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BTW somebody ought to tweak this so that it's an RSS bonhomme on the porcelain throne

BTW somebody ought to tweak this so that it's an RSS bonhomme on the porcelain throne

A reasonable and succinct explanation of RSS feeds:

A family of web-feed formats used to publish frequently updated content, such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. Called a “feed, web feed or channel,” RSS that stands for “Really Simple Syndication,” contains either a summary of content from an associated web site or the full text, making it easier for people to keep up with their favourite web sites. [my emphasis; source – PDF link]

But I’m kind of resistant to the idea of a summary only.

We all know that one of the main benefits of RSS is to make it easier for people to consume web content by putting it all in one place — your reader. Rather than making you run around to your favorite web sites individually to see if there is anything new.

So a feed that’s only a summary that then forces you to click through to the web site anyhow strikes me as somewhat missing the point. I can follow the business logic of the commercial web at a rational level; but I’m doubtful whether it actually helps in practice. And anyhow, being government, my drivers are somewhat different.

Yet, almost all the feeds I’ve come across from GoC websites take the summary approach. Including the ones from my Department. When we were implementing feeds, I did push for having full rather than partial feeds, but it didn’t happen. Oh well, I thought, at least we finally have some feeds. (And I can blog about it.)

So — what do you think? Are there times when putting only a summary into the feed makes more sense?

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(Video podcast from the Government of Canada’s AfCam channel on YouTube)

The other day, a colleague brought the AfCam project to my attention. What is AfCam? It’s “Afghanistan Camera” – a federal government social media project in support of Canada’s work in Afghanistan. I believe it’s led by CIDA.

Here’s the blurb from the AfCam home page on the “Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan” website:

Welcome to AfCam, a look at Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan through photos, videos, and sounds. View our feature gallery and podcast by clicking below, or search the database by clicking in the box to the right.

Stay updated by subscribing to AfCam on social media channels like Flickr, YouTube, and iTunes.

I just love seeing the words “social media channels like Flickr, YouTube, and iTunes” on a GoC web page. This is great initiative – using images, sound and video content is a fantastic way to complement (or supplant) the usual text-centric government communications products online, whether press releases or publications etc. And the social nature of these tools makes it a lot easier to spread this content around. So I love seeing it out there.

One of the challenges of using these disparate channels is tying it all together — and the AfCam page does a nice job of this. In addition to the photos and videos themselves, the page prominently points to the various AfCam outposts on YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and iTunes. (And I wonder if this is the first use of these logos on a federal website?) There’s an RSS feed buried at the bottom also. I would have taken advantage of the RSS autodiscovery technique for this, but no matter.

But what if you come at AfCam via one of these other channels? The Facebook page is essentially a mirror of the content from the AfCam page on http://www.afghanistan.gc.ca — the photos from the Flickr photostream are posted there, the RSS feed items are there and the videos have been uploaded also. Interestingly, most of videos have been included via the FB YouTube app rather than being uploaded directly (although there’s English and French overview videos posted using FB’s native video app). And the photos are also posted directly to the page rather than being pulled from Flickr via that’s site’s FB app.

The YouTube and Flickr channels are much more rudimentary — a lot of this has to do with the limitations inherent in those platforms. There’s not a lot of room for cross-linking or pointing to AfCam’s other presences from either of these. The focus is squarely on the videos and the photos respectively; context be damned. But on Flickr for instance, I’m thinking that more detail should be added to the AFCam profile page, which could point to the YouTube channel or the Facebook page or back to the page on http://www.afghanistan.gc.ca.

Aside: I noticed also that the Flickr photos were all marked as copyrighted. I’ll bet they are the work of professional photogs who want to retain their copyright, but wouldn’t it be nice to see these with creative commons licensing to facilitate sharing?

Aside #2: I noticed that the videos embedded on the main AFCam page are using what looks like the accessible media player mandated by the GoC – I couldn’t find the transcripts however. Posting up a text transcript would complete the accessibility solution.

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I should really pay more attention to Louis Gray. He writes some great stuff, and I really like his approach (minimal snark from a well-known tech blogger is very refreshing!)

Anyhow, last week he was talking about the life cycle of his blog content – but it could be about any form of web content. Including government web presences (or at least the ones with RSS feeds).

While it’s still important to be sure the blog itself loads quickly, for those who view it for the first time, or for those who do click through RSS and choose to leave a comment, the look and feel of the blog is less important over time. I expect fewer people are typing in the louisgray.com URL and viewing pages directly, as they accumulate feeds and read more, and see the blog’s UI more as a shell for content than a destination where a reader would spend a good amount of time. At this stage, the blog is simply a point in time for the content to begin its journey.

