Critical Section

Why Aggregators Are Not Good

Thursday,  02/27/03  10:04 PM

Along with blogging, which has reached "everyone is doing it" proportions, another hot meme at the moment is "RSS aggregators".  Uh, what?  (Yeah, they need a catchier name.)  Here's the thing.  A lot of sites and especially blogs make their content available in two ways.  The way you know is this one; as a public website.  The way you might not know is as an "RSS feed".  This means the content of a site is presented in a computer-readable way; essentially a text file with a bunch of links and descriptions.  (Click on this little orange button XML if you want to see this site's "feed".)  Yeah, so?

Well, there are programs called Aggregators which periodically read RSS feeds from a list of sites you've created, and then present an organized view of all the recent content from those sites.  {Popular Aggregators include Radio, NewsMonster, NewsGator, NetNewsWire, AmphetaDesk, and NewzCrawler.}  Some run stand-alone, some run in a web browser, and NewsGator is a Microsoft Outlook plug-in.  Essentially Aggregators provide a slick front-end to the content on a bunch of web sites which you've told it to visit.  They save time because you don't have to click around looking for stuff of interest, and they allow you to organize the content in various ways.

This sounds nice, right?  What could be wrong with this?  Well, let me tell you.  I roam the web daily looking for stuff: news of interest, opinions, discussion, weirdness, you name it.  Part of this is my job (I am a CTO), part of this is because I find interesting and useful stuff, and part of it is, well, fun.  I enjoy visiting a bunch of different sites.  Each site has a different look and feel, a different style.  They are often very personal, and web content is affected by its presentation (just like food!)  But - and here's the problem - Aggregators make all sites look the same.  The whole presentation is lost, and only the raw content is left.

I don't think Aggregators will reach the same "everyone is doing it" level as blogs.  There are busy people who don't care about look and feel who will use them - the same people who eat fast food, probably - but many people will prefer visiting individual sites to taste their content in its natural setting.  As for me, I prefer reading novels to Reader's Digest, I prefer The French Laundry to McDonalds, and I prefer surfing around to using an aggregator.

[ Later: I've caved entirely on this subject; I'm now an enthusiatic user of RSS and SharpReader is one of my favorite applications.  Shows how wrong you can be :)  ]

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