Is the RSS World Flat?
As does much of what Peter writes, this got me to thinking. If this is a real problem with online research — and I agree it is; many of my graduate student patrons at my library seem not to have learned the difference between authoritative and non-authoritative online sources they find through Google — then I wonder what the consequences of staying on top of things via a search in an aggregator might be? An RSS feed, especially one that is a search result, provides precious little context in which to judge the authority of the source. It’s sort of like deep linking into a web site to find the print-only, stripped-of-graphics, stripped-of-author version of a page. The impatient researcher (i.e., almost anyone with a deadline of, say, tomorrow) will grab the URL and take the work as it is.
The problem of recognizing “authoritative” content is, of course, nothing novel; I imagine when I was back in middle school and assigned a “research” paper whose requirements were that I find at least three different sources from the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature that I was none too picky about which three I picked. I got my three, wrote my page or two, and moved on. I like to think my research techniques improved in college and graduate school. But I also was doing that work just at the dawn of the online age; yes, there were databases, but no, there were relatively few full-text online journals accessible to me, so I largely relied on what was in the stacks and available to me, not what was truly “good.”
So I ask myself, what could I, as a blogger, put in an RSS feed that might provide someone reading it with a sense of my “authority” (if, that is, I actually have any)? Yes, each post links to the web site, and the collection of items I’ve written. And from there, it’s just a click to a web site that tells the casual reader more about me than I probably ought to let them know. Is the provision of such links, probably to be used only by the engaged researcher, enough?
Perhaps there should be some way of rating a web author as authoritative (or popular, authority’s online proxy). This seems a similar problem to content ratings systems like the W3C’s PICS rating system was designed to solve. (PICS is a standard for saying how child-safe a particular site or page is, but has broader applications as away to apply labels to content. These labels are “controlled” by some organization, so a label contains both the label and a link to a page that defines what the label means.) Should RSS items come with a DIGG or Technorati rating in their header that could be displayed in an aggregator or used as a filter, set to a default of some positive score for those who choose not to customize their preferences?