This feels absolutely right — the website should be a launch pad not a destination point. Meanwhile here in the GoC we’re for the most part treating our sites as destinations — so lots of time gets spent on site redesigns and recoding old pages to match the latest government standard. (Which despite claiming to take into account “modern practices on the Web,” actually says nothing about RSS feeds or dropping content on outposts like a YouTube channel or a Facebook page.)

And where does Louis Gray’s content journey to? (Besides this blog of course …)

I’m using my blog as a way to project content outward – to RSS readers, to aggregators, like FriendFeed, Strands and Social Median, and to connect with readers via e-mail, using Disqus. It also, via RSS, powers popular sharing sites, like ReadBurner and RSSmeme. But none of those activities, with the exception of comments, require actual visits.

And

The bulk of the activity around the blog is pretty much happening someplace else – making the number one purpose for the blog site itself to convert new visitors into signing up for the RSS feed. So if they bump into the content, via Techmeme, Digg, StumbleUpon, ReadBurner, FriendFeed, or anywhere else, they’ll sign up and take in my content in the way they choose.

So if I were to translate this into my environment as a government communicator: it’s not about my Department’s website. It’s about freeing the site’s content to travel across the Web, and people will consume that content the way they want. The very least I can do to is to create a feed that sets the content free.

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RSS To Do List

Yes I’m on quite the RSS kick — I’ve been fiddling around a lot with feeds lately. But there’s so much more I want to do…

1. check out ways to create feeds from non-feed bearing websites (e.g. Feedity, Dapper) — like most web offerings from the Government of Canada.

2. experiment with feed filtering à la FeedRinse or Blastfeed – to try out a more focussed feed reading experience – although I do like the serendipitous discoveries I make when not extracting a signal from the noise…

3. (while still on the feed filtering tip) get my head around AideRSS – I gotta admit I do not grok. Somehow it thinks that this post of mine is my best according to their “PostRank” formula.

4. mix and blend feeds together with things like RSS Mixer or RSS Mix or FEEDcombine – I guess this would be sort of the inverse approach (from filtering) to managing my feeds – simply push the most recent content from all my feeds to the top.

5. while I’m at filtering and mixing, I might as well try fiddling with Yahoo! Pipes, which would appear to be the ultimate for this sort of stuff.

6. Install Snackr, just so that I can see the news ticker thing in action across the bottom of my desktop. Of course I want my screen to look like CNN or CBC Newsworld.

7. Play around with more online feed reader services – as if Bloglines, Google Reader and Netvibes are not enough, now I wanna check out the new breed (esp a “visual feed reader” like Voyage).

8. check out feed writer software like this app from Mirabyte.

9. Work my way through this crazy huge list of 100 or so RSS resources and hacks.

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Was in a meeting the other day about an email newsletter. Some of the more technologically savvy folks geeks in the room attempted to steer the discussion towards RSS feeds. As in, “why not deliver this thing by RSS rather than email? And you can do all this fancy stuff with RSS, like include images or media… and anyways we hate email….” I’m paraphrasing of course, but you know how this line of thinking goes ;+)

& yes RSS is wonderful – I’m as oversubscribed as the next nerd. But us govt types can’t forget that most people don’t know what RSS feeds are or how to use a feed reader. And they could care less.

Check this research on awareness of web 2.0 applications and technologies:

bar graph showing awareness levels of message boards, YouTube, RSS, etc,.

(Source: Research for the Government of Canada, 2007. Click graphic for full size.)

I find it pretty striking how the RSS bars in this chart are so much shorter than all the others — RSS is the only technology on that list that the majority of people surveyed weren’t familiar with.

Makes sense that a more or less representative sample of typical Canucks would be less familiar with RSS than with blogs, social networking, etc. After all, RSS is underlying infrastructure that ties all the other stuff together. Folks using 2.0 technologies are using RSS but they’re not necessarily aware of it.

I also like this tidbit, from the qualitative part of this study – focus groups in several locations across Canada – which really brings home the value of email updates over RSS:

… many Internet users (mainly Web 2.0 users) were familiar with the concept [of RSS feeds] in general, even though they had no specific awareness of RSS feeds. Many, for example, were familiar with the idea of receiving updates from various websites through emails containing links. This included updates from websites of various stores (e.g. Rona), from websites of entertainment-related companies (e.g. Cineplex Odeon), from entertainment-related websites (e.g. Têtes à claques TV), from news sites, and from blogs.
(My emphasis. Source: Research for the Government of Canada, 2007)

(Aside: wow a Têtes à claques reference! Whoopee! It’s actually been blocked by the IT gang at my workplace, I guess cuz us bureaucrats shouldn’t be exposed to jokes about farts and boobies…)

Ahem… anyhow, the lesson for me here? If you’re a government site and you want people to subscribe to your updates, it’s great to have RSS feeds. But absolutely make sure you’ve got an email subscription vehicle too – in fact, probably makes sense to put more energy into the email channel than the RSS one.

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