Sunday, December 31, 2006

Speaking of Aggregators...

Online blog aggregators need an easy to use function that can allow syndicated blogs to control which entries are published on them. I'm not a programmer, and am thus only aware of the complications of creating such a feature as pull-blocking on the most basic of levels. I haven't even taken the time to see if this idea is already being used. What I do know is that I have not seen the following idea as a feature in blogger.com or on the aggregators I've fiddled with, and believe it should be the next step in the evolution of blogging.

The basic problem I've found with online aggregators is simply that they are normally formed around a theme while most blogs are actually quite eclectic. As a result, two problematic groups tend to accumulate. The first are such eclectic bloggers that do join themed aggregators and thus clutter them with numerous entries that are not relative to their themes alongside those that are. The other group is made of those more prudent bloggers that restrain from sharing the irrelevant with the relevant, and as a result miss out on the benefits of the aggregator.

Recently I found myself in the predicament of the latter when my blog became focused on the Marshall-Newman amendment. (As my last entry discussed, politics had not and probably will not be the norm on my blog.) With my arguments against the amendment restrained to the locally eclectic Charlottesville Blogs aggregator as opposed to one purely focused on politics, my chances of reaching people outside my choir were limited. Maintaining multiple specialized blogs is one alternative that many blogger use. However it is not always practical for the more casual blogger. Inactivity can result in diminished traffic, and since traffic is usually desired, the effort to maintain two or more blogs can result in unfavorable ratios of quantity to quality. Another risk in biting off more than one can chew is that in trying to maintain the more formal blog(s) the initial and more casual blog might be put to the wayside, along with a great deal of whatever enjoyment engaged the person to blog in the first place.

By having a function to select which articles appear on an aggregator, more people would potentially be able to use it while maintaining the central focus of the aggregator. It could also hypothetically allow members to self editorialize. So that they might state a well established position personally without contributing to a saturation of one topic on an aggregator (a rather exceptional act of consideration and humility I doubt any of us would actually partake in).

Perhaps most relevant (though in no notably direct way applicable) to the recent uproar in Virginia political blogging: It would allow bloggers to compose pieces with content that is not permitted on an aggregator. The degree of value in this depends greatly on your use of aggregators. In my case, I seldom read them. More precisely, I peruse them in order to find blogs outside of the circles I frequent. When an article on an aggregator catches my eye, I follow the link back to the original blog, look over its recent articles and if not thrown off I revisit it until I decide it's worth linking to so that I check it routinely. To me, aggregators are a means to advertise new and old blogs outside my spectrum with not necessarily like-minded or opposing ideas, but well argued, intelligent and above all interesting ones. With this reasoning, having material available on an aggregator through abiding its terms of use can potentially draw people back to your blog other material that they may not otherwise read. In this way, a blog can interact with other blogs without compromising its martial or the standards of the aggregator. To give a less heated example than current events, consider for a moment an aggregator for articles focused not on the differences of parties but on common issues. With such an aggregator, theoretically, blogs could maintain their articles dealing with squabbles between parties and submit only their input on things both sides would benefit from resolving collaboratively. It could be as much a means to consensually maintain a formal tone without surpassing free speech as a restriction of content beyond the parameters of your intellectual property.

Were such a feature as syndication with pull-blocking to become popular, I see a few interesting and at times troublesome possibilities arising. One benefit of this would be the increased interactivity of syndicated blogs and their online aggregators, giving them qualities similar to group blogs while operating on potential scales that would be impossible to maintain in that format. It would be interesting to see the effect such a feature would have on the culture of the blogsphere and particularly the aggregated body. Would themed aggregators find complete pull-blocking of indirect entries? If not to what degree would it be enforced? It could be argued by those that rely more on aggregators as the kind of customized newspapers (that they were initiated as) that by removing the more personal or otherwise indirect entries, one loses that human touch that is often so badly needed in aggregators themes such as politics to keep both sides from concluding that the other is made up of crazy evil backwoods ghetto ninja gremlins (from Mars). Where best to draw those lines and enforce them?

