Thursday 07 March 2002

The long and short of it

Warning: Metablogging Ahead Michael Webb requested “the option to publish just the title (along with any attribution, etc) but not the content (item description) to rss:”

The title would be the link to the archive page. the item description could be the main text area for the item, and source either weblog homepage or imported source. The relevant trick I would like is to be able to not publish the item description in the rss. That is to say, I want to publish headlines(titles) in rss, and the title and description (content, enclosures) to a home page. An option checkbox could include the content in the rss for those who prefer.

In his subsequent post, Michael asked: “Is this a response to my previous post? A few hours of difference in post time suggests it may be.”

The “this” Michael referred to was a post by Dave Winer:

How people read on the web. They want to get to the beef asap. Most people will only skim, and record the fact that the article is there, and then use Google to find it when and if they need it. So the most important thing is to quickly say what you’re going to do in the piece and who should care. Quickness is a very important thing. Most people just dash in and out. At least this is my assumption. That’s one of the reasons I give quick soundbites, and the sources.

I’ve been reading Scripting News for years so I can understand why Doc Searls would say—with no sense of “pissing in Dave’s pocket”—that Dave Winer is the person he admires most in the new media industry.

I admire Dave too, but his response to Michael’s post—if it was a response—left much to be desired. That’s a polite way of saying I think Dave is dead wrong. (Let me make it perfectly clear that Michael and I may be hallucinating that Dave responded.)

One of the standard techniques of conflict resolution is to ask Party B to carefully and respectfully repeat what Party A said. Party A is then given an opportunity to explain or clarify what they believed they’d actually said. And so the dialogue proceeds. My comments from this point on are offered in that spirit.

This is what I hear Dave saying (if we agree, for the sake of argument, that he did say something):

This is what I interpret as Dave’s underlying meaning (the subtext, if you will):

It’s not that Dave doesn’t write extended posts—rather, he has a separate website, DaveNet, that he uses for such entries, which he classifies as essays. But he certainly seems unsympathetic to long weblog posts. Since one of Dave’s stated aims is to turn the Web into a writing environment (and, as far as I’m aware, he hasn’t qualified that statement), I can’t help but point to a degree of inconsistency. Unless Dave is saying: “I want the Web to be a writing environment, as long as all you bloggers—as distinct from essayists—keep it short and sweet.”

I don’t want to keep it short and sweet. I did when I started blogging but not anymore. Nor do I always wish to point to other articles. The feedback I receive suggests that I write sufficiently well to hold a reader’s attention for three to five screenfuls, even if the topic is somewhat esoteric. My weblog may not attract a mass audience, but that’s OK. I don’t regard myself as a mainstream writer.

If you’ve got this far, you’ll realize that I’m a long-form blogger, as opposed to the short-form blogger that Dave appears to favor (unless the long posts are saved as stories—for example, Dave’s own essays or David Berry’s excellent Using FrontPage with Radio Tutorials).

I didn’t start out as a long-form blogger, so how did I end up that way? I followed the only useful piece of advice I ever read about writing—apart from “Write Every Day”—which was that one should attempt to emulate the writing one loves to read. Analyzing my blogroll, I find that two-thirds are long-form blogs, by which I mean that they violate Dave’s ideal of the short weblog entry. Yet despite the rigorous demands of the long-form, they all write beautiful prose that engages my attention—day after day. As Burningbird said: “Weblogging is the world’s greatest novel, written by me and about 10,000 of my closest friends.”

I’ve considered introducing a procedure for my weblog whereby I include long entries as normal posts and then, after a week or so, reassign them as stories, leaving only the first paragraph as the blog entry. But then I think to myself: “All my blogging pals are happy to publish long posts, why should I be the odd blogger out?” Admittedly though, my (frequently) long posts don’t lend themselves to RSS syndication—they simply clog up the RSS feed. As Michael explains:

Radio excells at passing tidbits, links and short bits around, but one long post in an rss feed clogs up the subscribers news aggregator page, and discourages any sharing of longer content, or indeed any rss content from sites that publish items more than a couple sentences long.

