Searching Wiki RSS Feeds

    January 25, 2005

Tim Oren picks up the RSS deficit in wiki land, via a Google translation of a German post and Dave Johnson post where Scott Rafer comments:

“Much of the work to be done is on the wiki side, unfortunately. Feedster, et al, would be thrilled to make wiki changes as easy to search as everything else, but (…) the Wiki vendors need to make RSS output a standard option”

Much of this thread was started by Jeremy Zawodny’s valid complaints about RSS feeds that are barely-human-readable Recent Changes statistics.  He picks on the Channel9 feed, but its a common feature for wikis.

Socialtext was one of the first to provide RSS feeds for Recent Changes (partially because Steve Gillmor was bugging me for them).  We chose RSS 2.0 full text feeds as the first implementation in recognition of how news aggregators were adding track changes, which complements the diff of History when logged into the Workspace.  You can find the same approach with Kwiki, Purple Wiki JSP Wiki and other open source wikis by now.

The problem is in high volume wikis, getting a copy of every changed page is too burdensome, a problem noted by Jeff Nolan (btw, go read his 10 questions to ask a VC).  This part of the reason we offered tightly integrated group weblogs within Socialtext.  Any wiki page can be added to a weblog which has its own RSS feed.  One of our users created a convention called a Track Blog, where instead of flagging or bookmarking things of interest, they add it to their own blog (like a Watchlist) which pings them when there is an update.

The Pull Model of attention management puts the user back in control of what consumes their time.  Email notifications at the interval of their choosing, RSS the subscribe to, and more imporantly, unsubscribe from on their own accord.  To state it once again, RSS is pull, not push.  The model only works when a user can leverage:

  • Transparency — when everything is on a need-to-know and C.Y.A. basis, occupational spam proliferates and social discovery suffers.  When people work openly you can browse the periphery of your attention when its less scarce.
  • Amplification — when other people find something of interest they can edit it or link to it to bring back to top of group mind.  In other words, when you miss something in a first scan, there is a greater chance people will bring it to your attention. First order merits of attention are usually personal, covered by email and IM. Second order merits of attention are more difficult to judge at first pass and are best offloaded to a group.
  • Search — when you have confidence in your ability to recall the past, you can focus on the critical path of the present.

Which brings me back to Scott’s comment.  I believe we helped start a general trend for RSS in wikis and this conversation may help raise the bar again.  Even though the vast majority of Socialtext wikis are private (providing private syndication), our handful of public spaces will ping cooperatively (we ping Technorati today). 

Meanwhile, Jimmy Wales and others are working on Wikia, a wiki search engine, and Wikipedia produces a nice diff feed.  Adapting to MediaWiki covers 1/4 of public wikis.  There are well over 100 open source wikis, a wonderful diversity to respect, and search engines would do well to adapt to them over time just as they have with less standard blog implementations.

Tim’s basic point was Wikis do not supply contentful RSS feeds.  I’d suggest that blog search engines have had the ethic of just ping us and feed us, we’ll do the rest — which should apply not only to blogs, but wikis and whatever else we dream up.

As almost a side-note, I should mention that the wiki world isn’t wild about nofollow for at least one simple reason. On a blog you have an author and the audience (commentators?).  Within a wiki, everyone is an author.  We are still evaluating where we will use nofollow, I personally see it as  great industry cooperation creating a tool to use.