To further complicate things, if bloggers can control what is and is not pulled, there could be some issues with misrepresentation. A blogger could permit several entries of an alluring nature while blocking the pulling of entries that are intentionally shocking in some sense for people following the aggregator link to find. To add insult to injury, these shock entries would likely reveal heavy sarcasm in the baited syndications (e.g. a series of articles proclaiming zealous devotion to a faith or idol that lure back to a blog full of images of desecration towards the same idol). However, for such a prank syndication scheme like this vermiblogging (after the vermiform tongue alligator snapping turtles use to catch fish) to occur on any scale beyond typical online trolling mischief would require either a fairly elaborate setup or complete negligence on the part of the person running the aggregator. It should also be realized that were sexual predators to apply similar techniques to lure adolescents, it would in all likelihood only aid in their apprehension. Ultimately the real problem will be the accusation of vermiblogging. The degree of validity in a claim could be tricky to prove and the potential for abuse by all parties involved very real. Which would be discouraging to say the least in that it would recreate the problem I'm suggesting that pull-blocking could help resolve on an all new level. Still, with a good up-front policy most sticky situations could be avoided.

Overall I think it's where things ought to go. The benefits our obvious and the detractions tend to lean more towards worst-case scenarios. I've repeatedly referred to political aggregators in this because they are the most topical right now, and due to the present (though settling) state of unrest the presence of such a feature might prove fundamental in the reshaping of the blogsphere. However the same could be used in any number of different aggregator forums were they to be fully realized as the solution to this blogging movement that is growing at a rate that is quickly becoming intimidating for the average meatspacer to approach. We've never seen a world where so many people have a voice such as they do right now thanks to the web. With the rapid growth of blogs, the question of what to read becomes more and more common. With political blogs easily exceeding a hundred in Virginia alone, on any day a reader looking to take in as many perspectives as possible could be potentially faced with a novella's worth of pages of information to sift through. That's Virginia alone. What if you wanted a more collective national opinion? Or even an international view? Accessibility and easy to maneuver routs through this cacophony are essential. Aggregators seem to be the best highway out there, and a pull-block feature seems the best way to improve upon them.

Update: Vivian J. Paige is currently testing a new feature from Wordpress that would make it even more difficult to lure people to a shocking picture. I really hope Blogger and other providers follow suit and that this technologey becomes availible outside Wordpress. As long as it doesn't make people more vulnerable to viruses, its applications for avoiding sites that are not worksafe alone make it one of the best ideas I've heard of in a while.

5 Comments:

Blogger Waldo Jaquith said...

Unfortunately, the feature of selective aggregator-posting would require a new feature in blogging software, rather than in aggregators. That feature already exists in WordPress and Movable Type (I can't about Blogger or any other software), which is the ability to selectively ping a server with any particular post. A simple plugin could turn that into a series of checkboxes that would allow a blogger to send a given post to one of any number of aggregators, just as we currently assign posts to a given subject or category within our own post.

Shared, web-based aggregators may not be common enough to merit the addition of such a feature. Should Blogger be able to support such a modification, though, your idea is one that could make aggregators all the more popular.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Vivian J. Paige said...

Waldo - what about an update to the RSS standard? Wouldn't that work as well? What I'm thinking here is the ability to mark a post as not being included in the feed. There has been some significant changes in the RSS standard as it has moved thru its various editions. (IIRC, the earlier versions only passed thru the headline of the post, then the first few lines. I think 2.0 added the ability to show the full post.)

The Wordpress.com hosted blogs don't have that selective pinging, BTW.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Tim McCormack said...

That would definitely be a blog-side feature -- perhaps a "do not syndicate" option for posts, so they would appear in the web pages but not in the feeds.

Blogs that support categories could simply offer up a per-category feed. For example, I could syndicate my software-related posts alone by giving a special URL to the aggregator.

12:15 AM  
Anonymous nobrainer said...

After searching a bit, I think I found the answer your looking for. Once you upgrade to the "new blogger" you can add labels to each post (e.g. politics, music, general).

Then you can have a feed based on each label. Each feed can then be fed to the right aggregators.

See blogger help here.

7:31 PM  
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3:01 AM  

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