Last weekend during the Berlin IndieWeb Camp, Aaron Parecki gave a brief overview of where he/we is/are concerning the ‘social reader’. This is of interest to me because since ever I have been reading RSS, I’m doing by hand what he described doing more automatically.

These are some notes I made watching the live stream of the event.

Compared to the algorithmic timelines of FB, Twitter and Instagram, that show you what they decide to show you, the Social Reader is about taking control: follow the things you want, in the order that you want.
RSS readers were and are like that. But RSS reading never went past linear reading of all the posts from all your feeds in reverse chronological order. No playing around with how these feeds are presented to you. And no possibility to from within the reader take actions based on the things you read (sharing, posting, bookmarking, flagging, storing etc.): there are not action buttons on your feedreader, other than mark as unread or archive.

In the IndieWeb world, publishing works well Aaron said, but reading has been an issue (at least if it goes beyond reading a blog and commenting).
That’s why he built Monocle, and Aperture. Aperture takes all kinds of feeds, RSS, JSON, Twitter, and even scripts pushing material to it. These are grouped in channels. Monocle is a reader on top of that, where he presents those channels in a nice way. Then he added action buttons to it. Like reply etc. Those actions you initiate directly in the reader, and always post to your own site. The other already existing IndieWeb building blocks then send it to the original source of the item you’re responding to. See Aaron’s posting from last March with screenshots “Building an IndieWeb Reader“, to get a feeling for how it all looks in practice.

The power of this set-up is that it separates the layers, of how you collect material, how work on that material, and how you present content. It looked great when Aaron demo’d it when I met him at IWC N├╝rnberg two weeks earlier.

For me, part of the actions I’d like to take are definitely outside the scope of my own website, or at the very least outside the public part of my website. See what I wrote about my ideal feed reader. Part of automation of actions I’d want to point to different workflows on my own laptop for instance. To feed into desk research, material for client updates, and things like that.

I’m interested in running things like Aperture and Monocle locally, but a first step is exploring them in the way Aaron provides them to test drive. Aperture works fine. But I can’t yet get Monocle to work for me. This is I guess the same issue I ran into two weeks ago with how my site doesn’t support sending authorisation headers.

In the past weeks I’ve enjoyed using a bot that turns my blog’s RSS feed into an Activity Pub stream. That stream I follow from my Mastodon account, and that way I can ‘retweet’ any of my postings in an easy way. You too can follow my blog on Mastodon through the account @ton@bots.tinysubversions.com.

The bot that turns RSS into Activity Pub was created by Darius Kazemi, a coding artist and art creating coder. In the context of musing about my ideal RSS reader, I started running my own Tiny Tiny RSS instance. Tt-rss is not only a feed reader but can also create feeds, e.g. from the things you bookmark or like while reading. So I thought if you’d mount the bot that Darius created on the back of Tt-rss, you could publish curated feeds of what you read not just as rss but as activity pub streams. I pinged Darius Kazemi to hear if the code is available.

Screenshot of me resharing a blogpost on Mastodon.

I was a bit surprised to see a Dutch title above one of Peter’s blog posts. It referred to the blog of Marco Derksen, that I follow. I think Peter may have found it in the list of blogs I follow (in OPML) that I publish.

Peter read it through machine translation. Reading the posting made me realise I only follow blogs in the languages I can read, but that that is limiting my awareness of what others across Europe and beyond blog about.

So I think I need to extend my existing list of demands for an RSS reader with built-in machine translation. As both Tiny Tiny RSS which I self host and Google translate have API’s that should be possible to turn into a script.

A few months ago I added an OPML export of all my feeds manually to the sidebar as Blogroll. This week I installed an instance of TinyTinyRSS, to see if I can take it closer to my ideal feedreader. TinyTinyRSS provides a public URL of all the feeds as OPML. So now that link is my automatically updated OPML blogroll in the sidebar. (As long as I keep my TinyTinyRSS reader in sync with my offline reader)

Triggered by some of the previous postings on RSS, I started thinking about what my ideal set-up for RSS reading would be. Because maybe there’s a way to create that for myself.