The news model, passing around a headline/link, with the content residing on a static site is efficient. For example, if I wanted to use my news aggregator to publish to a headline box on a site, subscribing to Jonathan just isn’t going to work, even on the desktop news page it is awkward.

The answer seems simple: offer the option to publish the title but not the content to RSS. Michael points to a side benefit: “It would give the art of writing headlines a whole new life.”

I’m not optimistic though. It’s not just that long-form blogging is ill-suited to RSS feeds, it also goes against the spirit of the new XML feeds ranking system, in which as Adam Curry points out, “If you don’t update, you start to feel blog-gravity.” Make that “if you don’t update frequently”—or—”if you don’t conform to the short-form blogging rule.”

Garth describes the new order:

According to the emailed feedback from yesterday, I have at least four feed-readers—thanks for the mail, everyone!
Now, if they’re all on one feed, I should be able to get on Dave’s feed chart by posting six times in consecutive hours. I’m not sure I can be bothered, though. :)

Welcome to the weblogging sweatshop: Blogging in the Dark Satanic Mills.



"Weblog readers are hard-pressed for time or they have short attention spans; therefore the weblogging tradition is based on short posts that point to an item of interest on another website." The end destination of all this short form pointing is a long form article. One could then conclude that webloggers never actually read the destination articles, but merely flit about endless onion layers of teaser blurbs.
One would then wonder if the long form, destination articles actually exist. Perhaps they're just a figment of our imagination.

Posted by: Andy Chen on 7 March 2002 at 05:29 AM

There's a lot of Jakob Nielsen
's inverted pyramid
and Zeldman's guide copy
to the "art of headline writing." Those are two articles I keep coming back to. Also, not to self-aggrandize over much, but Stapler can publish headline feeds for Radio weblogs (e.g.) almost out of the box.

Posted by: Mark on 7 March 2002 at 05:32 AM

Wow, an amazing synthesis. Actually I had just read an essay that's important but took forever to get to the point. It wasn't in response to Michael Webb, whose piece I had not seen until you linked to it.

Posted by: dave winer on 7 March 2002 at 08:25 AM

Long form does give my headline reader
some formating problems but if given the choice between reading ten 'blogs conforming to the short form and one very well written long form 'blog, I'll choose the long form any time. I tend to catagorize frequently updated personal pages in three catagories; weblogs -- the quick, hit and run, "this is neat cause" style; diaries -- the "this is a day in my life" style; and journals -- the "hmm, this is what is going on in the world and the web and this is what I think about it all" style.
I like a good journal.

Posted by: Justin Thyme on 7 March 2002 at 12:11 PM

Why couldn't a long weblog entry be a story with a post to the weblog that links to the story? Then those of us who get the RSS feed would see the headline and could follow it to the story. Of course, that takes the text of the story out of its context. Burningbird
tells us we shouldn't be subscribing to weblogs anyway. I'm beginning to think she is right.

Posted by: Will Leshner on 7 March 2002 at 12:37 PM

Of course I'm right ;-) Seriously, though, I could care less if people subscribe or don't subscribe to my weblog. But if they do subscribe, they're missing the context of my writing, which is why I'm not posting an RSS feed. I'm not a newservice. It's the same thing.

Posted by: Burningbird on 7 March 2002 at 01:49 PM

Sorry, meant to say "It's NOT the same thing."

Posted by: Burningbird on 7 March 2002 at 01:50 PM

I'm coming to the same conclusion too. When I first installed Radio I subscribed to about thirty feeds (including Jonathons) but this number is being culled daily. I want to know when a site has had new content added so that I can go and read it in place. I know Radio allows you to take a whole post and put it in your weblog but I find that not particularly stylistically pleasing and it throws out my whole flow. So I follow the link and post that on my blog.
RSS feeds are only useful to me as notifications, and for what its worth, I am a short form blogger as defined by Jonathan.

