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The importance of serial media vs. sampled and Google Reader

The blogging world was stunned by the recent announcement by Google that it will be shutting down Google reader later this year. Due to my consulting relationship with Google I won’t comment too much on their reasoning, though I will note that I believe it’s possible the majority of regular readers of this blog, and many others, come via Google reader so this shutdown has a potential large effect here. Of particular note is Google’s statement that usage of Reader has been in decline, and that social media platforms have become the way to reach readers.

The effectiveness of those platforms is strong. I have certainly noticed that when I make blog posts and put up updates about them on Google Plus and Facebook, it is common that more people will comment on the social network than comment here on the blog. It’s easy, and indeed more social. People tend to comment in the community in which they encounter an article, even though in theory the most visibility should be at the root article, where people go from all origins.

However, I want to talk a bit about online publishing history, including USENET and RSS, and the importance of concepts within them. In 2004 I first commented on the idea of serial vs. browsed media, and later expanded this taxonomy to include sampled media such as Twitter and social media in the mix. I now identify the following important elements of an online medium:

  • Is it browsed, serial or to be sampled?
  • Is there a core concept of new messages vs. already-read messages?
  • If serial or sampled, is it presented in chronological order or sorted by some metric of importance?
  • Is it designed to make it easy to write and post or easy to read and consume?

Online media began with E-mail and the mailing list in the 60s and 70s, with the 70s seeing the expansion to online message boards including Plato, BBSs, Compuserve and USENET. E-mail is a serial medium. In a serial medium, messages have a chronological order, and there is a concept of messages that are “read” and “unread.” A good serial reader, at a minimum, has a way to present only the unread messages, typically in chronological order. You can thus process messages as they came, and when you are done with them, they move out of your view.

E-mail largely is used to read messages one-at-a-time, but the online message boards, notably USENET, advanced this with the idea of move messages from read to unread in bulk. A typical USENET reader presents the subject lines of all threads with new or unread messages. The user selects which ones to read — almost never all of them — and after this is done, all the messages, even those that were not actually read, are marked as read and not normally shown again. While it is generally expected that you will read all the messages in your personal inbox one by one, with message streams it is expected you will only read those of particular interest, though this depends on the volume.

Echos of this can be found in older media. With the newspaper, almost nobody would read every story, though you would skim all the headlines. Once done, the newspaper was discarded, even the stories that were skipped over. Magazines were similar but being less frequent, more stories would be actually read.

USENET newsreaders were the best at handling this mode of reading. The earliest ones had keyboard interfaces that allowed touch typists to process many thousands of new items in just a few minutes, glancing over headlines, picking stories and then reading them. My favourite was TRN, based on RN by Perl creator Larry Wall and enhanced by Wayne Davison (whom I hired at ClariNet in part because of his work on that.) To my great surprise, even as the USENET readers faded, no new tool emerged capable of handling a large volume of messages as quickly.

In fact, the 1990s saw a switch for most to browsed media. Most web message boards were quite poor and slow to use, many did not even do the most fundamental thing of remembering what you had read and offering a “what’s new for me?” view. In reaction to the rise of browsed media, people wishing to publish serially developed RSS. RSS was a bit of a kludge, in that your reader had to regularly poll every site to see if something was new, but outside of mailing lists, it became the most usable way to track serial feeds. In time, people also learned to like doing this online, using tools like Bloglines (which became the leader and then foolishly shut down for a few months) and Google Reader (which also became the leader and now is shutting down.) Online feed readers allow you to roam from device to device and read your feeds, and people like that.  read more »