Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Really simple social syndication

I've been thinking about this for a while, but the recent sunset announcement of Google Reader made me revisit this topic. Google Reader isn't the only thing that's dead. RSS (aka. Really Simple Syndication) has long been proclaimed dead as well. In fact most people never even knew what RSS was. That said, it was a very useful tool for me and many others that like to stay up-to-date in their areas of interest. Increasingly, I've been getting my dose of news through social networks. However, social networks contain a lot of noise that I care little for. I want to rebuild the RSS spirit using modern social networks. This post describes one possible approach, which I refer to as Really Simple Social Syndication (RSSS).

Really simple syndication: the good old days

Here's what the content flow used to be with blogs and RSS:

RSS-based content syndication

It was simple. Really simple, actually!

Social syndication: today

I don't care much for social networks. I mostly see them as a two-way utility for ultimately connecting content creators to content consumers.

One way, social networks like Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc are just vehicles for finding out what to read based on your interests. I spend too much time checking them individually for my news, and this is unfortunate.

The other way, social networks make it easier to have your content read by a bunch of the right people. In my case, the vast majority of non-organic search traffic comes from social sources (mostly twitter). I waste a bit of time tweeting, and G+ing new posts on my blog as they come out, but sometimes they are picked up by others and I don't actually need to do that.

As long as the content itself stays outside of the walled gardens of the social networks, I think we can come to a syndication solution that might rival the old RSS-based one, but enjoy the benefits of having some extra signals from all of the social network junk. Here's the model I'm thinking of:

Social-based content syndication

Now for a little bit more about Pub and Sub.

Sub: Requirements for consumption

  • Reuse existing feeds. I don't want to re-create my sources. Use existing people you follow on Twitter, from G+ circles, Facebook friends.

  • De-duplicated content. Some people post the same link on multiple networks. Some popular posts are reshared by everyone. I only want to see a post once.

  • Content centric. Show me the content in some standard, readable way. Hide the social stuff unless I explicitly ask. Most of the time I don't care where it came from, don't care how many people liked it, or what they wrote in the comments. Sometimes I'm curious and want a way to trace it back.

  • Social signals as a metric. If many of my sources share something, I probably should at least take a skim.

  • Web based service so that I can use it anywhere.

  • Set a volume-based daily quota. If I'm busy today I'd like to only see the top N articles, sorted by some transparent metric of my choosing.

Flipboard, Pulse, Feedly all sort of fit into this class of readers. Ideally this would be an API that just lets me connect a few social accounts, and get back a filtered feed of content. This could be the API for the product - a Really Simple Social Syndication (RSSS) feed.

Anyone could then build a UI on top of it for their favorite platform (Google Reader-like).

Pub: Requirements for content production

  • Automatically post content to a bunch of social services.

  • Intelligent shortening of links and content (eg. for twitter, to fit in 140 chars).

Wordpress plugins, Tumblr and others provide ways to automatically tweet and otherwise post new updates to your content. There needs to be some other way that works in general for any type of content. Such a service could be similar to feedburner, in that it would take an existing RSS feed and socialize it.

Social networks, let's be friends!

I'm not religious about Google Reader or RSS. It was a good solution for content syndication at the time, but I'm ready to accept that perhaps it's time to move on. Hopefully with tools like the above, we can have something that comes close to the utility of RSS feeds.

Social networks could do some evil stuff which would preclude RSSS from happening. Economically, they are incentivized own content, create walled gardens, insert advertisements, and prevent access to their feeds. I'm hoping that some human element will prevent that from happening.

Here is a short list of what we need from the social networks:

  • The content itself must be free from walled gardens (eg. paywalls, login walls, etc)

  • Social network feeds are available to read in full, as is, without magical suggestions, collaborative filtering, etc.

  • Social networks provide some programmatic way to post content.

Once we have a good flow for the production and consumption of content, using social networks as a delivery mechanism, I will be very happy to minimize the amount of time spent on social networks directly, and focus on consuming and producing interesting things. Also, happy π day!