GUADEC, in terms of watching reunions, seeing organization (or occasional lack thereof ;) seeing people just joyful to be in each other’s presence and working on shared practices/goals. I look forward to seeing more of the differences, though.

* First difference may be that there are a lot of structural committee meetings; not just board, but also AffCom, WCA, etc. Different from more specifically developer – oriented conferences. (I am mostly going to focus on the hacker days, but will also crash parts of WCA and others.)

* Khmer wikipedia is represented in the meeting I am in as I write this. Khmer is not a small language (16M) but I am still heartened to see it here.

* First mention of merchandising came more than an hour into the WCA meeting. Not drawing any conclusions, just really the first legal thing.

Syndicated 2013-08-07 03:30:15 from Luis Villa » Blog

Forking and Standards: Why The Right to Fork Can Be Pro-Social

[I originally sent a version of this to the W3C's Patents and Standards Interest Group, where a fellow member asked me to post it more publicly. Since then, others have also blogged in related veins.]

Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_plastic_fork.jpg used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It is often said that open source and open standards are different, because in open source, a diversity of forks is accepted/encouraged, while “forked” standards are confusing/inefficient since they don’t provide “stable reference points” for the people who have to implement the spec.

Here is the nutshell version of a critical way in which open source and open standards are in fact similar, and why licensing that allows forking therefore matters.

Open source and open standards are similar because both are generally created by communities of collaborators who must trust each other across organizational boundaries. This is relevant to the right to fork, because the “right to fork” is an important mechanism to help those communities trust each other. This is surprising – the right to fork is often viewed as an anti-social right, which allows someone to stomp their feet and walk away. However, it is also pro-social: because it makes it impossible for any one person or organization to become a single point of failure. This is particularly important where the community is in large part a volunteer one, and where a single point of failure is widely perceived to have actually failed in the past.

Not coincidentally, “largely volunteer” and “failed single point of failure” describes the HTML working group (HTML WG) pretty closely. W3C was a single point of failure for HTML, and most HTML WG participants believe W3C’s failures stalled the development of HTML from 1999 to 2006. For some of the history, see David Baron’s recent post; for a more detailed
history by the author of HTML5, you can look in the spec itself.

Because of this history, the HTML WG participants voted for permissive licenses for their specification. They voted for permissive licenses, even though many of them have the most to gain from “stable reference points”, since they are often the ones who (when not writing the standards) are the one paid to implement the standards!

An alternate way to think about this is to think of the forkable license as a commitment mechanism for W3C: by committing to open licensing for the specification, W3C is saying to the HTML WG community “we will be good stewards – because we know otherwise you’ll leave”. (Alternate commitment mechanisms are of course a possibility, and I believe some have been discussed – but they’d need careful institutional design, and would all result in some variety of instabililty.)

So, yes: standards should be stable. But the options for HTML may not be “stable specification” or “unstable specification”. The options, based on the community’s vote and discussions, may well be “unstable specification” or “no (W3C) specification at all”, because many of the key engineers involved don’t appear to trust W3C much further than they can throw it. The forkable license is a popular potential mechanism to reduce that trust gap and allow everyone to move forward, knowing that their investments are not squandered should the W3C screw up again in the future.

Syndicated 2013-06-05 16:39:15 from Luis Villa » Blog

San Francisco News

When I wrote about cutting back on national news, and trying to get more serious about local news in SF, a few people asked that I share my sources of SF news. Here’s a first cut, in alphabetical order:

  • Bay Nature – Bay-area nature-related news and events
  • Burrito Justice – hard to summarize, but city history, neighborhood-related humor, and an obsession with the Sutro Tower
  • CitiReport – city and state politics; unfortunately not full-feed
  • Curbed SF – great mix of real estate, history, and other related topics; more city politics/less house-by-house coverage than SocketSite
  • Fog City Journal – cranky, but very insider-y, city politics coverage
  • LiveSOMA – coverage of my neighborhood, though sadly on life support
  • SF Public Press – think of them as an on-paper NPR. I donate, and you should too!
  • SFist – quirky-ish local news
  • SocketSite – real estate news
  • Spots Unknown – little bits of  SF stories
  • StreetsBlog SF – great coverage of transit and biking in the city; must-read if you’re a biker in the city
  • Bay Citizen – had great non-profit coverage of the city; not clear what happens with that now that they’ve merged with CIR
  • The Snitch – valuable mostly for its pointers to lots of other city news sources
  • ThinkWalks – actual real-world walks in the city
  • Whilst in SF – because sometimes you have to laugh
  • SPUR Blog – urban development policy! what could be more fun!

