Broken RSS, and a Comment About Blog Comments

Originally posted as a comment on Brian Kelly’s Is It Too Late To Exploit RSS In Repositories?:

I used to advocate the adoption of RSS a lot, and came across some of the problems you mention repeatedly, such as the inability to consume certain pages in off-the-shelf feed consuming apps.

Many of the problems resulted from non-standard character encodings, or incorrectly encoded item.description text. Links/URLs were occasionally missing or pointless (e.g. pointing to the root domain from which the feed was served, rather than anything relating to the particular feed item). Generating sensible URLs for feed items could also turn up issues with the way pages were served, eg on sites where session variables or other arbitrary keys were required.

The reason the problems were allowed to slip through was because of the context in which the feeds were published. Eg request goes in for ‘we need a feed’; developer adds feed, runs it through validator, job done.

But the job isn’t done, just as the job isn’t done when a someone publishes a public/open data set but doesn’t do anything more than that, or someone publishes an OER and considers that now it’s public, it’s useful.

I spend way too much of my time trying to glue things together, and finding more often than not that they don’t play nice. For example, Guardian datastore data often falls just short of being easily combined with other data sets, even other Guardian datastore published datasets, though this is getting better all the time as workflows are tweaked ever so slightly…

One possible solution, where things are published /with the intentions that others re* them/ is for the publisher to demonstrate a simple remix or combination with at least one other information source.

If you publish an RSS feed, demonstrate one or two off-the-shelf ways of consuming it. This is what any user is likely to try first, so save them the grief of finding out it doesnlt work by making sure it does.

When releasing data, if you’re publishing data relating to countries, for example, see if you can use one of the many services for generating map mashups to map the data. IF you can’t, what is it in or missing from your data that’s making it hard to do.

If you’re publishing an OER, big or little, /how/ might you see it being remixed/reused with other OERs. If your content includes lots of diagrams, how easy is it for someone else to reuse that image (with attribution and in compliance with any other license requirements) in their own presentation. If they want to embed it in a blog post (generating not only more views of the content, but also trackable data that you can measure) just try giving a few examples of embedded use. If it’s hard for use as publisher to do the baby steps, why should anyone else bother? (Saying you’re publishing something because you don’t know how other people will use it is not the issue… if it’s hard to do the easy stuff, very few people will bother. The publisher needs to demonstrate the easy stuff, and see it as a way of getting a couple of pragmatic tests implemented as well as a quick tutorial in getting started with re*ing the warez.

PS one of the things I’m considering doing more next year is comment on other people’s posts directly. The danger with taking such an approach is that those responses get lost (i.e. I can’t easily search for them, and as the major user of this blog as personal notebook, searching over things I’ve previously written is an important feature). Of course, I could blog a response to other peoples’ posts, but this fractures the conversation somewhat. I also know from experience that whilst folk may read comments on a blog post, they may not always click through on trackbacked links, if such links exist.

So, I’m considering adding a new category to this blog – CommentedElsewhere – that captures the longer comments as reposts here, with a link back to the original comment, and the original context. Good plan, or not? Will it just make even harder to follow? Should I set-up a separate ‘OUsefulComments” blog, repost substantial comments there and then maybe draw a feed into the sidebar here? Your comments would be appreciated…:-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

11 thoughts on “Broken RSS, and a Comment About Blog Comments”

  1. Hi Tony
    Thanks for the comment on my blog :-)
    In a recent evaluation of my blog (see one person asked “How often do you comment on other blogs? Is it an important part of your practise?”.

    This made be realise that I should be commenting more on other people’s blogs. I tend to read blogs on my iPod Touch whilst travelling which makes commenting not as easy as it should he. However I realise that I should do more of this. I decided to respond to a post from @jennifermjones – and have just realised how difficult it was to find the post. It wasn’t on
    I subsequently found it was on her Posterous blog at:

    I agree with you that there will probably be a need to create a link in one’s own environment to such comments.

  2. Hi Tony

    I like the idea of ‘commented elsewhere’ as a category. I came across this post in my reader and may not have found your comment via the UK Web Focus blog if I was skimming through my feeds.

    Really like your comments about demonstrating a way of consuming/using a feed that you might produce. I too advocate the use of RSS in my University and would like to go behind simply promoting its use for staying-up-to-date. Very pleased that feeds will now import into our VLE and will be thinking of ways to demonstrate how they may be used.

