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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The Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It?

Posted in 3D, all posts, future, internet, rss, UX, web by coleman yee on February 17, 2007

“The future of internet is virtual worlds. Or is it?”

That was the topic of discussion in one of the sessions at the recent Web 2.0 Unconference.

The discussion leader Douglas Abrams defined a virtual world as a fully-immersive 3D environment that is shared by everyone and used for interactions in areas like entertainment, communication, and commerce.

Basically, the internet will become primarily 3D, instead of 2D as it is today.

He believed that the internet will eventually become a 3D virtual world (or worlds), simply because of the richness of information that 3D is able to communicate, as compared to textual, visual, or video information.

He’s wrong.

His is a common mistake – the same mistake that people years ago made when they predicted that TV would kill radio.

But I’m running ahead of myself.

The internet as we know it now is mostly what I would call “informational” – where people access content. This could be for knowledge (reading up a wikipedia article or my blog *ahem*) or for entertainment (reading my blog *AHEM*).

Currently, while the content is mostly in the form of text (like wikipedia and my blog again), there are other forms of content, including audio (podcasts, webradio), still visuals (photos, illustrations), and moving visuals (video, Flash animations).

Besides the informational, the internet also has a large experiential element. These are interactive elements or environments, where the interactive experience is the goal itself, and not a means to an end. These would include Flash games, simulations, and so on.

What do we get when web designers fail to distinguish the informational from the experiential? Flash-based websites that are a pain to navigate. Sure, surfing Flash-based informational websites is certainly a “richer” experience, thanks to pretty animations and sound effects, but when the information I want is best represented by text, don’t give me any animations along with it. Let alone a 3D experience.

Here’s another example – RSS feeds. I can go to a news site or a blog to read the informational content, and experience the look and feel of that site as well. But why do many people eventually move to reading the same content from RSS aggregators? Yes, the convenience, but many of us are eventually only interested in the informational content, not the experiential.

Virtual 3D worlds are better suited for the experiential, much like Flash. Because they are experiential in nature, they are great for the user to experience something, like exploring a new environment, playing an immersive game, or having social interactions with others. Thus 3D worlds are certainly here to stay, since they are best for certain types of the expriential.

Now if a user wants the informational rather than the experiential, and a 3D environment is given, it may not be pretty, especially when the novelty of 3D wears off. Remember those horrific Flash sites you tried to navigate through? The horrificity of 3D will be worse in an order of magnitude, thanks to the additional third dimension.

So are virtual worlds the future of the internet?

No, it won’t. Unless…

Only unless the experiential overtakes the informational on the internet in the future.

Will that ever happen? I hope to explore this in a later post.

Update:

Read part 2 here, or jump to part 3, “Why the Matrix Will Not Happen“.

Addendum:

Kevin posted a video of the discussion. The quality of the discussion wasn’t great, so it may not be worth watching.

Read Your Feeds

Posted in all posts, kids, rss by coleman yee on January 20, 2007

I can almost see this coming.

My colleague and I have been extolling the benefits of RSS feeds* as a useful technology for learning. Since some of the lecturers we evangelize to are parents as well, this might become an unintended side-effect, especially in kiasu Singapore.

Where Do You Think You're Going, Mister!?

[* Basically, RSS feeds allow you to draw out content like articles or blog posts from different sites, and aggregate or put them together in one place (the RSS aggregator) so you can read the new content at that one place, without having to visit all those sites to check if there’s new content. This means that if I subscribe to the RSS feeds of a hundred websites (a realistic figure), with some sites about science, art, politics, etc., whenever a new article appears on one of those hundred sites, that same new article would also appear in my RSS aggregator as well. An RSS aggregator is a little like an email program – it can be web-based or a program which you install on your computer.]