Insomnia (insomnia) wrote,
Insomnia
insomnia

RSS vs. Echo -- A Usercentric View

Most of you know what RSS is by now... and that's a good thing. Lots of people have found all sorts of great ways to use it, too.

The difficult part of RSS, however, is personality. People use it in all sorts of different ways, but Dave, the guy who has been the de facto gatekeeper on the RSS spec, got a bit miffed recently and referred to someone's use of it as "funky RSS". This caused a shit storm, in part because Dave could have handled it better and in no small part because some people have a problem dealing with Dave.

Now Dave is Dave. Like many who have an abnormal obsession over code and protocols and geekery, he's not always tactful. However, he also has a track record of being at least half-right. Dave can be gruff, abrasive, stress-inducing, and even worse, though he's trying to work on it, in no small part because he's become a lot more aware of his own mortality lately and is aware that stress and anger isn't a good way to live. He's human, and therefore a work in progress -- mind the hanging ductwork and loose wiring.

Well, as a response to what is essentially a personality issue, several people who disagreed with Dave regarding RSS have been working on creating a new protocol for syndication, tentatively called Echo. They claim that since the protocol is being designed from scratch specifically to address all sorts of blog-oriented needs, that it will be better.

But what is being overlooked is all the work that has been done on RSS... primarily by people who have set themselves up to use RSS, or created RSS feeds, or installed newsreaders, or coded small applications, or designed websites, etc. The work required to make a standard is *nothing* compared to the amount of effort that people have spent to make what we already have work (albeit in a somewhat cobbled-together fashion, as is standard with the Internet).

So, who are the people behind Echo? Well, IBM is essentially paying one of their people to do the work on it. Google will be paying their people to implement it, and Evan Williams, who created Blogger which is now owned by Google, says that with Echo, not only will they stop using RSS, but that the designers of Echo have made a collective decision to not be backwards compatible.

Let's ask the question now, rather than wait until later and find out we were screwed... What is the official mechanism for making decisions for Echo? Who gets a vote? Is it just open to "designers", presumably meaning developer representitives from various software companies? If we, the users, don't like the decisions that these people are making, can we vote to overrule them? When were these decisions made anyway? Doesn't sound like a very "open" open standard to me...

Apparently Brad (founder of LJ) has signed on to the idea of supporting Echo... but I would hope he'd disagree with the idea that backwards compatibility should be sacrificed for the sake of a new protocol that nobody has adopted yet. It seems clear that those people calling the shots for Echo aren't trying merely to create a better alternative to RSS, but are actively seeking to promote a policy of getting rid of RSS entirely.

Are they aware of how much work they're throwing away, and how many people they will inconvenience in the name of dubious progress?! Sure, progress needs to be made in web-based syndication to allow for more interoperability between weblogging applications, but have they noted just how much progress has been made in the use of RSS in just the last year? There are all sorts of new ways that people are using RSS. Why try to remake the wheel, especially if that means throwing out everything that has been created already?

What's worse, the people behind Echo seem to be interested in making this work as a companion to SOAP, and Microsoft pretty much calls the shots on SOAP nowadays. Why make syndication dependent on something that the users have no control over and which makes the technology even more out of reach of the average person? Sure, I can see how this could help Google or IBM or Microsoft, but what about us? This does not bode well.

Frankly, it seems ludicrous for Evan Williams to even talk about moving away from RSS, when he hasn't even seriously moved Bloogle/Gogger users towards it in the first place. Unlike LiveJournal and other weblog-oriented applications, Blogger doesn't make the importation of exportation of RSS a standard feature, which means that only a fraction of their users have RSS feeds, with many who do using 3rd party tools in order to generate their feeds. Mr. Williams only seems willing to support syndication when it serves Gabloogle's business goals -- he has yet to recognize that the true value of RSS is when *everyone* has a feed, and does not view interconnectivity as something that users should expect, but as yet another feature he can charge for.

I cannot see why anyone would think that losing backwards compatibility or forking syndication methods is anything other than something to be pursued as a last resort and with great trepidation. There should be a helluva lot more concern out there as to whether it is a good thing to turn over control of web-based syndication standards to IBM, Google, Microsoft, etc. If Echo has something valuable to offer some day, then it can do so in a manner that doesn't invalidate what is already out there. "Embrace the power of AND."

Some would end this argument by saying "better the devil you know than the devil you don't"... and while that is a valid argument, we all know that it is far from the best of both worlds. Having just Dave (or just anyone else, for that matter) decide the future of web-based syndication is A BAD THING. Maybe not "let's have IBM and Google and Microsoft decide" bad, mind you... but still bad. The status quo still sets one person up, at best, as an overworked, harried benevolent dictator.

I have another suggestion. I emailed Dave and suggested that he consider the idea of working with others involved in the RSS community to set up a board that works together to make decisions regarding RSS. And you know what? He thanked me for my email and was very interested in this idea. In fact, he has been thinking along similar lines for quite some time. We both agree that such a board should involve the little guys... educators, independent developers, open source advocates, users, etc. He just doesn't want it to be an avenue for a powergrab by businesses and by some detractors within the RSS community.

I have been critical of Dave in the past, but this isn't about Dave. Sure, we have our differences, but what is needed now isn't a discussion between Dave and myself, but a larger one on how RSS can move forward into the future, serving the needs of its users and providing progress, openness, and usefulness for everyone. RSS should go down this route no matter what Echo does... and it should ultimately be up to the people to decide whether they want to use RSS, Echo, or both.

There needs to be a very large, very open conversation that is not led (or derailed...) by partisan forces. Echo, by cutting both Dave and the ordinary people who use RSS on a daily basis out of the picture, is no substitute for that conversation.

Ultimately, I'm not against Echo, nor am I for Dave. I'm *for* the users. That means I'm for RSS because -- unlike Dave or Evan or Ben or Mena or anyone else who might be involved in making decisions regarding syndication -- RSS helps me every day. If some developers are foolish enough to start killing backwards compatibility and taking features away from their users... Fine. I can use somebody else's tools instead. I was generating and reading RSS feeds long before weblog tools started adding RSS support, and I can continue to do so, even if weblog tools take away that support, just because that is just how accessable RSS is. You can do it too.

As a user, I don't want to see hundreds of thousands of people inconvenienced with incompatible "open standards" for the sake of ego or control games. I don't want two tools for reading syndicated feeds, either. I want one tool and one standard that works for me, today. RSS works. There are over a million RSS feeds worldwide, and more ways to use RSS every day. Given that there is an existing, valuable standard for web-based syndication already in place, I, for one, won't be silent if big developers start screwing with that, nor do I think anyone else should tolerate it either.

On behalf of the users, I say "ENOUGH!" It's time for a discussion that isn't dominated by a cabal of developers, but is counterbalanced by ordinary people who care about the technology, who want to use it, and who ultimately created it.

*WE*, the users, created web-based syndication. We created it with our attention spans and our HTML and our clicks and our configuration screens and our scraped feeds and our code -- it's working nicely, thanks -- and while we'd like to see some things simplified, fixed, and improved upon, we don't want to see anyone fuck it up or sell us out, thankyouverymuch.

So, where's *OUR* seat at the table?

***Note: For those from outside of LiveJournalland who are 'just visiting'... hello. Feel free to leave an "anonymous" comment, but be sure to sign your post with a name and email address so that I can verify the source before it goes public***
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