A description of how I approach my feeds, and what I would ideally like to be able to do, I already penned a decade ago, and it hasn’t really changed much.

The basic outline is:

  • I think of feed subscriptions as subscribing to people. I don’t follow your blog, but I follow and interact with you. I used to have a blogroll that reflected that by showing the faces of people whose writing I read. Basically the web is my social network always, In my feed reader every feed title is the name of the author, not the blog’s title.
    my blogroll in 2005, people’s faces, not site names
  • The feeds I subscribe to, I group in folders by subjective social distance, roughly following Dunbar-style group sizes. The dozen closest to me, the 50, the 150, the 500 beyond that, and above that 999 for people I don’t have a direct connection with at all. So my wife’s blog feed is in folder a12, and if I’ve just come across your blog this week and we never met, your feed will be in e999. The Keep Track folder are my own content feeds from various platforms.
    the folders in my current feedreader by social distance
  • There are three reading styles I’d like my reader to support, of which it only does one.
    • I read to see what is going on with people I know, by browsing through their writing from closer to further away, so from the a12 folder towards the e999 folder. This my reader supports, by way of allowing a folder structure for it
    • I read outside-in, looking at the general patterns in all the new postings of a day: what topics come up, what are people working on, what do they care about. This is not supported yet, other than scrolling through the whole thing. A quick overview of topics versus social distance would be useful here.
    • I read inside-out, where I have specific questions, ideas or topics on my mind and want to see if some of the people in my reader have been wrting about it recently. This is not supported yet. A good way to search my feeds would be needed.
  • I would like to be able to tag feeds. So I can contextualise the author (coder, lives in Portugal, interested in privacy by design, works independently). This allows me to look at different groups of people across the social distance related folders. E.g. “what are the people I follow in Berlin up to this week, as I will be visiting in a few days?” “What are the current concerns in the IndieWeb community?” Ten years ago I visualised that as below
    Plotting contexts

    Social distances with community and multi-faceted contexts plotted on them

  • I would like to be able to pull in tags of postings and have full content search functionality. This would support my inside-out reading. “What is being said today in my feeds about that conference I didn’t go to?” “Any postings today on privacy by design?”
  • I think I’d like visual representations of which communities are currently most active, and for topics, like heat maps. Alerts on when the level of activity for a feed or a community or subsets of people changes would be nice too.
  • From the reader follow actions, such as saving an article, creating a todo from it, bookmarking it, or sharing it in some channel. An ideal reader should support all those actions, or let me configure actions
  • [UPDATED OCTOBER 2018] From reading a posting by Peter Rukavina I realised I’d also like to have built-in machine translation.

From the whole IndieWeb exploration of late, I realized that while no feedreader does all the above, it might be possible to build something myself. TinyTiny RSS seems a good starting point. It’s an open source tool you can run as your own instance. It comes with features such as filtering and auto-tagging that might fit my needs. It can be hosted on my own domain, and it has a database I then have back-end access to, to build features it doesn’t have itself (such as visualisations and specific sharing actions). It can also produce RSS feeds. It seems with TinyTiny RSS I could do all kinds of things to the RSS feeds I pull in on my server, and push the results out again as RSS feeds themselves. Those I could load into my regular reader, or republish etc.

Now need to find a bit of time to set it up and to play with it.

Google Reader five years dead

Five years ago, on July 1st 2013, Google killed their Google Reader. It was then probably the most used way to keep track of websites through RSS.

RSS allows you to see the latest articles from a website, and thus makes it easier to keep track of many different blogs and sites all at once. RSS is a very important part of the plumbing of internet.

