Saturday, July 05, 2008

Yet Another Microblogging App ... With a Twist

Fun as it is to argue about whether the latest Twitter outage will be the death of it, or whether has legs, there's a whole other world of RSS/Microblogging possibilities that hasn't been exploited. Unfortunately, as I'll describe in a bit, there's a reason for that ... and an implicit call to action to fix it.

Microblogging -- or, really, the feed-oriented delivery mechanism -- could be huge for all kinds of private-domain problems that are stuck in Web 1.0 mode of e-mail updates and web-page dashboards.

Whether it's a group trip; a job search (that my good friends but not my coworkers know about); the latest status on project, issue, or change request; whether my cat is in or out (neighbor cats beware!); what my son is up to; a surprise party ... and on and on ... there are microblogging feeds I'd like to publish and consume, that are not public. They are not 1-1 either. They are published to a group. I trust members of that group, and they can bring in others. Perhaps many people can update or write to the feed as well.

Seems awfully useful in personal and professional contexts. But there's no app that exactly does this right now. The closest things are Tumblr's "groups" -- which are cool, but don't offer feeds -- and FriendFeed's "rooms" -- which are also cool, but don't offer authenticated feeds.

So I hacked together an app during a few spare hours one weekend to do what I wanted.

You can try it if you like at or its real location, (have I mentioned how totally freaking awesome heroku is? well, that's a post for another day, but take me word for it, they are ninja rockstars those guys).

This app makes it super easy to create a multitude of private RSS (atom, really) status feeds, and share them with people. It has a mini-dashboard to watch the latest on a bunch of feeds. But I'm thinking folks don't need Yet Another Web Page to visit all the time. They need authenticated feeds, which statusmonster offers.

Wow, I'm gonna get rich and famous.

No, I'm not.

Here's the problem:

If a feed is not authenticated (like the basic feeds from statusmonster, or the "room" feeds at FriendFeed) then midstream aggregators like Bloglines or NewsGator may index these feeds for search, and/or offer them to others for subscription. This is the essential difference between syndication and publication -- a.k.a. the answer to, "Hey, how is a blog different from a homepage?" This is great for my blog, but really bad for my candid job search notes.

Ok, so we'll offer authenticated feeds. According the Bloglines FAQ, for example, authenticated feeds are not indexed for search or exposed to other users.

I did that, and started trying it out with NewsGator's desktop and mobile products, Outlook's RSS reader, Bloglines, Google Reader, etc.

The power of feeds lies in the fact that the end user gets to decide how to consume and/or process the content. That is, to get the full power/potential of feeds, they need to work with pretty much every major reader/aggregator service.

And that's where the trouble starts. Reading authenticated feeds with readers is a completely hit-and-miss affair.

The best behavior I found actually came from Outlook 2007, which not surprisingly treats the feed almost as an email account. It takes your credentials one time, and then when it polls -- or when you click "send/receive" -- it supplies them behind the scenes and updates the view of read/unread items. Pretty much exactly what you want.

But it was all downhill from there.

Bloglines processed my authenticated feed, but seemed to take forever to reflect updates (much longer than other feeds), and it eventually lost sync with the backing feed. The feed still exists, same location, same credentials, but eventually Bloglines started showing its little "[!]" marker meaning "problem with feed" and never updated again.

NewsGator kind of half worked. Google reader doesn't do authenticated feeds. And so on down the line.

So doing all this cool stuff on the existing infrastructure is not gonna happen. Big bummer because I'm convinced there's major value in these use cases, so we need to figure out how to make them a reality in a way people can actually use (and will want to use).

What are the constraints?

We don't need super end-to-end crypto any more than email does. Most folks do their email in the clear, figuring the content is not top secret, but also assuming that their employer/ISP/email provider is not gonna go and publish the email in a Google-able way.

I think that's the standard we're aiming for -- basically a better way to do stuff that nowadays might be handled by a whole lot of one-to-many emails.

A set of standards around handling authenticated feeds might be all we need. But how to enforce that, since anyone can cook up their own aggregator and ignore the standards?

Force the user agent (browser or client app) to supply some kind of secret to decode the feed? Maybe, but this is only strong in proportion to the strength of the key material, and having lots of high-entropy key material per feed makes this cumbersome and hard to use.

Something about confidential and syndication don't really mix. But we don't need another walled garden email/messaging system, and we don't need more web pages to visit (like Tumblr's groups).

I'm working on it. Meantime, what do you think?

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