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May 22, 2004

Future battles in syndication space

Robert Scoble: "There are several other far more serious fights coming in the syndication space. Here's the fights that are coming." While I agree with Robert that the whole RSS/Atom sideshow is basically unimportant, his key issues seem rather odd, and I find some of his analysis very doubtful.

Full text vs. synopsis? Robert, no way is this the number one most important fight in syndication space. It's basically a judgement call. Some people, like you, prefer to get the whole article in the RSS feed. Others apparently prefer just to get the headline. I reckon it depends on the article. It will depend on the writer and the audience. If the writer doesn't make his readers happy, they won't subscribe. If the readers don't like what the writer is offering, they can send email or comments. Shrug.

What to call it? It doesn't matter. I just want to subscribe. Let Ruby and Winer squabble over what to call it: as long as my aggregator can read it, I neither know nor care.

Designers vs. readers. Now here is an issue with meat. Robert argues that "feed producers should ALWAYS leave the user in control." I'd love that: I'm a puritan. I like my RSS feeds like I like my Web sites: unencumbered by some lunatic who thinks the font and blink tags are Tim's Own Gift to information design. But we had this battle on the Web, and we lost. Realistically, is it worth trying to fight it again?

What's more, good graphic design enhances the subject matter, making it easier to read, drawing out key points and setting the mood. Some good writers may even be deeply unwilling to lose control of how their content is presented, either because they don't want to lose their identity in the aggregated feed or because the design is integral to what they want to communicate. And we can't permit good design without also permitting the bad and malicious design that has defaced the Web. A possible compromise is to allow limited styling via CSS or XSLT only (plus really basic inline styling like bold and italic): successful aggregators would allow users to refuse or override stylesheets on a per-feed basis if a feed author insisted on using an obnoxious design.

Finally, what to do with the XML orange icons. Sure, Robert, let's encourage the orange icon standard. It's a poor design, because it's utterly cryptic to the uninitiated, but it's established, and those of us who care about users can get around its enigmatic nature by adding explanatory text such as "Subscribe to this site." Once the orange icon convention is sufficiently well established, it doesn't really matter that the "XML" caption is meaningless or ambiguous -- people will just recognise it as a conventional icon, like a stop light or a no entry sign.

But as to what users should see when they click on the orange icon, I'm sorry, Robert, but if you think its behaviour is easy to learn, you have been hanging around developers too long. Put yourself in Rebecca Krolander's shoes. You've found a quilting site. You click on the icon. Your screen fills with garbage. At best, you go, "What the hell is this?" and click the Back button. At worst, you go, "Shit, a virus" and go into a panic. Or, if the XML icon is linking to localhost port 5335 (the Radio subscription callback), you get some sort of "site not found" error, and you give up thinking there's a fault. There's no way this is an acceptable user experience.

I'm sure NewsGator does allow you to right-click a XML icon and choose "Subscribe." That's nice, but if you have NewsGator, you already know all about syndication. What about the poor chap to whom all this is new? He needs some guidance. What is this page for? How can I use it? A simple XSLT or even CSS to say, "This link is for use in aggregators, not browsers. Aggregators allow you to subscribe Web sites. To subscribe to this site, copy the link into your aggregator. To find out more about aggregators, go to..." would make such a difference.

To me, this is the number one issue in syndication space, because it's critical in enabling syndication to cross over to mainstream users. And it's an issue, not a battle. It's a no-brainer what needs to be done. It's just a matter of having the will to do it.

I've been very dilatory about doing any of this stuff on my own TypePad site, but writing this stuff up has reminded me just how awful the subscription/syndication user experience is at the moment. Shame on me. Time to do something about it.

May 22, 2004 in Usability, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 21, 2004

ID cards public meeting

BBC News: "The government itself declined to join the debate."

Matt Goddard has a characteristically robust view of the government's refusal to participate.

May 21, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 19, 2004

ID card opposition runs deep

BBC News reports a YouGov survey on attitudes to the UK ID card: "60% of citizens were in favour. 16% of those opposed said they would participate in a campaign of civil disobedience - which would equate to around 2.8 million people if the survey is accurately reflected in real life. One million would be prepared to go to prison rather than register for a card."

The full poll results (PDF) (HTML) bring out some other interesting statistics. For example, while most people are in favour of the card, they don't want it to be compulsory to keep their address up to date or to notify the authorities if a card is lost or stolen, which seems to rather limit the usefulness of the card. You get the impression that people welcome a card in theory, perhaps because of the rhetoric that it would make life difficult for terrorists and immigrants, but resent the fact that the necessary practical impositions would apply to them as well.

Opposition is particularly entrenched amongst under-30s. Under-30s are of course the group least likely to vote, so that's all right then. Conservative voters oppose the cards quite strongly, which is interesting given that David Davis' initial response to Blunkett's scheme was, basically, "If it's so great, let's rush it through quick!"

(Updated to link to HTML version of full report, courtesy of Trevor Mendham.)

