RSS feeds: Leader or not?

I break most of my blog posts, here and on scienceblogs.com, into a pre and post section with the pre-section being what shows up on RSS feeds and the rest below the fold. Some people find this annoying, but I find the opposite annoying. I don’t use my RSS feeder to read other people’s blogs. I much prefer to read those blogs on their own terms. I want to see the blogger’s choice of typeface and styling, layout, etc. etc. and I want to know what else is visible on that blog post’s page, i.e., on side bars and such. This is because, as a blogger, I know that people who bother to write for the internet also often have other tings going on, other things they want to show us. Like fer instance, James Hrynyshyn at Class M has a widget on his left sidebar that shows us the “remaining allowable emmissions in tonnes of carbon from fossil fuel use etc.etc.” and I like to keep track of that. (The current countdown reaches zero on October 8th, 2043). And there are other things like that.

I examine a lot more blog posts than I read. If I open a post in the RSS reader that I use, I want to see enough to know what the post is about but not enough to even fill my computer’s screen, so it is one less step to navigate to the next post (depending on what navigation tool I’m using). In other words, I like to use the RSS feeder like those old chapter headings used in many 19th century books, which gave you a bunch of information underneath the chapter heading about what was coming up in that chapter (some TOC’s of the day did the same thing, a tradition revived in recent years in textbooks).

I suppose that it is because I like RSS summaries better than having RSS’s provide the entire post that I write most of my own blog posts this way. Some people tell me that they will never, ever read my blog and that I am a bad person because I do this. I am considered “guilty” of doing something ungood, and I’m told by some that they routinely unsubscribe from bloggers who do this. Some of my fellow bloggers never split posts for RSS feeds and claim that this is the only moral way to blog, and act all holier-than-thou about it. My fellow bloggers who do split their posts are usually silent on the issue because post-splitting is stigmatized as the wrong thing to do, and because it does have a mercenary aspect to it; In theory, we who get paid by the hit get something if you actually show up on our sites, but not if you merely read a copy of our work delivered to you by a third party. A split RSS feed is like a marquee; you get to see the name of the movie or maybe a poster or a trailer for free but if you want to watch the whole thing you’ve got to pay. For a movie, that’s between five and ten bucks where I live, but for a blog post it is a mere mouse click. A blog post that is a short announcement of something else (a pointer to another post or an upcoming event, for instance) should be all “above the fold” but a longer written work is the author’s intellectual property and there are numerous ways to deliver such property. Requiring someone to open the book to read the novel is not an immoral or unethical act.

The mercenary nature of splitting a post along with the grumbling of the annoyed, I think, causes many of those who do this to simply remain silent when the conversation is happening, but I find that silence annoying as well because in fact, there are those of us who strongly prefer the split method in no small part becuase that is how we use our RSS feeds. Everybody has a set of preferences as to how they want the Internet to be, and sometimes individuals make their little part of the internet the way they want it. If one presents the attitude that one is expressing oneself by doing this, then other people may grumble silently and even walk way unhappy, and usually people leave you alone. But, if others have already expresses a disdain for a certain practice then an individual blogger or webmaster does not really have much purchase in the game, and it is hard to claim freedom of expression or artistic license.

The point is, what we do, what we can and can not say that we like, what we are expected to dislike, is a function of culture and received knowledge (or, really, received attitude) more than it is rational. For instance, there is a good argument that the typeface “Comic Sans” is an excellent typeface for certain uses. It seems to go well with presentations for children, for instance. But other than its use in a cynical context, the people who have decided what your attitude should be have decided that you can never use it. In fact, you can’t even use it in a cynical context because people often notice the typeface before they notice the cynicism, and most people who are ready to condemn you as a human being based on a typeface choice are rarely able to take back their hatred once they’ve unleashed it.

There are also profound differences in the choices we have. Over at Scienceblogs.com, we are about to have a major redesign of the site. When that happens, I think I’ll be losing my left sidebar. I put a lot of important stuff in my left sidebar, including badges linking to various networks or causes. I may have to live in a world, in a few weeks, where I have to tell people “no, sorry, I can’t be part of that network anymore because you require a badge and my blog can’t have badges.” Some people will storm off and hate me until the day they die. Others will not notice. Eventually it may be that nobody uses these badges anymore because some other way of doing whatever the badges do emerges and spreads. Oh, and in case you have not noticed, left sidebars are becoming increasingly rare. It turns out that current models suggest that ad-clickiness of a web site is enhanced with all content on the left and all the ads above, on the right, within the stream of text/comments, and in that annoying popup that is currently sitting behind this very window waiting for you.

I personally disdain white or light text on a black or dark background. Yet, one of the blogs I write for does this. It is not a choice I make. Do I hate myself for writing a blog that is annoying for myself to read? (There are technological fixes for this problem, and I use those, by the way.) At one of the blog networks I contribute to, the blog post is split automatically for me, I have no choice. At another we are encouraged by management to split posts so that our front pages look a certain way and we all get more views. At another, there is no rule and the bloggers are split between “I split for the cash” and “Splitting is immoral, might as well step on the baby kittens” and “What is this splitting thing you speak of?” and everything in between. Then there is me: “I split because I like it, and I want everyone else to do it” which, I know, holds no cachet whatsoever with the anti-splitters because they have already received their culturally determined stance on the morality of splitting and that’s the end of it for those poor souls. And, yes, for me it is also true that “I split most posts because I want you to come to my blog and read them …. I want you to click on my page, I want you to see my sidebars, I want you to see the pointies to before and after posts and visit them as well. My motivation for writing this post is in part to get you to join me here.”

There is another level at which choice is limited. Some of us don’t care if our blogs make any money for them. Some people even claim that they don’t care if anyone even reads their blog (which I find hard to believe). Some of us got laid off and live in a house with not enough room so we sleep on the living room floor and would appreciate the fucking clicks so we can keep the interest on our loans paid off, thank you very much. One could argue forever about choice, but if one is going to do that, your argument will not have much meaning unless everyone else can also examine all of your choices, because you are certainly not doing it right from the point of view of someone else, maybe many others!

I want RSS summaries, not whole posts, unless the posts are short. I want my blog’s home page to have title/text, title/text, title/text for several posts with little paging-down, and I want you to read most of my blog posts at my site, not on your reader, because a) I made it all nice for you and b) I want your damn click. And, I can exercise that choice because it is my intellectual property, and you can vote one way or another with your “feet.” It is just a bit annoying to me that the rhetoric related to this issue describes the situation in only one way, with little or no reference to the full context and all the relevant factors.

I guess it is polite of RSS to take only what our posts suggest for them; Technologically that is not required. Technologically, you can scrape the whole blog post if you like. But, there is a copyright issue here. Scraping past an RSS summary and taking the rest of the post is sort of like being sent a PDF file of a free chapter of a book otherwise available for sale, but you have software that searches the host’s site for the rest of the book and takes that too. Your access to my blog via third party technology, interfaced with your wants and needs and my intellectual property, certainly makes an interesting nexus.

That is all, thank you very much.

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