December 03, 2004


One of the hardest feats to pull off if you are one of those self-styled "info freakos" is to organise the bucketfuls of data you have trawled and collected over time. Of the various elements that contribute to this data pile up, organising bookmarks has been the oldest and grandest pain, with the latest entrant to the list, RSS subscriptions, coming in at a close second. A few days back, I took the plunge and decided to reorganise my bookmarks and RSS subscriptions (yes, again). While the method I followed - organising bookmarks by month, resources and tracked topics - is not the most logical, it has resulted in a considerably less scarier bookmarks drop down that does not keep scrolling endlessly.

Reorganising the RSS subscriptions was a relatively easier task. All it took was to figure out the 'right way' to categorise the feeds and the results were quite outstanding. The 'right way' for me was to be as specific as it would be possible in defining the categories. For instance, "Technology", "Technology News" and "News" are three different categories in my subscriptions list now. Of course, this categorisation might not work for everyone and going through the public subscription lists of others on Bloglines is proof enough of that. There is no end to the different ways in which people organise their feeds and it is all about context, at its subjective and unique best, lacking which even the best engineered product can be hit by instant obsolesce.

Incidentally, the above point about context was made by not by me, but by Adam Bosworth in his much commented upon ISCOC04 Talk in which he said, "Soon as you deliver context and content and community and collaboration over the web, 2 billion people will be able to see and interact with your solutions." Since I work in a primarily news oriented company, the thought that immediately crossed my mind was how could we deliver this "context" in an industry which has almost nothing when it comes to user generated content? It is one thing to deliver user specific content on portals and quite a different thing altogether when you have to add context to news or related products.

The answer to that question may lie in the possibility that there is no future for a standalone news product in the on the Internet. Content, these days, is aggregated, repackaged and represented in numerous ways all over the web and if content providers do not have a presence at these points of aggregation and delivery, they will not contextually available and stand the risk of being forgotten. If you cannot procure significant tie ups (for example: with My Yahoo! in the case of Yahoo!) that would provide your product with a prominent enough presence on places other than your primary outbound gateway (homepages), the average surfer would have almost no chance of knowing that your news product exists.

Picking up the same theme from a different angle, Digital Web Magazine asks, "Should we be concerned that aggregators are increasingly allowing users to find their own ways to use our content how they see fit?" The way I see it, it should not really be a matter of concern that information aggregators re-purpose and repackage content. Be it blogs or newspapers, it is now only very rarely that I visit the homepages of the websites I follow using my aggregator. What it means is that, in the next couple of years, newspaper sites will have to figure out alternative ways of making money other than from advertisements on the homepages or section pages alone. In fact, I see this as more of an opportunity than a threat and it just might even push us enough to shift to a different and probably more efficient model of distributing content online.

Online news in most cases is only text based, which is why it is the form of content that is most amenable to distribution through XML/RSS. The other elements in news, like slide shows and multimedia presentations, has considerable value addition to be gained from the traditional presentation and packaging on the web, which is not really required with textual content. In an ideal situation (sic), text-based news should be output by news organisations primarily as XML/RSS feeds which can be picked up/transformed/presented by things as varied as My Yahoo! or even the hypothetical My.Newspaper extension. This framework would also allow for a single point of payment for accessing premium content, with the added benefit of even ad serving being offloaded to the aggregator side.

The caveat, as usual, would be the resistance to go against the done thing. Right now, almost every newspaper or news organisation is busy trying to make everything, including the kitchen sink, available online. In any case, very few news organisations have the wherewithal to produce their entire content on their own. A vast majority only succeed in taking up page after page of listing on Google News by reproducing the omnipresent agency stories with differing headlines. If, by using the new approach, we can unburden the content providers from spending their precious time on pushing out the same content that everyone else is going to push anyway, maybe they can then divert those resources to creating feature stories or special packages that could give you a chance to stand out in the crowd.

Which could also mean that at some point in time we might have XML/RSS only news pages. Do we have any takers?