death by digital proxy

a few weeks ago, i ceased to exist.

at least, that’s what one of my friends thought. like other content junkies who want maximum information with minimum distraction, he uses a syndicated content aggregator (like bloglines or feeddemon or netnewswire) to chow as many headlines as his brain can handle. (for a refresher, see my synopsis below: the wonderful world of blog syndication)

this is all fine and well, even good — possibly great. it’s a useful strategy for handling information overload, while steering clear of many of the landmines on the info superhighway (e.g., spam from mailing lists you never read, web sites full of advertising you don’t care about, etc.). the problem comes when the content oil stops coming down the syndicated pipeline, as it were.

let’s take my site as an example. suppose you subscribed to my site. you go to your aggregator every day to check the latest from the blogosphere (ack), and you notice after awhile that i’m just not writing any more. it’s been six months, and not a single post. hmm. interesting. looks like ryan stopped writing; i wonder why?

the problem with our brave new world of mediated experience is that we draw conclusions from unreliable digital proxies. if an RSS aggregator says i’m not writing, then to a lot of people, i’m not writing. maybe i moved to alaska and fell off the grid. who knows? a phone call or an email or a trip to my web site would clarify, but in a world where the sands of time are coated with teflon, it’s just too much effort.

and so, from a limited digital perspective, i ceased to exist.

cause of death? carelessness

in my case, my feed died due to sheer carelessness: in my headlong rush to redesign, and to clean up the architectural mess that was causing me to lose sleep, i altered the directory structure on my site. two things resulted: (1) a wonderful simplification in the way my blog files were organized (which no one but me cares about), and (2) a dead RSS feed. dead simply because the file containing my feed moved from one place to another.

sorry…[geek shudder]…my bad.

for reference, here are the proper URLs for the syndicated version(s) of this site (pick your XML format of choice):

if there’s any solution to the problem of moved and dead feeds, i couldn’t find it. at present, it looks like a pretty messy problem (see technobabble discussion below).

the emergent properties of technology–mediated experience

this might seem like a problem that will affect only the weeniest of the techno weenies. i don’t think it’s that simple. mediated experience is giving birth to unexpected things; it will affect more and more people as time passes.

the Wikipedia defines an emergent property as follows:

An emergent behaviour or emergent property is shown when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective. A system made of several things can host properties which the things themselves do not have…[snip]…Emergent properties arise when a complex system reaches a combined threshold of diversity, organisation, and connectivity. The property itself is often unpredictable and unprecedented, and represents a new level of the system’s evolution. The complex behaviour or properties are not a property of any single such entity, nor can they easily be predicted or deduced from behaviour in the lower-level entities.

the internet and everything digital attached to it (e.g., browsers, blogging applications, and RSS aggregators to name just a few) can be viewed as a system of relatively simple (ahem) entities. unpredictable things are starting to happen as we combine and recombine all of the parts of this system, and as we use them in ways no one could have imagined. this is obvious. what i think is less obvious is that our human (social) experiences are becoming a part of this system, and they are being affected as a result.

as we rely more and more on technologies to mediate our experience, we subject ourselves to the vicissitudes of digital systems, and more importantly to what their agents tell us. quotidian changes (like moved files or dead servers) can have broad consequences (both visible and invisible). my RSS feed dies due to a moved file, a friend concludes i am no longer writing, and we lose touch for four months. how would our lives have been different if that hadn’t happened? maybe he would have read a particular entry in my blog that sparked a thought that led to an action that caused an event that changed the course of his life (even in the simplest way). this wasn’t possible, though, because his RSS aggregator led him to a wrong conclusion.

we suffer and benefit from our reliance on digital proxies. we suffer for their inaccuracies; we suffer because we can’t always interpret what they’re saying; we suffer for the laziness they engender. at the same time, they enable communication and interaction that wouldn’t otherwise be possible; we are richer because of them.

whether or not someone reads my blog is a small, immaterial thing. how many of these small things does it take, though, to have broader social consequences? after all, great events may shape the world, but not without the million small events that make them.

