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2015/01/26

Why I Am Ambivalent Toward Developing A News Aggregator Tool

I am involved with a project that combines Internet of Things and Quantified Self. Because I'm first and foremost a web/server guy, I'm joining in at the web/server level, and as the team is working on the hardware prototype, there isn't much for me to work with yet.

Because of this, and because the project leader is using the shotgun approach to find funding, including creating a news aggregator in the field the product will service. As we're OMG so pre-alpha right now, I'm not going to get too far into details about what we are and what we're doing, but I will engage the concept head on. (The project manager has received the full rant already.)

In the late 1990s, a standard for an XML format was developed called RSS. This can mean Really Simple Syndication, and in essence, if you put out a blog, it was an XML list of the last 10 or so posts. They added in payloads, pointing to the location of media files, and that, connected to the iPod, was the genesis and fundamental technology for podcasts.

Keeping track of the lists became a job of Aggregators, and another XML format called OPML was created to allow the transfer of collections of RSS feeds from one aggregator to another. These allowed you to find all the RSS feeds you want, group them into different subjects, and take in all the news you care to.

Then Google came in and created Google Reader, which is the best, most solid, most usable RSS aggregator mankind has ever known.

They closed it in July, 2013.

There are other aggregators -- I use Feedly -- but the excitement is largely past. Instead, now there are Curators: sites that find links other people put up about a topic, defined narrowly or broadly. Boing Boing is a curator site that's about "the weird, wonderful and wicked things to be found in technology and culture", which is essentially everything the curators of BB find interesting. More narrowly, there are sites like Slashdot ("News for Nerds"), LifeHacker (small changes you can make to supercharge your life), io9 (Science Fiction and how the modern world is like Science Fiction), Jalopnik (Cars), Ben Greenfield Fitness (exercise, diet and other things leading to fat loss, muscle gain and enhanced endurance), I Heart Guitar (guitars and amps and pedals, mostly gear-centered) and so on. Often, they have podcasts or vlogs associated, as well as written content.

The key here is these are curated: there are people who read all the sites and get all the news about a subject, filter and digest the results, and create content explaining the information involved in the link. They have writers, and the writers have interests and opinions and color. I Heart Guitar and Stratoblogster cover different things because I Heart Guitar and Stratoblogster have different personalities and interests.

Additionally, there's "deep and narrow" and domains of interest. I Heart Guitar is not going to tell you about the reissue of an obscure 70s folk-rock record, and Aquarium Drunkard is not going to tell you about the new mini Tube Screamer pedal, and neither is going to tell you about what Justin Bieber is doing this week. (I'm sure there's a curated site that'd tell you, but since I don't care about pop music, I'm not sure what it is.)

A site curated for music fans would contain announcements for upcoming tours and albums, and "lifestyle" interviews with entertainers. This is Rolling Stone. A site curated for musicians and people who want to be musicians would contain reviews of instruments and gear, instructional material about how to play songs and styles, and interviews with musicians and producers focused on how they play and who they listen to. Guitar Player, Guitar World, Acoustic Guitar, etc. You don't see questions about guitars, amps and string gauges in Rolling Stone, and you don't see interviews without them in Guitar World and Guitar Player.

So, for the domain-specific part to work, you need a sense of which corner of the audience you're going for, and you need someone, maybe a few someones, who spend a good fraction of their waking moments reading about it, digesting it, and creating content from it. I has to be a curator, not an aggregator. I will not spend more time than I have already creating "Like Feedly, but just for this!" I am not going to try to succeed where Google failed. Creating that is a waste of your time, of the audience's time, and finally of my time.

If you introduce me to that person, the person who will be spending 40+ hours a week learning everything there is about the topic and creating copious amounts of content, from text to images to maybe video, I'd be glad to help you stand up a WordPress site and enable that person to be the Cory Doctorow of his field. For an hourly rate.

But I cannot work on that AND work on our IoT/QS project.

I can work on that OR our project.

I'd much rather work on our project.