May 19, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 11, 2004

Abu Ghraib: a culture derived from its leaders

Functional Ambivalent analyses the relationship between the strategic, political level and the individually-initiated atrocities at Abu Ghraib: "Sometimes it's not policy; it's culture."

May 11, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 07, 2004

E-government: a lesson from Estonia

BBC: "In the space of 30 seconds, government decisions are made available to any Estonian citizen with an internet connection... Estonians can comment on government policies, both domestic and foreign. 'Every person can send in ideas and proposals in any field,' said Estonia's foreign minister Kristiina Ojuland. 'If there are really important proposals, serious proposals, then those are sent to the relevant ministries. And there have been cases where we've changed our legislation based on those proposals coming from citizens.'"

It would be nice to imagine the Mother of Parliaments offering such levels of transparency, participation and openness.

May 7, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Iraq prisoner abuse

The Australian Daily Telegraph has a terrifying profile of one of the women in the prisoner abuse photos and the community from which she comes: "To the country boys here, if you're a different nationality, a different race, you're sub-human. That's the way girls like Lynndie are raised. Tormenting Iraqis, in her mind, would be no different from shooting a turkey."

Every American I've known has been open-minded, intelligent and xenophilic. It's shocking and frightening to be reminded that the country also harbours this sort of culture.

May 7, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 06, 2004

Everything you never wanted to know about the UK ID card

The Register has an exhaustive account of what we know about the ID card scheme and analysis of the social, technical and security issues. Very long, but very detailed and well worth the trouble. Or, if life really is too short, do at least skip to the last page and read Lettice's analysis of how the card will become compulsory by the back door.

May 6, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Blunkett cuts ID card trials

The Register: "Blunkett told the [Home Affairs] Committee yesterday that 'it is important to get it right rather than quickly.' He failed, however, to explain how this stacked up against reducing the term of the pilot from six to three months because of the initial technical problems."

May 6, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 01, 2004

Eastern European states join the EU

Sandra Kalniete, Latvia's new EU Commissioner, speaking on the BBC: "The Second World War is finally over."

Ed Vulliamy: "The 'velvet revolution' spread: people - suddenly without fear, suddenly empowered - taking to the streets and dictatorships tumbling, like a house of cards, across Eastern Europe. And the denouement to all this will come when the clock strikes midnight on the evening of 30 April."

Timothy Garton Ash: "Compare this Europe of May Day 2004 with its own past. Think what Europe was like 20 years ago, in 1984, let alone in 1944. Then put Dvorak's Slavonic Dances on your CD player, and crack open the vodka."

Witold Orlowski, speaking from Warsaw on the BBC: "World War 2 started in this town 65 years ago... History has closed the circle and the war is over only now."

May 1, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A practical approach to RPG criticism

Adam Tinworth: "The roleplaying industry lacks any serious attempt to review RPGs well... In the absence of a core of good, respected, regular reviewers, they have to turn to the screeching howler monkeys of the internet, screaming their low value opinions into the digital world."

Adam argues for "a single source of good, edited, commissioned reviews run by skilled people and provided by a team of experienced gamers and writers." I'm not sure this is practical. It takes time and effort to deliver the kind of analysis that Adam wants, something that few experienced gamers and writers, with many other calls on their time, would be able to commit to.

That's not to say that few people could or would deliver good reviews or criticism. The problem with Adam's proposal, I think, is that it puts the onus on a small circle of people. If the community wants "Basements and Bugbears" reviewed, the editors have to commission someone to review "Basements and Bugbears." This is hard work for both the editors and the reviewer. Whereas I might pick the game up on the off-chance, and post a review because I think there are points of interest, or just because I want to warn people off.

Unfortunately, if I post that review here, Adam won't know about it because he won't know to come here. Whereas if I post it in a well-trafficked forum, he won't know about it because he wisely avoids screeching howler monkeys. There's little incentive for me to write a review nobody will read, and there's no value to readers in reviews they can't find.

How do we provide a common location where trusted writers can find an audience, and readers can find a source of trustworthy writers? Aggregation.

Specifically, moderated aggregation. There clearly needs to be editorial control, otherwise the screeching howler monkeys just hurl their faeces down the aggregated feed instead of in their nasty little forums. But aggregation steps the role down from commissioning to moderation, and with a suitable definition of the feed the traffic should remain fairly low. Sure, from a critical point of view it's not as good as a rigorous editorial process, but it has the benefit that it might actually maintain a flow of content.

Will the howler monkeys screech like crazy about elitists and exclusion and so on? Hell yes. Do I care? Hell no. I've read Slashdot. Nothing the screeching howler monkeys can do or say will impress me now.

The technology is out there. RSS enables the establishment of centralised aggregator sites and aggregated feeds, and the principle of moderated aggregation has been demonstrated by conference aggregator sites like pdcbloggers.

My goodness, I'm almost enthused to start writing about RPGs again. Make room for one more screeching howler monkey, Adam.

May 1, 2004 in Games | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack