How RSS can Succeed

Roland Tanglao points to a commentary by Stephen Downes which captures the essence of RSS:

The only way to aproach content location on the internet is to treat it as a self-organizing network. What this means is that inherent in the structure of the internet there are distinct layers of filtering mechanisms, each consisting of a “gather filter forward” mechanism. In some cases, the mechanism is fulfilled by a human agent, as in the case of blogs. In others, it is fulfilled by automatic mechanisms, such as Edu_RSS. And it is likely that Robin Good’s newsmasters will in their own way also play the same role.

What’s important here is that each node of each layer need not worry about the rest, and need not be focused on the goal of the system. The agent seeks what is available, the way a retinal cell gathers light, and passes on what is relevant, the way a neuron passes on a signal. The filtering occurs not in the individual node, but through the independent actions of the aggregation of nodes.

The reason why this system works, while other approaches do not, is that there is no reasonable mechanism which can apply the vast requirements of filtering on a single resource. If we use metadata, the indexing soon outweighs the content. If we use search engines, each resource must be subject to extensive analysis to determine context (or, we do without context, which results in a search for ‘calf’ linking to sites on agriculture an anatomy).

The layered mechanism works because at no point is the entire weight of the filtering process concentrated in a single individual or a single resource. Decisions about selection and classification are made on a case by case basis using very coarse, and unregulated, mechanisms. It means that individual agents can work without the need for central control, with the only requirement for a functional system being an open set of connections between the agents.

RSS is, today, the transport mechanism of choice. There is nothing magical about RSS, except for the fact that it just is an autonomous agent system providing a high degree of connectivity. As tye system matures, additional encoding systems, such as FOAF, say, or ODRL, will play their own important roles, offering different kinds of connections within the same network. The decisions make will become richer, without a corresponding increase in the complexity of the system.

So, RSS could succeed. It will probably succeed. But it is important to keep our focus on what it does well: it allows an individual to scan, filter, and pass forward. That’s all it ever has to do. The network will do the rest.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.