    Many thanks

  3. It’s murky waters there. I still hold on to the belief that it is vital to the blogosphere (if such a thing exists) for us to take the time to comment in other people’s spaces. May I just extrapolate my oen experience, but there is a world of different between a post a labor over that gets no comments and another one that gets a comment. It creates the virtuous cycle for the ecosystem.

    My strategy is to consider the extent of the comment. If it is less than say 3 paragraphs, and more or less a reaction, I post it to the other blog. If I am adding new original thought or it extends for multi paragraphs, I then consider either doing as my own blog post with a link to the original, or maybe copy/pasting the comment as you have done here. For the original author, if pingbacks work (which is a huge question), they get a nod that someone connected to their work.

    Or you do the bit where you do the longer bit on your site, and leave a teaser comment on the original with a link to your extended response.

    I can appreciate the desire to track your writings eleswhere. I always liked using this 2003 post by Matthew Kirschenbaum on someone who was a Comment Blogger ( Francois Lachance did not publish to his own space, but spread his writing diffused in the comment space of other blogs, and found his thoughts via Google (maybe not 100% archived).

    So one approach might be to come up with a unique character string you could include in every comment, and a google search combined with your name might pull many of them in? Like a PCID (Personal Comment ID) ;-)

    Or, if you remembered to do it every time, you could bookmark the permalink to every comment you make elsewhere in… er… well a social bookmarking service that will be around a while, and then use an RSS feed from that service back to your blog.

    Actually your idea of a tag or category would seem to work easily. You would have to of course copy paste your comments, so tis like writing it twice, or use some bookmarklet tool (PressThis?) to republish a comment from one site into your own blog.

    It’s an interesting idea to track your comments. I do not have faith in any tool to do this, I’ve tried a few of them over the years, and they are either clumsy or dont work comprehensively.

    I bet a Mad Genius could cook up a crazy python pipe sql spreadsheet feed flow visualization…

    1. Hi Helen – interesting to hear how you came across the comment; does it “pollute” the blog though? One thing I do with the RSS feed from this blog is mix in a feed from a “feedthru” tag on delicious, so folk can either subscribe to a vanilla blog feed or one that includes occasional bookmarked links. Maybe that full fat feed should include not only the /feedthru/ bookmarks but also a feed from a comment blog elsewhere? That way, folk could subscribe either to just the blog, or the augmented feed?

      Alan/@cogdog – the idea of a tease comment is interesting. Sometimes I do leave comments that link back to a post or, either a legacy one or one written as a response to a post. I think part of my concern was trying to engage in conversation, or at a least an aggregated reading built around a post, most effectively. I suspect that most bloggers read the comments made on their posts, but then I suspect the readership of comments is fraction of the readership of the post itself, and the folk who click through to trackbacked remote comments/posts elsewhere is an even smaller fraction? Comments often serve a different purpose to actual posts I suspect, though I haven’t tried to come up with a classification of how they might differ?!;-)
      There are a couple of reasons for republishing a comment as a post that come to mind: one is reach (e.g. I know there is an overlap of readers of my blog and Brian’s, but I also have readers who I suspect don’t follow Brian but may be interested in the topic, and I also suspect there may be joint readers who don’t read comments, e.g. because they read posts solely through a feed reader who may actually be interested in seeing how the ideas mentioned in the original post might be developed.). A second reason is discoverability in order to reuse by linking, quotation or further elaboration (and hence, back-referencing) stuff I posted somewhere. One of the ways i search for content that I have authored is to search Google for “ouseful search phrase”; another is to use my OUseful custom search engine, that is limited to properties I contribute to; and a third way is to search the wordpress site directly. (Interestingly, I tend /not/ to search google using the or limits…Not sure why…)
      Sort of related to commenting is also the posts I write as author on a guest blog, e.g. occasional postings to the onlinejournalism team blog, or wheredoesmymoneygo, or the Arcadia project blog(s). My onlinejournalism blog contributions are actually authored here and then added to a category whose feed is republished by the online journalism blog (radical syndication ftw!;-) My Arcadia and WDMMG posts are posted on those sites. I try to remember to tag those posts “byme” or similar on delicious, and then add them to my aggregated syndication feed; the feedthru bookmark feed from delicious also appears in the blog sidebar.
      As far as copying and pasting go, maybe that would be a use for posterous/tumblr, which I don’t use at the moment?