I’m very open to more suggestions, particularly more “mainstream” suggestions. The traditional media frankly often pisses me off, but if I want to understand San Francisco, I should probably also take in some of the same media stream as most of my neighbors.

Syndicated 2013-05-30 06:10:37 from Luis Villa » Blog

At the Wikimedia Foundation (for, um, three months now)

Since it was founded 12 years ago this week, Wikipedia has become an indispensable part of the world’s information infrastructure. It’s a kind of public utility: You turn on the faucet and water comes out; you do an Internet search and Wikipedia answers your question. People don’t think much about who creates it, but you should. We do it for you, with love.

Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner, from http://blog.wikimedia.org/2013/01/14/wikipedia-the-peoples-encyclopedia/

As Sue says, the people who create Wikipedia are terrific. I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve just wrapped up my first three months as their lawyer – as Deputy General Counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation. Consider this the personal announcement I should have made three months ago :)

Wikimania 2012 Group Photograph, by Helpameout, under CC-BY-SA 3.0, available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikimania_2012_Group_Photograph-0001.jpg
Wikimania 2012 Group Photograph, by Helpameout, under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Greenberg Traurig was terrific for me: Heather has a wealth of knowledge and experience about how to do deals (both open source and otherwise), and through her, I did a lot of interesting work for interesting clients. Giving up that diversity and experience was the hardest part of leaving private practice.

Based on the evidence of the first three months, though, I made a great choice – I’ve replaced diversity of clients with a vast diversity of work; replaced one experienced, thoughtful boss with one of equal skill but different background (so I’m learning new things); and replaced the resources (and distance) of a vast firm with a small but tight and energized team. All of these have been wins. And of course working on behalf of this movement is a great privilege, and (so far) a pleasure. (With no offense to GT, pleasure is rarely part of the package at a large firm.)

The new scope of the work is perhaps the biggest change. Where I previously focused primarily on technology licensing, I’m now an “internet lawyer” in the broadest sense of the word: I, my (great) team, and our various strong outside counsel work on topics from employment contracts, to privacy policies, to headline-grabbing speech issues, to patent/trademark/copyright questions – it is all over the place. This is both challenging, and great fun – I couldn’t ask for a better place to be at this point in my life. (And of course, being always on the side of the community is great too – though I did more of that at Greenberg than many people would assume.)

I don’t expect that this move will have a negative impact on my other work in the broader open source community. If anything, not focusing on licensing all day at work has given me more energy to work on OSI-related things when I get home, and I have more flexibility to travel and speak with and for various communities too. (I’m having great fun being on the mailing lists of literally every known open source license revision community, for example. :)

If you’d like to join us (as we work to get the next 1/2 billion users a month), there are a lot of opportunities open right  now, including one working for me on my team, and some doing interesting work at the overlap between community, tech, and product management. Come on over – you won’t regret it :)

Syndicated 2013-05-20 14:00:49 from Luis Villa » Blog

Information diet weekend

As a slight sequel to my “feed reading is an open web problem” post, so far this weekend I have taken the following information diet steps:

RSS feeds: 610→339 (and counting).

Based on Google’s stats, I’d probably read about a million feed items in Reader. This is just too much. The complaints about attention span in this piece and in The Information Diet1 rang very true. Reader is a huge part of that problem for me. (Close friends will also note that I’ve been mostly off gchat and twitter during the work day since I started the new job, and that’s been great.) So I’ve spent time, and will spend more time soon, pruning this list.

