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What's Wrong with Weblogs?
by Eric Armstrong
April 3, 2006
Summary
Weblogs are terrific for fast authoring. But aggregators are missing some very important features to make them useful--and the RSS standard needs to support those features.

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I was thinking about putting Ruby snippets into my weblog. The plan was to use that for a snippet repository, instead of email. (In my email client, I have a HowTo folder with subfolders for different technologies. I typically write a draft message to record snippets and the like, and then drag it to the subfolder for that technology. Later I can view the message headers to find the tip I want, or do a search when the folders get big.)

That's when it struck me--the problem with weblog aggregators is that I can't easily save a message! That problem is /almost/ solved with a web-based agreggator like BlogLines. IF a weblog has a permalink (a URL that goes to the post, rather than to the weblog, so you can get to that post again later)--THEN I can visit that link, and THEN I can drag that link to a bookmarks folder, which I will happily create for the purpose.

So right away, we can see several limitations:

  1. I need to be using a Web-based aggregator, so my bookmark-folders are nearby.
  2. The post has to include a permalink.
  3. I've got to visit the permalink before I can copy the bookmark--that's a two step operation that, in email, is only a single step.

The thing is, if a weblog is interesting enough to follow, then a significant percentage of its articles are probably things I want to save. So that operation should be one of the easiest things I can do in an aggregator.

So now I know how an aggregator should behave, ideally:

  1. I get all my unread weblogs in one list, like email. (Many aggregators can do that.)

  2. When I move off of a post, it automatically disappears from the unread list. That's more convenient that email. For a while, it remains in the "current posts" area for that weblog. There should also be a "recent posts" button I can use see stuff I've already read, in case I don't recall where to look for it. But in general, stuff I've scanned should disappear on its own.

  3. When I see one I want to keep, there is a SAVE button that's easy to click. That saves the permalink to the appropriate folder. That functionality would be even easier than email, because I don't have to drag the message.

    BUT: To do that, the aggregator has to know how to find the permalink, every post has to have one, and the aggregator has to know about it.

  4. Since a bookmark is just a pointer to a page, it should also be possible to save the bookmark in multiple categories. Dragging the bookmark to a folder could copy the link, for example, without removing it from the list. That would make it easy to file a post under multiple categories without having to Ctrl+Click to do it, as with email.

The bottom line is that if I'm interested enough to keep following a weblog, there are going to be posts I'd like to save. Permalinks are a step in the right direction, but they need to be near-ubiquitous and aggregators need to be able to get them.

Note: I'm so far out of the loop on RSS technologies, it should be a criminal offense. So if anyone knows of any new developments in this area, by all means let me know.

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About the Blogger

Eric Armstrong has been programming and writing professionally since before there were personal computers. His production experience includes artificial intelligence (AI) programs, system libraries, real-time programs, and business applications in a variety of languages. He works as a writer and software consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote The JBuilder2 Bible and authored the Java/XML programming tutorial available at http://java.sun.com. Eric is also involved in efforts to design knowledge-based collaboration systems.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2006 Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.

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