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Is River of News enough?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 by Dave Winer.

For what seems like many years I was a lonely voice in the wilderness, whispering at first "River of News" then speaking more loudly and finally shouting from the rooftops, but people wouldn't listen. Developers patterned their "news readers" after email programs. Each feed was a box, and like a mail program it would tell you how many unread messages there were. "This is wrong!" I would say -- RSS is not mail.  Permalink to this paragraph

Well in 2006 or so, things turned in the other direction and rivers showed up everwhere. They call them streams, lifestreams, etc, but they're all the same basic idea. Park yourself on the riverbank and watch the news flow by. If you miss something, not to worry, if it's important some new story will refer to it.  Permalink to this paragraph

Then an interesting experiment, the AnnArbor.com switched its home page to be a river. Wonderful, fantastic, futuristic. A long time ago I predicted the front page of every news site would be a river. But now Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab asks, basically, is a River enough? Do you need some other structure to hang the news on? Yes, imho, you do. Permalink to this paragraph

The question comes up on Twitter, when you want to know the context of a tweet, because sometimes people string them together. 140 characters isn't enough to express a full idea, so you write three or four. By the time you're at number four, someone has usually tweeted you back asking what you mean. The answer is in #1 or #2 of the 4-tweet sequence. If you answer the question, you'll just beget more questions, so you hope the person is savvy enough to click on your name and read your full stream to get the context. Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named doc2.jpgIn the 1980s I ran a system called LBBS on an Apple II in my living room. We had the exact same problem, and found a neat solution. At first the structure was strictly hierarchic. The sysop, me, would start a discussion area, and users would post questions or assertions as first-level subs. People would respond, and those would appear in reverse chronologic order as second-level subs. Responses to those would be third-level and so on. This was an early threaded discussion system. But how to find the new stuff? For that I added what I called a Msg Scanner, a reverse-chronolic browser that ignored structure. It would keep a bookmark for every user, a high-water-mark, and when you'd jump into the scanner that's where you'd start. You'd keep hitting Next until you reached the newest message. And here's the cool thing -- when you wanted to see the context, just type / and you'd switch over into the hierarchic structure, on the same message.  Permalink to this paragraph

News will work the same way, except someone who is skilled at organizing stuff will figure out where each piece goes in the hierarchy. This will provide the context, and you will also be able to find out What's New.  Permalink to this paragraph

Anyone who used the LBBS in 1981, that's 28 years ago, will understand, but in this world it's still a new idea. A picture named sidesmiley.gif Permalink to this paragraph

I wrote a narrative of this development process in 1988 when I was starting up UserLand Software.  Permalink to this paragraph

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A picture named dave.jpgDave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.

"The protoblogger." - NY Times.

"The father of modern-day content distribution." - PC World.

One of BusinessWeek's 25 Most Influential People on the Web.

"Helped popularize blogging, podcasting and RSS." - Time.

"The father of blogging and RSS." - BBC.

"RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's 'Really Simple Syndication' technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's 'Rich Site Summary', which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows." - Tim O'Reilly.


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