μεταcole

Explaining RSS Feeds and Aggregators

Posted in rss, story by coleman yee on May 31, 2007

Once upon a time…

I was teaching a course entitled “Discover News Aggregators & RSS” to a group of librarians last week.

Because most of them did not know anything about RSS, I wanted to make sure that every one of them left the course not just understanding what RSS was about, but remembering it for a very long time.

What better way than to tell a story.

But even before the class started, I got them curious: I crushed about 8 sheets of paper into individual paper balls, and placed them in front of random participants (there were about 25 participants).

“What are they for?” some of them had to ask.

“It’s for an activity later. Don’t throw them away; don’t eat them.”

So when the class finally started, after I gave a brief introduction, I scared them with the Wikipedia definition of RSS:

RSS (an acronym for Really Simple Syndication) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated digital content, such as blogs, news feeds or podcasts.

I also gave the Wikipedia definition of web feed:

A web feed is a data format used for serving users frequently updated content. Content distributors syndicate a web feed, thereby allowing users to subscribe to it. Making a collection of web feeds accessible in one spot is known as aggregation.

This was useful to help them appreciate my story better, since nobody could really grasp these definitions.

Before I started the story, I showed them the cast of characters:

Me (Coleman) – the user
You – the user’s favorite blog/website
Paper ball – new content

And I started my story (story words in italics):

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Coleman.

Every morning, he would turn on his computer, and access the internet.

Now he had around 25 favorite websites that he would visit every morning.

He would go the the first website, to see if there’s any new content. Any new content? (I went up to the first participant and asked her.) No?

Then he would go on to the next website. (I stepped up to the next participant.) Any new content? No?

Then to the next website. New content? (The 3rd participant had a paper ball.) YES! (I held up the ball.) Coleman would read the new content.

Then he would go on to the next website? Any new content? No?

So on and on he would go, visiting each of his favorite websites to check if there’s new content so that he could read it.

This, as you can see, is very inefficient, and wastes a lot of time, so Coleman was VERY SAD.

Then one day, the fairy godfather visited Coleman, and taught him about RSS feeds and RSS aggregators.

Armed with that knowledge, Coleman used his RSS aggregator (I produced and raised a dustbin)…

(And on the slide:)

Me (Coleman) – the user
You – the user’s favorite blog/website
Paper ball – new content
Dustbin – RSS aggregator

Coleman used his RSS aggregator to subscribe to the RSS feeds from each of his 25 favorite websites.

With that, every morning, when Coleman turned on his computer, he would open his RSS aggregator (raise the bin), and the new content from his 25 favorite websites would… (I motioned for those participants with the paper balls to throw them towards me, and I caught all of them with the bin)

and the new content from his favorite websites would automatically be collected by the RSS aggregator (raise the bin), so that he could read the new content from his favorite websites (I took out the balls one by one) without having to visit them one by one, ever again.

And so, Coleman lived happily ever after.

They loved it.

Update:

I forgot to thank those who gave me their views when I first sounded this idea, including Siva, Ivan, and Vanessa.

Feel free to use and modify this idea for your own purposes, as long as animals are not harmed in the process.

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Why BlogOut Was So Noisy

Posted in all posts, design by coleman yee on May 26, 2007

BlogOut was too noisy.

Sure, noise can be a good thing at the right time, when ideas are flowing, but when there’s a panel discussion going on in front of the room, and most of the (interested) audience can’t hear what’s going on, you have a problem (astro described the situation in his post, Blogout or SpaceOut?).

So, why was it so noisy?

Crowd control, or the lack of it.

When the MC started the event proper, she didn’t manage to get everyone’s attention. There were still pockets of people standing and chatting at the rear area.

the crowd at BlogOut, with many standing
(photo from Kevin Lim)

It’s easy to expect the crowd to quieten down and pay attention eventually (I would have expected that myself), but it didn’t happen. On hindsight, the MC should have gotten the attention of everyone before starting.

Which would have helped for around 10 minutes at most, before those standing in the background resumed their conversations. We know that because the MC did ask pretty firmly for everyone to “be respectful” during the panel discussion. The success rate was around 80%, for around 5 minutes.

Mainly because there was a bigger factor at play:

The lack of chairs, or too many people standing in the background.

When you’re standing in the background in an event like that, it’s easy to feel like you’re not part of the seated group, meaning that you’re somehow excluded from the social norms and rules of that group.

I know because I’ve done that too many times myself.

Being excluded from the seated group, and part of the outsider group, there’s little inhibition from making a comment or two to the person standing beside you. And because you’re standing, it’s so easy to be facing your comment partner rather than the front of the room.

The perfect setup for a “backchannel” conversation.

There are a couple of other minor factors that I suspect have contributed in minor ways to the rather noisy atmosphere, like the arrangement of seats, the shape of the seats, and maybe even the presence of the food, drink, and waiting staff, but since they are minor, I shall refrain myself.

I hope this post gives some insight into the design of an event space, and the human dynamics within it. And hopefully, there will be enough seats next time 🙂

Kudos to the organizers. I still think they did well.

Update:

I completely missed out another major point – the poor sound system, although it was fine where I was (near the front). Thanks to Du Senyao Peter who pointed it out in the comments:

Though I think a major problem is with the sound system, which could not amplify the talking one’s voice very well so people at the back could not feel the presence of the one who is talking, be it emcee or the panelists

Forms Created by Nazi Developers

Posted in all posts, interaction, usability by coleman yee on May 11, 2007

I was doing a bit of research on a site, and had to fill in a form. It was an application form for a university course.

Address field in form

As you can see above, I had filled in an address in the “Home Address” field.

Then I got this Javascript error message:

Javascript error 1

“Must end with a full-stop, have at least 1 but not more than 3 commas”? Amazing. Perhaps this is just a way to filter out applicants who have a poor comprehension of English.

Undaunted, I obediently added the missing “full-stop” to my fictitious address (even though I could have turned off Javascript instead), so it became

1, CROSS STREET.

(Note the “full-stop” I dutifully added. Also, it’s in CAPITAL LETTERS because the Javascript converted it so.)

Perfect.

Until I tried to submit the form, where I was greeted with another Javascript error:

Javascript error 2

I couldn’t stop laughing.

The real applicant probably wouldn’t be laughing though.