National news feeds: lots→~0; weekly paper news magazines: 0→2; local news feeds: small #? large #?

My friend Ed put in my head a long time ago that national news is not very useful. It riles the passions, but otherwise isn’t helpful: you’re not making the world a better place as a result of knowing more, and you’re not making yourself happier either.2  So you’re better off reading much less national political news, and much less frequently: hence the two new on-paper subscriptions to weekly news magazines.

Besides allowing you to get off the computer(!), the time saved can also be used to focus on things that either make your life better (e.g., happier) or that give you actionable information to resolve problems. To tackle both of those needs, I’d like to curate a set of local news feeds. I’ll be blogging more about this later (including what I’m already reading), but suggestions are welcome. I suspect that will make me much happier (or at least less angry), and present opportunities to actually do things, in ways that the national news obviously never can.

Moved from reader→feedly.

The impending shutdown of Reader was obviously the catalyst for all this change; feedly seems not perfect but pretty solid. I continue to keep an eye on newsblur (still a variety of issues) and feedbin.me (no mature Android client yet), since feedly is still (1) closed source and (2) has no visible business model – leaving it susceptible to the same Reader shutdown problem.

"Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including 'I Need a Healthy Diet!' outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office" by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.
“Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including ‘I Need a Healthy Diet!’ outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office” by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.

Steps still to come:

Separate the necessary from the entertaining

Joe pointed out to me that all news sources aren’t equal. There are feeds you must read in a timely manner (e.g., for me right now, changes in work-critical Wikipedia talk pages), and feeds that can be sampled instead. The traditional solution to this is folders or categories within the same app. But we’re starting to see apps that are optimized for the not-mission-critical entertainment feed stream (Joe specifically recommended Currents). I’d like to play with those apps, and use one of them to further prune my “serious feeds” list.  Recommendations happily accepted.

Improve publication

I do want to participate, in some small way, in the news stream, by creating a stream of outbound articles and commentary on them. I never used Reader’s features for this, because of the walled garden aspect. Many of our tools now make it easy to share out to places like Twitter and Facebook, but that means I’m contributing to the problem for my friends, not helping solve it. I’d like my outbound info to be less McDonalds and more Chez Panisse :) The tools for that aren’t quite there, but this morning I stumbled across readlists, which looks like it is about 90% something I’ve been looking for forever. I’ll keep keeping an eye out, so again: good suggestions for outbound curation tools happily accepted.

What else?

I hate the weasely “ask your audience” blog post ending as much as anyone, but here, I have a genuine curiosity: what else are friends are doing for their info diets? I want to eventually get towards the “digital sabbath” but I’m not there yet; other tips/suggestions?

  1. capsule book review: great diagnosis of the problem, pretty poor recommendations for solutions
  2. It’s pretty much a myth that reading the news makes you a better voter: research shows even supposedly high-information voters have already decided well before they read any news, and if for some reason you’re genuinely undecided, you’re better off reading something like ballotpedia than a streaming bunch of horse-race coverage.

Syndicated 2013-05-06 04:31:56 from Luis Villa » Blog

Why feed reading is an open web problem, and what browsers could do about it

I’ve long privately thought that Firefox should treat feed reading as a first-class citizen of the open web, and integrate feed subscribing and reading more deeply into the browser (rather than the lame, useless live bookmarks.) The impending demise of Reader has finally forced me to spit out my thoughts on the issue. They’re less polished than I like when I blog these days, but here you go – may they inspire someone to resuscitate this important part of the open web.

What? Why is this an open web problem?

When I mentioned this on twitter, an ex-mozillian asked me why I think this is the browser’s responsibility, and particularly Mozilla’s. In other words – why is RSS an open web problem? why is it different from, say, email? It’s a fair question, with two main parts.