where do we go from here?

we create the proxies; this isn’t the matrix and there’s no malevolent AI running around trying to do us in through addiction to technology. we are the ones actively mediating our experience. maybe we do it because the benefits seem to outweigh the costs; maybe it’s just a matter of laziness. in either case, it seems we would be wise to really think about what we’re doing, because at some point, the costs will be too high, and there will be no going back.

the wonderful world of blog syndication

a synopsis of syndication
syndication is a method of providing content on a periodic basis to a set of interested readers (or other content providers, who subsequently redistribute). this is usually done with news, but it translates quite nicely to other things. the application of syndication to blogs is simple — anybody can "subscribe" to this blog and get quick access to all the latest headlines (and maybe more).

how syndication is done with blogs
any syndicated blog provides one or more feeds. each feed is really just a Web link to a text file that contains various information about the blog in question (latest headlines, excerpts, author, etc.). every time the blog gets updated, so does the feed. all you need is the address (URL) of the feed, and something that knows how to read the feed, and you’re in business, reading blog headlines and digesting the blogosphere like so much digital chicken.

really simple, right? that’s why the most popular data format for feeds is called RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication, among other things). a few different formats exist (each with benefits and drawbacks); by the way people argue about this stuff, you’d think they were talking about religion. developers regularly get pissy about RSS 0.93 vs. RSS 1.0 vs. RSS 2.0 vs. Atom vs. snerd feebler’s really cool syndication format (SFRCSF). you can safely ignore this discussion for the most part (i do; i’m hoping the people smarter than me eventually sort it out and then share their wisdom quietly in the form of stuff that just works).

why bother? who cares?
syndication and feeds make it easy to cover a lot of ground on the web. if you subscribe to 100 feeds (from 100 Web sites), you can pretty easily scan the headlines from all of those sites in 10-15 minutes, depending on how much they publish (this doesn’t include any time you might spend reading complete articles you find along the way). so, getting lots of content is one benefit (although cable TV is a clear counterexample to the more–is–better way of thinking). the other nice thing about syndication is that (at this point) it contains no advertising; it also doesn’t require you to share your email address to get the syndicated content (it’s a pull technology, where you grab what you want, rather than a push technology, where content is pushed to you via email, for example).

technobabble about dead feeds

you’d think that this problem of dead feeds wouldn’t be a big deal. we’re smart; why not build a better RSS mousetrap so that when a feed disppears, the feed reader figures out if it just moved, or if it’s actually dead? good question. there seem to be at least two technical problems:

problem 1: RSS auto-discovery is hard
it’s not easy to automagically figure out what the feed is for any given Web domain. in some cases, like yahoo! news, there’s more than one feed, which makes it pretty much impossible without human intervention to say which feed disappeared. as a result, if a feed disappears, there’s just no simple, automated way to look around its parent domain to see if it moved or if it’s indeed dead as a digital doornail. (jeremy zawodny has a good summary of RSS auto-discovery issues ).

problem 2: if you move your feed, telling everyone is hard
with a Web site, it’s easy to put up the digital equivalent of a "We’ve moved!" sign. i wasn’t able to locate a universal method for doing this for an RSS feed (read this discussion on feed redirection to see just how nuts this whole thing gets).

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One thought on “death by digital proxy

  1. Tony

    What would be useful for aggregators is to be able to at least tell me the feed is dead. At least I can go poking around for some electronic hand waving ‘hey i’m over here’. Right now I have what, 500 feeds in bloglines. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many are dead or simply haven’t been posted to in 3 months. Maybe that’s the answer. Have the aggregator at least tip you off that a post hasn’t been fed in some time period.
    The other comment of yours that was interesting is that since I got zero feeds from you, we didn’t interact/chat/email. I guess I never viewed blogs as a way to have those late night 3am philosophical discussions when you were in college and either drunk or hopped up on caffeine. But that effectively is what ‘small time’ blogs that our friends run provide.


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