What on Earth is RSS Cloud?

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about a new technology using Linux Format‘s “What on Earth is …?” style (see example on Android). We did not agree on a particular technology and we would get bonus points for a nice pixellated image to accompany the post. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

RSS Cloud
RSS Cloud

RSS Cloud? I am getting a bit tired of this cloud computing trend.
Yes, I also think that cloud computing is slightly over hyped. However RSS Cloud is not about cloud computing. It is about bringing real-time updates to the RSS protocol.

I have only just grasped what RSS is. Only the technorati seem to use it, normal computer users have no idea.
Indeed: most people have no idea what RSS is or how they can use it. They still visit all their favourite news sites one after the other to check whether something new has been posted. However even people that don’t understand it often use it. If you download podcasts through iTunes you are using RSS technology. Furthermore RSS is the technological glue for many of the popular mashup sites. You don’t need to understand a technology for it to be useful to you.

Fair enough, so how would you explain RSS Cloud to a lay person?
Sites that have content that changes often (think blogs or news sites) publish an RSS feed on their server. Whenever a new item is posted it will be added to the feed, usually dropping the oldest item from the list at the same time. If you are interested in those news items you can use a news reader (also called an aggregator) and tell this news reader to check whether new items are added to the feed, if there is an update, then the news reader can retrieve it. A news reader typically does this every fifteen minutes or so. This means the news can be 15 minutes old when you get it. RSS Cloud makes it possible for news readers to subscribe to the updates of a feed. Whenever something new is added the feed, the RSS Cloud server notifies all subscribers so that they can pick up the content immediately: in real-time.

Another buzz word! What is the benefit of real-time? Can’t people just wait a couple of minutes before they get their news?
People listen to the radio so that they can hear the sports results in real-time. Weren’t you upset when all your friends knew about Michael Jackson’s death earlier than you, because they heard it on Twitter? The success of Twitter search and trending topics shows that people want to know about stuff as it happens and not fifteen minutes later.

Now that you mention it: Twitter indeed works in real-time. Why do we need something else, what’s wrong with Twitter?
Twitter actually also uses a “polling” model for its content. Each single Twitter client will have to access the Twitter API to see whether something new has been posted by the people you are following. This is a huge waste of computer resources. All these clients asking for new information even if there is none. It is a model that does not scale well. A “push” model actually works much better in this respect.

Oh, so it is a bit like the difference between getting your email once every couple of minutes and getting it immediately on your Blackberry?
Yes, that is a nice analogy. The Blackberry uses push email. You get the email as soon as it hits the server, because it is pushed to your phone. Traditional email clients, like Outlook, go to the server once every couple of minutes to see whether something new is there.

So what large company is trying to push this idea?
This time it is not a big company trying to establish a standard or protocol. The RSS Cloud protocol is designed by Dave Winer who also drafted the original RSS specification.

Dave Winer, isn’t that the guy that loves to rub people the wrong way?
He is a controversial character and is certainly very vocal and opinionated. At the same time, he is a true pioneer and one of those people that embody the values of the Internet. His vision for Cloud RSS is not about blogging. Instead, he wants to provide a decentralised architecture for microblog messages. To him the fact that Twitter centralises all the microblogging activity is a real vulnerability. His goal is to create a network that can work alongside Twitter without being in the control of a single company.

Talking about companies. I suddenly remember hearing about a similar technology. One of these cute names with many vowels?
You probably mean PubSubHubbub. This is a Google sponsored protocol that has already been implemented in Google Reader.

Great: another standards war. VHS versus Betamax, RSS versus Atom, Britney versus Whitney. Will we never learn?
This shouldn’t become a problem. RSS and Atom for example live happily next to each other now. It is easy to implement both. PubSubHubbub has a slightly different goal in comparison to Cloud RSS. It focuses mainly on blogging and associates itself with Feed Burner. The two technologies should be able to live next to each other, at least that is what Dave says.

Well, let’s hope he and you are right. By the way, isn’t this Cloud RSS just another sneaky way to measure subscribers, generate some statistics and store information about where they are from and what they are doing?
It is true that an RSS reader will have to register itself with the the RSS cloud for the protocol to work. However the RSS cloud forgets about the RSS reader if the registration isn’t renewed every 24 hours. You also have to remember that many people will use readers that do not support RSS Cloud. There are much better ways to get statistics.

Aren’t you a learning technology person? What does this have to do with learning?
I am very interested in Cloud RSS because I am a learning technologist! Like all new Internet based technologies it will only be a matter of time before some smart developer finds a way of using this in some unexpected fashion. Remember:
technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice! Just think of what kind of course delivery models RSS has made possible: the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course could not run without it for example.

You are a Moodle evangelist. Does Moodle support RSS Cloud yet?
I haven’t checked, but I doubt it.  It is very new and the Moodle developers are focusing on getting Moodle 2.0 to a beta release. However, I am sure that in the future, parts of Moodle will move towards real-time. Imagine how Cloud RSS could be used to create activity streams or notify people of comments on their work. It could effectively bridge the gap between asynchronous activities like discussion forums and assignments and synchronous activities like web conferencing.

Ok, you have managed to pique my interested. Where can I go if I want to start using it?
There are two ways of using it. First, you can make your own feeds RSS Cloud enabled. If you have blog at WordPress.com this is automatically the case. You can opt-in if you host your own WordPress blog. The other way of using it would be to have an RSS reader that supports the protocol. Currently only River2 supports it and Lazyfeed has announced that it will support it too. Only web based readers can support it, as the RSS Cloud server needs to be able to ping the reader with the update.

Are there any sites that can tell me a bit more?
The current home of the protocol is http://www.rsscloud.org. Here you will find news about the protocol and an implementation guide. The Wikipedia entry could be better. Why don’t you help fixing it?

The Spy in the Coffee Machine

Spy in the Coffee Machine
The Spy in the Coffee Machine

Slightly over a year ago, I had a conversation with Erik Duval about privacy in this digital world. He basically argued that losing privacy is not a problem as long as the transparency is symmetric. This is basically the point that David Brin writes about in The Transparent Society. The conversation started my thinking on this topic. Was Bill Joy right when he allegedly said “Privacy is dead, get over it”?

I was hoping that O’hara and Shadbolt’s The Spy in the Coffee Machine would give me some new perspectives on this issue.

The book opens with a chapter on the “disappearing body”. We have less and less face-to-face contact and more and more phone, email and Internet (IM, (micro)blogs, social networks) communications. A physical presence leaves behind few signs, whereas information is persistent.

When the prophetic but currently unfashionable Marshall McLuhan predicted that we would soon be living in a global village thanks to new technologies and media, most people took that to mean that travel would be straightforward, intermingling of diverse cultures frequent and influences wide and strong. But one other property of a village is the absence of anonymity and secrecy. Privacy is at a premium, and that is another aspect of the global village with which we will have to come to terms.

In our society we have a very hybrid view on privacy. It isn’t a value neutral concept. Some cultures regard privacy with suspicion. In “the West” we have a positive opinion on privacy and see it as something to be protected by law:

But on the other hand, many use new technologies to expose themselves to view to a previously unimaginable degree. Webcams and Big Brother provide almost unlimited access to some exhibitionists, while very few people will pass up the opportunity to appear on television. […] Most academics would kill to be interviewed about their work, even as they cling to the copyrights of their unread articles.

The book then provides a comprehensive overview of current technologies and how these relate to privacy. They do this in a matter of fact, objective and entertaining way. A couple of examples:

Moore’s law makes it trivial to search extremely large datasets (the end of practical obscurity) and is especially interesting when it comes to personal memory:

The amount of information that an ordinary person can generate, and store, is now colossal. It is possible to store digital versions of life’s memories in increasing quantities. As human-computer interaction specialist Alan Dix one playfully noted, it takes 100 kilobits/second to get high quality audio and video. If we imagine someone with a camera strapped to his or her head for 70 years, that will generate video requiring something of the order of 27.5 terabytes of storage, or about 450 60gb iPods. And if Moore’s law continues to hold for the next 20 years or so [..] we could store a continuous record of a life on a device the size of a sugar cube.
The ability to record memories, and store them indefinitely in digital form in virtually unlimited quantities has been dubbed the phenomenon of memories for life. This is an important area of interdisciplinary research; we will need to understand how it will affect our social and political lives, and our psychological memories.

Web 2.0 mashups allow you to easily bring multiple public resources together. By combining different databases you can now easily see where in your area all the sex offenders live (see Megan’s law):

In a clever demonstration of the dangers of mashups, consultant Tom Owad mashed up book wishlists published on Amazon with Google Earth, but with a twist. The Amazon users leave a name and a home town, which was often enough to locate them via Yahoo! People Search, at an individual address, of which Google Earth would hold a detailed satellite image. He also filtered out most of the books, to leave only those who read subversive literature. The result was a map of the world with readers of subversive books located upon it; click on the location of such a reader, and get a high resolution satellite image of his or her house. Of course, Owad was merely demonstrating the principle, not building a usable system for genuine deployment by the Thought Police. But ….

There are also technologies that could help in keeping us empowered. The Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) Project for example “enables Websites to express their privacy practices in a standard format that can be retrieved automatically and interpreted easily by user agents”.

The Panopticon is here according to the authors. They use the final chapter of the book to finally give some of their own opinion about whether we have a worrying future ahead of us. They take a very balanced viewpoint: these new technologies also solve many problems and have big advantages. At the same time we should never forget that bureaucracies are information thirsty and that function creep is a reality:

The struggle for personal space between the individual and the community takes place on a number of fronts, and we should not expect sweeping victories for either side. There will be small advances here, mini-retreats there. In the background, the astonishing progress of technology will keep changing the context.

As I finished this book I read about the premiere of Privacy Matters‘ (Dutch spoken) film about the importance of privacy. They do not allow the embedding of their video so I will link to a version on Youtube:


The production quality of the film is incredible and the special effects are great. The final message of the film makes sense: stay aware. However, I found the tone too fear mongering and paternalistic. It made me averse to the video and left a sour taste in my mouth. Where is the constructive look towards the future?

For me this post about privacy is an unfinished conversation. There are lots of things to think about and I guess we should keep paying attention. Privacy will be one the many sociological concepts which will get a completely different meaning over the next decades. What are your thoughts on this topic?