Is the RSS World Flat?

Paul Pival, the Distant Librarian, brings up an interesting question in his recent post “Just what am I looking at?“. In his post, he notes:

I think students who have only researched through their computer monitor have a very hard time understanding what they’re looking at. Through the monitor, a page is a page is a page, whether it be from a scholarly journal, a book, Newsweek, a website, a chat window… There are almost none of the visual clues that are present in a more traditional physical piece of information that might make it easier to tell if you’re about to use a scholarly publication or a piece of crap in your paper. If I’ve got a PDF from Academic Search Premier and I don’t recognize the name of the publication and there are no ads on the page, surely it’s scholarly, right?”

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?

3 thoughts on “Is the RSS World Flat?”

  1. Interesting followup Ken, and the feed header rating is an interesting idea, but one problem I see is that it’s tough to rate an entire feed. A few of my posts are good; many more are not so good. Each post might be incredibly useful/meaningful to entirely different people. John at Freshblog appears to be contemplating the same issue of late and has some interesting ideas around community, but also doesn’t appear to have THE solution…
    My aggregator, BlogBridge, has a rating system built in, but truth be told I don’t make much use of it. As I add a feed it’s checked against a community database and it’s automatically assigned a number of stars, based, I think, upon what other users of the software have ranked it. With the feeds I grab, pretty much none have been previously ranked 🙁 Another possible idea though, if a more popular aggregator like Bloglines were to implement it…

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for sharing your response. David Rothman also had some interesting comments on your post and mine. David points out the important distinction between “popular” and “authoritative” — a distinction I agree with, incidentally.
    You’re correct that a feed-by-feed rating would be meaningless; if I post one gem on this blog, I’ll consider myself fortunate! However, something that could apply a rating on an item-by-item basis would be interesting. Simply embedding a Technorati rating into an RSS item doesn’t quite do it. Neither does putting a post’s Google PageRank there.
    What I’m looking for reminds me, in a way, of the concept of “whuffie” in Cory Doctorow’s book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Whuffie is, in a sense, currency — a proxy for the amount of respect society has for what you do and how you interact.
    Do blogs need whuffie?

  3. Accuracy and the Blogosphere

    As an academic librarian, I see one of the biggest practical challenges of our burgeoning information age as teaching our patrons (students, certainly, but also faculty and staff) how to identify the good (valid, authoritative, reasonable) stuff from t…

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