Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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The Feedback of RSS

Just when you think it’s safe to come out, I’ve got some new thoughts on RSS. Really it’s only one new thought:

RSS completes the loop.

In other words, the real power of RSS could be in the fact that it provides real time feedback on links. It completes the loop. It finally allows us to track inbound links just as easily as we create outbound ones.

But why does this matter?

Well, I started thinking about it today as I was reading Steven Johnson’s Emergence (I know, I know, I should be done with it by now). In a chapter called The Pattern Match, Johnson talks about just why he feels the web is so disorganized, specifically pointing to the uni-directional nature of links as the culprit. “All emergent systems are built out of [the] kind of feedback [where you influence your neighbors, and your neighbors influence you],” he explains. “The two-way connections that foster higher-level learning.”

We all know that up to this point the web has primarily been a one-way outlet. The shift were seeing (often referred to as the read/write web) is fostering two-way interactions by way of things like blogs. But my big point here is that read/write is much bigger than just comments and trackbacks. Read/write or feedback is about changing the very structure of how the internet works. (Man, the more I write this, the more I feel like someone’s gonna send me a link to something Richard McManus or Joshua Porter wrote two years ago that says the exact same thing.)

Anyway, Johnson goes onto explain in detail just what the effects of this one-way linking system are:

You can point to ten other sites from your home page, but there’s no way for those pages to know that you’re pointing to them, short of you taking the time to fire off an e-mail to their respective webmasters. Every page on the Web contains precise information about the other addresses it points to, and yet, by definition, no page on the web knows who’s point back. It’s a limitation that would be unimaginable in any of the other systems that we’ve looked at [ant colonies, cities, etc.].

Up to now, the best way for us to find out if people had linked to a site was to check the referral logs (dependant on people actually clicking through on a link) or conduct frequent and exhaustive searches (far from a perfect solution). RSS on the other hand, allows us to monitor the activity going on around us. I, for instance, have RSS search feeds on “noah brier” and “noahbrier.com” informing me anytime someone mentions my name or links to me. When a mention or link comes through the feed I check it. (What can I say? I like to read what other people have to say about me.) But I think this is much bigger than ego, I think it’s a possible beginning to a smarter web.

Basically, it’s a pretty safe bet that if someone linked to something I’ve written we share some similar interests (unless they’re bashing me, I guess . . . although even then, if they care enough to bash me we probably have some things in common). Once I read what they’ve written, I’ll often decide to read more. Often, if it’s a blog, I’ll end up subscribing and frequently reading their content. In time, I’ll end up linking back and a relationship will begin to form.

Now look at what happened there, the ability to track feedback eventually led to a relationship. Put a bunch of these relationships together and you’ve got a community: based around similar interests, all conversing separately, tracking feedback with the help of RSS. Rather than the traditional hub-and-spoke formation you would see when you visualize internet links, a balanced network appears, with links bouncing back and forth and all around.

It’s like lots of satellites conversing independently and it wouldn’t be possible without RSS.

(Just as a note, I got so excited that I didn’t finish the chapter. So if all this gets said in the next four pages of the book I’ll let you know.)

September 8, 2005