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?

Librarians vs. Researchers

The History Librarian raises an interesting question in his brief post, “Using RSS Feeds: Librarians vs. Historians.” History Librarian notes that of the Project Muse feeds he monitors, the library-themed ones have many more (15, 23, and 43) subscribers than the history-related ones (6, 1, 4, and 4). Are librarians far ahead of the researchers we support in terms of RSS adoption — and is this a good or a bad thing?
I would say it’s good or bad depending on the efforts we make to educate our clientele on the benefits of the tool. To the extent that we (we librarians, I mean) inform our customers of ways they can do their research and current awareness-building more effectively, it’s a good thing. If, however, we’re merely talking and reading amongst ourselves… Well, this may not be a bad thing, but it probably isn’t a good thing, either.
Then again, I’d wager that most libraries public catalogs show similar usage patterns to ours: the advanced search page is rarely used, but most of that infrequent use is by librarians… Which is not to say the catalog is a failure or pointless, just that it works well enough for the average user.

Mapping the Blogosphere

We all know about the interconnectedness of the blogosphere. We also know about the “chimneys” of information flows that many RSS users find themselves in (I discussed this in an earlier post about serendipity). But what do these interconnections actually look like?

A recent article, Human Trails in Cyberspace in The Chronicle of Higher Education [subscription required] describes attempts to map these interconnections. At first glance, a map of the interconnections between blogs [See slide 3 in particular; images are from, subscription required] looks something like an Independence Day fireworks show. According to the article, though,

Matthew Hurst, director of science and innovation for Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a company that analyzes Internet trends for businesses, … [has created a map that] distributes blogs in visual space based on how much they link to each other. “If things are very close to each other, it means they talk to each other a lot,” he says. “When you do this analysis, you inevitably end up with a large percentage of blogs that are just floating around by themselves because they don’t have a lot of in or out links The size of the circles on Mr. Hurst’s map indicates the numbers of links to the blogs. The colors of the circles show the type of blog software used or on what kind of server the sites are hosted….”

This brings home the perhaps obvious point that the most popular blogs and bloggers — those positioned near the center on slide 3 — reference their peers more often than they do new or less-popular blogs. Which makes sense; we all write about what we know, and what we learn about is greatly influenced by what already know. Yet I was pleasantly surprised that the periphery was as active and interconnected as depicted.

As the success of social software tools like and Flickr have made clear, the voice of the people can be a powerful tool in finding “the good stuff.” Interestingly, “good” is not really defined — as long as there’s an unspoken consensus of what is “good,” those items rise to the top. However, I do wonder how much equally “good stuff” never gets seen by the masses because it doesn’t attract the attention of the few in the center. Perhaps my misgivings are unfounded and the vast majority of the “good stuff” — yours, mine, and your Aunt Petunia’s — is brought to the surface precisely because the masses of the public are sure to find it and gently “Digg” it to the surface through word of blog.

RSS and Libraries

I had the pleasure of attending the Syndicate, Aggregate, Communicate: New Web Tools in Real Applications for Libraries, Companies and Regular Folk conference earlier this week. While I was familiar, for the most part, with the technologies that were being discussed, I came away truly impressed with the variety of applications of these technologies that my fellow librarians have already come up with.

So I started looking for resources that described all these neat library-specific applications of RSS. And nothing leaped out at me as that collection point. Which brings us here — to RSS4Lib. I’m not entirely sure what I want this blog to be. Something of a mix between a clearinghouse of novel uses of RSS and a place to brainstorm new ideas.

So who am I? My name is Ken Varnum. I’m a librarian at the Ginn Library at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. I’ve been doing web site design, information architecture, and project management in libraries for 11 years, at the Ginn Library, Ford Motor Company’s research library, and the Open Media Research Institute. I have an abiding interesting in building information systems that give my customers access to the information they need before they have to ask for it. And that is why RSS grabs my interest so strongly.