Posted by: Andy Todd on 7 March 2002 at 02:40 PM

Definitely a long form Blogger here. I tend to think of my Blog as a place where I can think "out loud," but it's also a place where I can say, "Hey this is neat, check it out." I see no reason why a Blog can't be both. Jonathon, Shelley - keep blogging just the way you are, and I'll come around to read, just the way I do!

Posted by: Kath on 7 March 2002 at 04:57 PM

Jonathon - don't change the way you write. I look forward to your posts and aspire to write as well as you. RSS is just a format, a protocol, a technology. If I subscribe to your RSS feed then the ability to select how I want your RSS feed presented to me is something to consider when I choose my RSS software, not when I choose who to subscribe to. The ability to summarize, abstract or otherwise trim long content from an RSS feed is just an option I as a user should be looking for when I choose my software.

Posted by: Joe on 7 March 2002 at 05:50 PM

I totally agree with Joe, btw. Write as it makes sense to you to write.
The RSS is secondary to the HTML version.
Let the RSS readers pick and choose what makes sense to them.
And Jonathon, you have a wild imagination! ;->

Posted by: dave winer on 7 March 2002 at 07:10 PM

Thanks, Jonathon. Dave's pithy comment has been roiling around my head for a day or two and, if it's done anything, it has made me look at my own aims, objectives, and motives. You've encapsulated most of my feelings in this post. Like you, I respect the man enormously. His was the first blog I came across about a year ago and I have followed it since. I've been looking at striking a balance between what I have been doing (unloading) and the contradictory brevity (why point to long pieces?) Dave appears - in this instance - to advocate as "the done thing".
As Dave says, and so many others have said recently, "Write as it makes sense for you to write." Our sense of how to write is as subject to change as anything and, in this context, Dave's post has been a good prod.

Posted by: Mike Golby on 7 March 2002 at 09:43 PM

OK guys, thanks for the feedback. I'll just keep writing and let the RSS take care of itself. And Mark, I'll check out Stapler.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 7 March 2002 at 11:23 PM

Thanks Jonathan for noticing my little suggestion. First, Dave Winer, I like your software, and appreciate that you listen more than many. Thank you. I also like reading Dave, Jonathan, Mike and Shelley, and the serendipity of clicking on a link with little idea of where it leads, and picking up a paper and ink book.

Posted by: Michael Webb on 7 March 2002 at 11:58 PM

Jonathon, you managed to make me get up on my soapbox on this one. (I cross-blogged it.) Write. Write often, and write well. Those are the only rules a writer needs to follow, and what is a weblogger if not a writer?
Don't write because you think it'll catch you flow, as Dave puts it. Just write, and if you're good, the flow will catch you.
Would I like another way to let people know I've updated my weblog? Sure, but not if I have to change my writing style to get it.
Hey, putting permalinks in was a big enough deal for me... :-)

Posted by: Meryl Yourish on 8 March 2002 at 07:44 PM

That's pretty much it in a nutshell, Meryl: Write. Write often. Write well. In a real sense, if we obey the first two rules, we're guaranteeing that we'll accomplish the third.
You're correct about the flow, too. Thanks.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 9 March 2002 at 05:21 AM

Uh, people. Can I just ask a very simple question?
Why don't you all just write whatever you feel like writing and not stress about it? None of it is really important in the end, as it's all disposable.
That might sound uncomplicated, but, well...
I bet nobody can argue with this, as it's the flat truth isn't it? (no disrespect meant to anyone, I love reading you all, but a rather large percentage of the planet doesn't even know we exist.)

Posted by: Rogi on 9 March 2002 at 08:03 AM

Ah, but Rogi, we're writing as if they did.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 9 March 2002 at 06:41 PM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour