The concept of aggregation is increasingly important on the Internet, as the sheer number of information resources increases. The average user wants to track more and more things on the Internet; an aggregator quickly becomes necessary as one’s bookmark list grows to infinity. The first aggregators, what I call ‘general purpose’ aggregators, like Bloglines, Google Reader, and Newsgator, are focused on tracking blogs and news feeds, making it easy to subscribe to whatever blogs the user came across. The new service FriendFeed has been getting a lot of attention the past couple of weeks. It’s the latest in the line of what I call ‘individual aggregators,’ services that aggregate all the distributed parts of a person’s on-line presence in one place. A person may have a blog, a Twitter account, a Flickr photostream. These services combine all of these items in one place. This trend started with Facebook’s newsfeed, continued with Plaxo’s Pulse, and then several other services, including Tumblr can do most of what the individual. These services are different than the general purpose aggregators in that they’re focused on tracking individuals, not feeds. But the general purpose aggregators can do what the individual aggregators can do, because the underlying technology, RSS, is the same. It’s really just a matter of user interfaces and a key bit of information.
The individual aggregators collect a list of all of the distributed parts of a person’s on-line presence. They ask each user to list their Twitter account, their Flickr account, their YouTube account, their blog. This list doesn’t exist anywhere in a way that’s machine readable. Each of the individual aggregators has to deduce this information and then maintain it. Or more specifically, each user has to maintain this information on each of the individual aggregators. Wouldn’t it be better if this list existed somewhere under direct control of the user in a way where it wasn’t siloed in a centralized, proprietary service? That way, every aggregator could take advantage of it and users would only have to update the list in one place.
A Modest Proposal
This problem is actually a general purpose version of a problem already solved by something called RSS Autodiscovery. In order to make it easier for general purpose aggregators to find RSS feeds to subscribe to, many publishers included a special line of text in the headers of their HTML. I have one on my blog:
Aggregators know to look for this line, which tells them where the RSS feed for that blog exists. Can’t we just extend this to include a list of all the other aspects of a person’s identity? Have one line for each service the person uses, and change the title accordingly. So, I could include:
for my Flickr feed. This doesn’t have to only apply to services that publish RSS feeds. I could even do something like:
to indicate my Twitter account. By doing this, the list of all the parts of a person’s on-line presence is kept under the control of the person, associated with their blog. It’s distributed, open, and easy to implement.
How To Make It Work
For this to work, a couple things need to happen. Blog publishing software has to be modified to ask for and then insert this information into the headers of a person’s blog. Then,aggregators need to be modified to look for this information, and to periodically recheck it. The general purpose aggregators need to augment their interfaces to allow people to subscribe to these new feeds. But none of these things are terribly difficult to do.