The power of RSS feeds and automated posting
Time to write a new “real” blogpost again. I’ve got more than 50 drafts for posts in our blog WordPress backend, but it’s time to write a completely new post from scratch, one of those which sets itself apart from the rest.
This has to do with two things.
First, I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody this month. It’s a marvellous book, and one that should shake the foundations and organizational ideas of every organization, including companies and startups. It’s certainly a disturbing read, especially if you are busy building or defending an organization built on traditional principles such as hierarchy or filtering-before-publishing. More on this in a minute.
Second, I’ve been playing around with RSS feeds, in particular stuff such as the amazingly powerful and promising WP-o-matic plugin for WordPress. In short, what WP-o-matic (and similar plugins such as FeedWordPress) does is feed a WordPress install with posts from chosen RSS feeds. Feeds can be grouped in campaigns and customized with HTML and additional text – and if not now, the potential is there for feeds to be automatically or semi-automatically filtered too, for particular keywords or particular categories. It depends on what’s in the received RSS feeds.
There are technical quirks. Most of these plugins I believe are still in their infancy. But the effects of what this entails, are revolutionary, as far as the web is concerned, and perhaps beyond the web.
Shirky’s thesis in short, is that the way low-cost technologies accessible via the internet facilitates group coordination, makes possible new types of groups, which can very effectively organize collective action. Groups may be thick in substance, with few very connected people, or they can be large, more loosely connected groups. What matters is, that the cost of organizing whatever action the group undertakes, has dropped to be the equivalent of the accumulative spare time of the group’s participants. Wikipedia is an obvious examples of this, effectively organizing the production of a large scale effort by utilizing this ressource only. But there are countless other examples. In effect, ‘every URL is a latent community’, as it is quoted somewhere in the book. People otherwise disconnected by geography and the difficulty of knowing who’s out there and where they are, suddenly find themselves capable of creating groups which were not possible before the internet. Because there were previously no ways of undertaking the costs which this would entail. See the below video for a taste of what all this means :
Shirky’s book is uplifting in so many ways, because it shows (among many other things) how difficult these new capabilities make life for people in power everywhere, and especially those in power of dictatorships and any regime, which seeks to limit access to information and limit the organizational capabilities of groups and group action. And we’re only getting started. People everywhere in the world are discovering new things, learning and experimenting with the new opportunities. It’s happening with a speed and scope which takes away your breath. And this is f**king great.
Now, what RSS does is provide a simple way to get information from one platform into another. Typically used to feed a lot of information into a particular piece of software, a RSS Reader, such as Google’s online platform for doing so, Google Reader. It means news and stories can reach greater audiences, because everywhere everyone can direct attention towards what’s interesting in their field of interest. Feeds can also be shared, and in effect re-published, just as easily as they can be read. In Google Reader this happens simply by selecting a story one likes, and choosing “share”. The story is then re-published to a webpage of it’s own, with it’s own corresponding feed, which can then be shared with friends and others one wants to read the shared items. Not just news stories and blogposts can be shared like this – but videos, bookmarks, tweets, torrents, podcasts, etc. Everything which can be systematically presented in a simple RSS format.
There’s a lot of grey zone activity in this field of course, since re-publishing something from a feed may violate IP rights of authors, when republished to the web, for instance. Website owners who indiscriminately create traffic to their sites from other bloggers’ RSS feeds and generate income from advertising without adding any material of their own, run the risk of being called “scrapers” and generate general bad feeling from original authors.
What’s happening now is that tools such as WP-o-matic makes it beyond easy to set up a blog to automatically or semi-automatically fetch feeds, which means that the “automatic” website is moving into a domain traditionally dominated by “rich content” bloggers writing their own articles. Writing a blog or maintaining a website, for instance, is of course, a lot of hard work. If one can import information to build a rich website in minutes, or support one’s own stuff with valuable information in a very short time, it makes it a lot cheaper and easier to do this. WP-o-matic and other such plugins in other words makes it very very easy for web publishers to earn a dime on even the slightest of niche subjects.
Why is this important? Because, it gives the power back to everyone to aggregate the web’s information easily and conveniently, a power otherwise vested in the large search engine companies. I’ve previously discussed the merits of tools such as Lijit and Google Custom Search. Automated RSS posting is even more promising, as it can support almost any segment of interest. Even the slightest interest in a subject may spawn a rich site, which may draw in other interested readers, which in turn strengthens the effects Shirky is on about. A URL with an interested group of readers, large or small, is all that it takes to create a group. All that is needed to change this group from a latent group to an active one capable of coordinating the group’s actions, is communication tools such as blog comments, email, twittering or other widely accessible tools we have available. We only need the connecting points. Everyone is or has the opportunity to be an aggregator, an expert access point to connecting people, selling stuff or organizing groups for larger scale efforts.