First, despite what some perceive as the “failure” of RSS, there is obviously  a demand by readers to consume web content as an automatically updated stream, rather than as traditional pages.1 Google Reader users are extreme examples of this, but Facebook users are examples too: they’re no longer just following friends, but companies, celebrities, etc. In other words, once people have identified a news source they are interested in, we know many of them like doing something to “follow” that source, and get updated in some sort of stream of updates. And we know they’re doing this en masse! They’re just not doing it in RSS – they’re doing it in Twitter and Facebook. The fact that people like the reading model pioneered by RSS – of following a company/news source, rather than repeatedly visiting their web site – suggests to me that the widely perceived failure of RSS is not really a failure of RSS, but rather a failure of the user experience of discovering and subscribing to RSS.

Of course, lots of things are broadly felt desires, and aren’t integrated into browsers – take email for example. So why are feeds different? Why should browsers treat RSS as a first-class web citizen in a way they don’t treat other things? I think that the difference is that if closed platforms (not just web sites, but platforms) begins to the only (or even best) way to experience “reading streams of web content”, that is a problem for the web. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate email, the open web doesn’t suffer. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate feed discovery and subscription, well, we get exactly what is happening: a mass migration away from consuming (and publishing!) news through the open web, and instead it being channeled into closed, integrated publishing and subscribing stacks like FB and Twitter that give users a good subscribing and reading experience.

To put it another way: Tantek’s definition of the open web (if I may grotesquely simplify it) is a web where publishing content, implementing software that consumes that content, and accessing the content is all open/decentralized. RSS2 is the only existing way to do stream-based reading that meets these requirements. So if you believe (as I do) that reading content delivered in a stream is a central part of the modern web experience, then defending RSS is an important part of defending the open web.

So that’s, roughly, my why. Here’s a bunch of random thoughts on what the how might look like:

Discovery

When you go to CNN on Facebook, “like” – in plain english, with a nice icon – is right up there, front and center. RSS? Not so much. You have to know what the orange icon means (good luck with that!) and find it (either in the website or, back in the day, in the browser toolbar). No wonder no one uses it, when there is no good way to figure out what it means. Again, the failure is not the idea of feeds- the failure is in the way it was presented to users. A browser could do this the brute-force way (is there an RSS feed? do a notice bar to subscribe) but that would probably get irritating fast. It would be better to be smart about it. Have I visited nytimes.com five times today? Or five days in a row? Then give me a notice bar: “hey, we’ve noticed you visit this site an awful lot. Would you like to get updates from it automatically?” (As a bonus, implementing this makes your browser the browser that encourages efficiency. ;)

Subscription

Once you’ve figured out you can subscribe, then what? As it currently stands, someone tells you to click on the orange icon, and you do, and you’re presented with the NASCAR problem, made worse because once you click, you have to create an account. Again, more fail; again, not a problem inherent in RSS, but a problem caused by the browser’s failure to provide an opinionated, useful default.

This is not an easy problem to solve, obviously. My hunch is that the right thing to do is provide a minimum viable product for light web users – possibly by supplementing the current “here are your favorite sites” links with a clean, light reader focused on only the current top headlines. Even without a syncing service behind it, that would still be helpful for those users, and would also encourage publishers to continue treating their feeds as first-class publishing formats (an important goal!).

Obviously solving the NASCAR problem is still hard (as is building a more serious built-in app), but perhaps the rise of browser “app stores” and web intents/web activities might ease it this time around.

Other aspects

There are other aspects to this – reading, social, and provision of reading as a service. I’m not going to get into them here, because, well, I’ve got a day job, and this post is a month late as-is ;) And because the point is primarily (1) improving the RSS experience in the browser needs to be done and (2) some minimum-viable products would go a long way towards making that happen. Less-than-MVPs can be for another day :)

  1. By “RSS” and “feeds” in this post, I really mean the subscribing+reading experience; whether the underlying tech is RSS, Atom, Activity Streams, or whatever is really an implementation detail, as long as anyone can publish to, and read from them, in distributed fashion.
  2. again, in the very broad sense of the word, including more modern open specifications that do basically the same thing

Syndicated 2013-04-22 05:43:39 from Luis Villa » Blog

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