  4. @Alan – I really hope that that mad genius does manage to do something, because for a non-tech like myself, it is outrageously difficult to keep up with the variety of dialogs I am having in a variety of ‘spaces’.
    There is more to this than simply the convenience of it.
    So many interesting dialogs start and then fade out, making it harder to want to contribute more than a few lines the next time. Just when a ‘conversation’ is really getting good, it disappears (a lot of the time because I don’t have a half decent bookmarking strategy). Believe it or not, I was just about to sign up to Delicious (I notice that I can still do this by creating a Yahoo account…).
    Interoperability is the bugbear of my life.
    As an architect, the ‘new’ way of producing the vast amount of data required to build a building is using Building Information Modelling – a database of objects that can be read in a variety of ways, from plans to multi-D virtual models. The problem is that each specialist wishes to use their own data formats. Interoperable formats are available but in some cases, the only common language is the fact that ultimately it’s all made up of 1s and 0s (sometimes I think some of them use bits of cake and pieces of putty, though).
    Yes, it’s great that I can generate a building geometry using Google Docs to create a CSV file that feeds my model parameters, and yes it is also great that I can use Google Earth to locate my building, creating a temporal geo-location that immediately models the sun path and solar model.
    But sometimes, I just want to add in a light switch that I don’t have to re-model because someone couldn’t be bothered with the meta-data, or that is in a format that isn’t the proprietary one I am using.
    So, YES, anything that can help bring information together the way that people want it to is definitely A Good Thing.
    Here’s what I really want (and I nearly thought I had it with OneNote – yes, OneNote). I want an interface that is a big bit of blank screen. When I drag stuff onto the big screen, I want it to be what I grabbed with all the other good stuff that goes with it – context, meta data, RSS, any XML there might be (including links to several sites that can do funky things with it), node links in 217 dimensions (from social to academic), a regular context sniffer that suggests what I might also like and a cowboy context sniffer that suggests stuff I won’t like.
    THEN I want the big bit of blank screen to have a z direction that is controlled by whatever I think it should be. The z direction isn’t flat either – I want to be able to make it any shape I want (e.g. so I can track a timeline using lumps that are further in the past, or to manipulate the proximity of disparate objects that are linked by things I didn’t think linked them.
    In the meantime, I’ll just use the Notify check box (which I keep forgetting to do) – which reminds me, should really check all the other posts here…think there’s a few I haven’t been keeping up to date with…

  5. This post and comments got me over the final hurdle of tracking my comments thanks.
    I use delicious. I have an AppleScript that posts the current page to delicious via a keyboard shortcut (control-alt-cmd-c), giving the tag @comment and making it private. The privacy is not to keep things secret just to separate them from the rest of my bookmarks.
    Now, since I read this, I am just pushing my comments to my blog via the delicious RSS feed. (I’ve signed up with pinboard in case delicious goes west, pinboard supports the delicious API).

    1. @john Interesting:-) i was pondering bookmarked comments a little more and thinking that when they are made on a wordpress blog I should be able to grab the actual comment from the comments feed?

  6. Idle thoughts that may or may not help:

    I like the idea of keeping control of my content – so gathering comments together in one place makes sense to me.
    If you post the comment in your own space (whether on OUseful or OUsefulComments) then other blogs should pick up by trackback. As you point out, this doesn’t always happen – but it wouldn’t be difficult to have a script (e.g. WordPress plugin) that checks if your comment is now linked from the original post, and if not alert you to the fact (in theory I like the idea of auto posting a copy of the comment directly on the blog if a trackback isn’t picked up, but in practice I guess this would fall foul of spam traps (e.g. captcha).
    Bringing together disaggregated conversations – it feels like crawling/indexing is the way you would have to go – how about autogenerating Google CSEs, or some other way of indexing all the linked sites starting from each of your comment entries as a base? Again something that could be scripted?

  7. Hi Tony I like the idea of ‘commented elsewhere’ as a category. I came across this post in my reader and may not have found your comment via the UK Web Focus blog if I was skimming through my feeds. Really like your comments about demonstrating a way of consuming/using a feed that you might produce. I too advocate the use of RSS in my University and would like to go behind simply promoting its use for staying-up-to-date. Very pleased that feeds will now import into our VLE and will be thinking of ways to demonstrate how they may be used. Many thanks Helen

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