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Threaded RSS feeds
by Eric Armstrong
December 29, 2004
Summary
RSS feeds are great for news feeds. They're ALMOST great for online support forums and other ongoing dialogs. This post presents a wishlist of needed features, and points to recent developments in that space.

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I'm noticing a serious need for threaded RSS feeds.

I recently started using CityDesk to generate news feeds (a blog, to technocrats) at my politics-and-health site, Citizens' Advisory. Being me, I needed a fair amount of help, and I generated a ton of feedback. After a while, the folks at the other end of the email connection began suggesting I use the forum.

That was a good idea, of course, because it meant that the information we were generating in our message exchanges became available to all. But I've always disliked forums, because I never know when an answer has been given to a question I asked -- so I have to continually remember to check back--and I suspect that the answer sometimes arrives long after I've given up.

So I was really glad when I found that the CityDesk forums were generating an RSS feed. (They did that by implementing the forum using FogBugz, a bug-tracking system created by the same company.)

Having an RSS feed on the forum would make things really easy to track, I thought. But:

For a slashdot forum, of course, that's mostly fine. You're only interested in what's there when you visit. But there might be some issues you want to follow. In that case, it would be nice to be informed when a reply arrives.

Similarly, when you post a question to a support forum, you're interested in knowing when new comments arrive. And when I post a message in a blog like this, I'd sure like my RSS aggregator to monitor the feed for comments, instead of having to do it manually!

That's one issue. The other is that when I post a message in a forum, I can't edit it to fix typos and the like. For example, I wrote "that's helpful" in one, when I meant "that's not helpful". That doesn't help!

So it seems to me that a forum-aggregator needs to be an authoring tool, as well. And it should be able to log on to a forum in way that establishes a two-way communication.

Then:

  1. New forum topics always show up in the aggregator.
  2. If you elect to "watch" a topic, replies are broken out as separate, threaded messages in the topic tree. (If not, replies remain hidden, as they are now, until you visit the topic.)
  3. When you edit a post you've made, either you still have a copy locally, with an identifier the server sent you upon receipt, or you get it back from forum server. Either way, when you send it to the forum, your updated version replaces the original, in the same way that an updated blog post replaces the original blog entry.

Interestingly, there does appear to be some work in this area. I found out about the Atom project from a Blue Oxen post by Danny Ayers. It turns out that Tim Bray is involved in that project, as well. Here are his comments, in The Atom End-Game.

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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 © 2004 Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.

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