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08.19.2003

Boring RSS Post

"I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on a full suit of armor and attacked a Hot Fudge Sundae or a Banana Split." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. That quote sums up exactly how I feel about the fight now brewing over weblog syndication formats. There's a prime case of tilting at sundaes up today at the CNET site - a histrionic article entitled "Battle of the Blog" (via Anil). The article comes out swinging:

As commercial interests have increasingly dominated the Internet, Web logs have come to represent a bastion of individual expression and pure democracy for millions of bloggers.
This "millions of bloggers" business is really starting to get on my tits. I've been crawling the web for three months, updating from every source I can think of, and I've come up half million sites that you could reasonably call live weblogs. Thanks to LiveJournal's excellent stats page, I know they have at least 300,000 additional active weblogs that are still not in the census list. But that number will still fall short of even one million. I'm willing to believe that I wrote a really bad crawler, and that I have missed all kinds of blogs. Maybe Dave Sifry did, too. But seeing a claim like that, with no source attached to it, just makes me suspicious. How curious that this journalist interviewed a bunch of people, all of whom are really into weblogs, and then ended up with an unusually inflated high figure for the total blogging population. Such a total lack of critical thinking permeates the article:
Despite the apparent pettiness of developers' sniping, their arguments over digital minutia may carry enormous consequences, and corporate interests remain poised to capitalize on the conflicts if they are not resolved.
Who are these corporate interests? What management genius at IBM is going to try and chase a market of under a million users, and sell them a service most of them now get for free? "Forget these enormous corporate clients, boys, let's go get us some bloggers!". It reads like the perennial Slashdot joke:
  1. Get bloggers to argue over RSS
  2. ...
  3. Profit!
Any company that wants to make a serious foray into weblogs has two choices. Either they follow the AOL model, and grow the market by bringing in millions of new users, or they follow the TypePad model, and start small enough to be able to make a profit from the current market, growing as the market grows. If they take the AOL route, then they can introduce all the proprietary formats they want, regardless of what the established weblog community has standardized on. Why make interop easy for your users, if you want to keep them locked in? Look at AOL Instant Messenger, after all. Try to build interop with AIM, and AOL sues you. And for the little TypePads of this world, the incentive will be to support as many formats as possible. After all, you want people to be able to migrate over as easily as possible from the blogs they currently use. Again, no issue. These kinds of claims are just stupid. If a dispute over syndication formats becomes the fatal weakness that will allow a huge corporation to step in and take over blogging, I will eat my arm. What gets left out in all this FUD are the reasons bloggers should be delighted to see a new syndication format emerge:
  • Language support: The format under development includes a required language attribute on content. This is a huge blessing for every one of the hundreds (I'm sorry, "millions!") of bloggers who write in multiple languages. Hell, it's a blessing for everyone, because it means better search engines.
  • Clear technical definitions: Without going into excruciating detail, there are ambiguities in RSS that make it hard for programmers to work with the format. Proposals to clear up these ambiguities tend to mysteriously veer off into factionalism. A new format will give programmers clear definitions to work from, which in turn means aggregators and other tools will Just Work.
  • More Power: That means support for photoblogs. It means support for people who post video and audio files, along with regular text. It means being able to syndicate comments along with the main body of your weblog post. The ability to move your blog to a different blogging with minimal hassle. The ability to update your weblog remotely and securely, using the same tools that you use to read syndicated feeds. One giant step towards a microcontent client.
There's no death struggle here. There's no reason to get worked up. RSS and the new format are going to coexist, just like RSS has already been coexisting with the nine zillion other variants of itself. Once you provide a syndicated feed in one format, why not provide it in other formats? And if you can't, why not use one of the compatibility toolkits people are working on right now? There's no reason you can't. The whole debate is a red herring. The effort to build a new syndication format has been unprecedentedly open, fair, and egalitarian. Sam Ruby's Wiki is full of contributions from people who have no history with RSS, who don't care about weblog office politics, who just want to roll up their sleeves and build something cool.

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