I used to read everything through RSS, but over time people migrated to FB, stopped blogging, fell silent. Services like Twitter stopped providing RSS, website owners forgot it was a standard feature. Google Reader stopping meant that many casual users stopped reading the web with RSS. Browsers stopped visibly supporting it.

Five years on, Dave Winer writes, Google Reader centralised a decentralised technology. We should have been more alert, choose an independent tool to read, and not hand it to a silo. Frank Meeuwsen says similar things, that removing the biggest RSS reader made room for new growth and variety.

Therefore:

Long Live RSS

Aral Balkan, timed with the 5th anniversary of Google Reader’s demise, blogged “Reclaiming RSS“, explaining what it does. RSS is an important part of letting the web be what it is best at, a decentralised space where all can read and write. Earlier in April Wired called for a RSS Revival as well.

How I read RSS
I interact with people, I don’t follow sites. That is how I shape and perceive my RSS reading, having all the feeds named after their authors, and grouping them in my reader roughly along my perceived social distance. From a group of people closest to me, to people I know well, not very well, to strangers whose writing I came across. Roughly following Dunbar-like group size levels. See the image below. This is because I see blogging as distributed conversations: you write something, I respond with some of my own writing. Blogposts building upon blogposts. So I set up my feedreader to reflect that conversational aspect. I use ReadKit currently, as I prefer an offline reader.


Screenshot of part of my RSS reader, in rough groups of social distance

You can find the link to my blog’s RSS feed in the right side column (with the orange icon). Any feedreader should also be able to automatically detect my blog’s feed if you point it to my web address.
I also publish which feeds I am reading. On the right hand side you see a link to ‘OPML Blogroll‘ which is a file of all the feeds I currently read that machines can read (the list is a bit out of date, but I update it every month or so). Any feed reader should be able to import that file.

In 2005 I described how I read RSS then, in response to Lee Lefever asking about people’s RSS reading routines. The current ‘grouping by social distance’ way of reading I have is the result of the search I mention at the end of that blogpost, on how to deal with a larger number of feeds.

How do you read RSS feeds?

Thirteen years on, I’m curious how you use RSS. How many feeds, what (daily) routine, what topics? How do you read RSS feeds?
I look forward to reading your take on it in my feedreader.

I want to automate counting the number of blogposts I post in a week. Am assuming that the likeliest way of doing that is parsing the RSS feed for timestamps, and count them that way. Do you have any pointers to where such a RSS parser script (for Mac or MAMP) might be found?

Wired is calling for an RSS revival.

RSS is the most important piece of internet plumbing for following new content from a wide range of sources. It allows you to download new updates from your favourite sites automatically and read them at your leisure. Dave Winer, forever dedicated to the open web, created it.

I used to be a very heavy RSS user. I tracked hundreds of sources on a daily basis. Not as news but as a way to stay informed about the activities and thoughts of people I was interested in. At some point, that stopped working. Popular RSS readers were discontinued, most notably Google’s RSS reader, many people migrated to the Facebook timeline, platforms like Twitter stopped providing RSS feeds to make you visit their platform, and many people stopped blogging. But with FB in the spotlight, there is some interest in refocusing on the open web, and with it on RSS.

Currently I am repopulating from scratch my RSS reading ‘antenna’, following around 100 people again.

Wired in its call for an RSS revival suggests a few RSS readers. I, as I always have, use a desktop RSS reader, which currently is ReadKit. The FB timeline presents stuff to you based on their algorithmic decisions. As mentioned I definitely would like to have smarter ways of shaping my own information diet, but then with me in control and not the one being commoditised.

So it’s good to read that RSS Reader builders are looking at precisely that.
“Machines can have a big role in helping understand the information, so algorithms can be very useful, but for that they have to be transparent and the user has to feel in control. What’s missing today with the black-box algorithms is where they look over your shoulder, and don’t trust you to be able to tell what’s right.”,says Edwin Khodabakchian cofounder and CEO of RSS reader Feedly (which currently has 14 million users). That is more or less precisely my reasoning as well.