Notes from Dave Winer’s Session at RSS Winterfest

Published: 01/24/04

On Wednesday, January 21, 2004, I joined Dave Winer, Rick Heller, and Jim Moore at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society for Dave’s talk about RSS during the RSS Winterfest conference. Below are my notes from that session. A transcript of the talk and more materials are available on the wiki for this session.

Dave Winer is the founder of UserLand software and is called the “father of RSS.”

The utility of RSS is what many people don’t realize. Many people focus on the technicalities of it: whether you’re using RDF or namespace or something like that instead of focusing on what it can do. Aggregators are magic.

“What would a presidential campaign that is completely RSS enabled look like?”

There’s a window of time when we can do incredible things. Time in a presidential campaign is compressed more so than in the real world. There’s no business plan. Nothing like that.

There are next steps. It’s a struggle for this community to accept that there are users in this space and that we would all gain if we could make it easier for them to participate, use the technology. Protocols, what do users want from RSS. They want it to be easier. They want more. Today, we are in the early adopter phase of RSS. Everyone who’s a user is also an evangelizer. We’re leaving the layer that’s defined by what the geeks can accomplish and moving into the layer where people who have a vested interest will take over. Competitive advantage to better information flow. While giving them want they want isn’t a technical challenge, it’s difficult to really listen to what they’re saying and strive to really understand it and give them what they’re looking for.

Dave wants the focus of the conference to be on the use of RSS. The technology is fascinating, but the challenges in front of RSS aren’t technological challenges. Users won’t say “We want a better spec for RSS.” They’ll say, “We want it to work better.”

RSS has a certain syntax, regularity.

Dave thinks the RSS spec isn’t going anywhere. It basically is what it is and it isn’t going anywhere. He sees a large installed base developing around that format and people not being concerned with the specs and such.

What happens to campaign blogs after the election? Bob Graham’s blog is already gone.


Jeff Jarvis asked for examples of innovative uses for RSS.

After thinking for a moment, Dave responded by saying “Maybe innovation isn’t the right word, but value is.” What’s important is whether people are using RSS for valuable things, not necessarily innovative things.

  • Using robots to scrape RSS
  •–contains info specific to particular issues by searching thousands of blogs Posted on Scripting News

Someone posted a link to feeds for bargain shopping on the wiki for this session.

He doesn’t want to depend on the monoculture of the big media. He wants RSS to be a distribution point for many people, a decentralized communication system.

Usability is an issue: how can it become mainstream if it isn’t usable. Dave asks, “Does it have to go mainstream?” If RSS were to become mainstream, it has to become mainstream. He thinks it becomes a browser issue. (Over lunch, he explained that he doesn’t mean browsers should necessarily include an aggregator when he says that. He thinks browsers have the ability to make it easier for people to use RSS. He explained two ways that browsers can do this by helping people subscribe to things or by working with someone’s aggregator when they’re online to coordinate subscriptions.)

RSS has been around since 1999. There are things the browser could do to make it easy to use. If we had the source code to MSIE, we could solve the problem.

Rick, Jim, and I were introduced and then we had the opportunity to speak about our interest in RSS.

Rick, a volunteer with Wesley Clark’s campaign, talked about the Clarkbot, a script that searches a database of RSS feeds for mentions of Clark.

Jim, who works for the Dean campaign, talked about using feeds to learn about things happening in real time. He worked with Dave on Channel Dean. Though it’s biased towards Dean stuff, the technology has bigger applications. Jim wants it to be an open platform people can build on top of. Only if RSS is unbiased will people buy into it.

I said, though not as eloquently, that I’m interested in RSS on two levels: as a content creator (thinking of the Web sites and newspaper my office produces) and as a librarian looking to use it to inform myself and as a way for me to inform my clients.

Jim Moore: “You can create a public good, but not actually win in the end.”

Automation is a big thing with computers. RSS is basically easy Web surfing.

Is there going to be an agreement on what RSS stands for?
Netscape invented the term RSS with “site summary” as the SS. Dave thought “site summary” would be confusing. Dave calls it “Really Simple Syndication.” “They’re not really interesting names, let’s put it that way.”

If people have the power to set up their own feeds, does that take away the power of the media companies? What kind of reaction do you think media companies will have as people do this?

Dave answers: at what point do the publishing companies draw the line and say no more power to the users? If the professional reporters don’t cover the stories accurately ? If they want to be competitive, they have to do this. Competitive media companies should do this. It took Martin Nisenholtz of the New York Times a few days to make a decision about it. NYT is a leader in Web stuff. Dave thinks they moved pretty aggressively to do it.

Companies putting ads into RSS is dangerous. The medium is getting commercialized. It will get much more so in the future.

Is RSS like a smart librarian? Dave says it’s more like a dumb librarian or dumb programmer.

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