everything's all busticated

I'm deeply dissatisfied with how the internet works these days.

Don't get me wrong, I think things are better now than they were before: every day, there more interesting stuff out there than the day before. There are more voices, and by Sturgeon's Law 90% of them are crap, but that other 10% continues to increase in raw numbers, and that's great.

But it sure was a lot easier to manage stuff back when it was all just email and USENET. There are two pretty basic ideas that have all but vanished in the interfaces we use to acquire information, and those are "subscription" and "mark read."

<lj-cut text="--More--(10%) . . . . once I start, I just can't stop.">

There are dozens of web sites and alternate blog systems out there that I would read if I didn't have to poll them: if I could just sit down in front of my Appliance (mail reader, news reader, web reader, whatever you want to call it) and be presented with all the things that are new since last time.

The way it works today is, I have to click on each of my bookmarks in order, and look: nope, nothing new there. Nope, nothing new there. Livejournal is like that too, to some extent, and it's especially infuriating when there's an interesting thread going on in the bowels of a comment on someone else's journal: if I want to see updates, I have to keep clicking back there to see if anything has been added, and scan through the entire thread while hoping to spot any new entries that happened to appear in the middle of the page. Slashdot has the same problem, but at least there it's easy to momentarily turn off threading and sort by Most Recent First.

There are a bunch of sites out there that implement "URL watchers" that will notify you when the modification-date on a page has changed, but that results in a pretty lame interface. And it doesn't do anything sensible with the message-oriented sites. It's impossible to do anything about it, because every web site invents their own navigation system from first principles: there was no convention for them to follow. It's as if instead of having SMTP, we just have one big directory full of text files, with every author making up their own naming convention to encode topics and recipients.

I'm tempted to write my own URL watcher, but I know that it will end up sucking as much as all the others. And my experiences with webcollage have shown me the futility of doing "screen scraping" and trying to parse HTML generated by other people: the effort of chasing that moving target far outweighs the payoff.

There are lots of folks out there who have journals that I enjoy reading when A: they have updated them and B: I remember to check, but I don't read them very often because it's not easy (which, today, means "they aren't on LiveJournal.") But clearly "everyone should use LiveJournal" is not the right solution. Cool though LiveJournal is, that doesn't scale. What we need are applications that are able to present a common front on all the disparate sources out there.

For example, I enjoy Brunching Shuttlecocks, and always read the new items -- but that's only because it has a Slashbox. If it didn't, I'm sure it would be on the long list of sites that I like but rarely read.

Some people will tell you that RSS/RDF/XML/whatever-they're-calling-it-today will save the day here, someday. Maybe it will, but from what I've seen of it, I can't imagine how, since there still doesn't seem to be any convention to distinguish between headline feeds, like the DNA Lounge Slashbox, and full-content feeds, like this one of Boing Boing. From what I've seen of it, RSS is really good for headline-lists like Slashboxes, My Netscape, etc., but not for much else. There's still no notion of individual messages and threads: there's still no way to have it omit things you've already seen, and show you the things you haven't yet seen, even if their hierarchical and chronological orderings are totally different.

Headline lists are inherently about publishing rather than conversations, which is what makes them simpler. The one editor, many readers model is easier to manage and present than the many-participants model.

I still can't decide whether, when I write DNA updates, I should just link to them from here, or paste the HTML and duplicate it in both places. Neither is really the right thing. brad mentioned that they're working on a way of making it so that someone on LJ could subscribe to an RSS version of another site and have it presented as a regular journal entry, so maybe that's a better way to go than either posting a link, or pasting the text. I think that to make this work requires coming up with a new RSS-based convention for all participating websites to conform to. Maybe there is one already and I just don't know about it.

It's especially frustrating as I spent so many years working on mail/news readers, thinking about these problems and fine-tuning interfaces to make it easier to deal with vast quantities of information... and now the most interesting information out there is in a form that mail/news readers can't touch at all! All that thought and effort by all of those smart people is suddenly inapplicable. On the one hand, we have a class of applications with decades of effort put in to making it easy to manage large numbers of messages in them. And on the other hand, we've got ten zillion web sites full of messages, all in a format that no message-handling-program can come anywhere near.

I think I'd be happier if every single comment on every single journal in the world got emailed directly to me; then it would sit in a folder somewhere, threaded, until I chose to read it or delete it. (Though USENET is obviously a better model for making this scale than email: the model I'm thinking of is one where every message-oriented web site could be viewed as a newsgroup, or something analagous.)

brad also mentioned that the LJ crew are working on a notification system that will let you, e.g., set things up so that you get sent mail when someone makes a new post to a thread you found interesting, which will help, but it's still rather halfassed: it will send you a message to let you know that there are new messages. Presumably it will even be able to append those messages: but still, you end up with a mail folder full of messages from lj_dontreply@livejournal.com, instead of the messages themselves. Your good message-handler informs you that there are updates in this other halfassed message-handler over there.

And don't even get me started on the travesty the world has become when people think that Yahoo Mail is a mail reader, and Google Groups is a news reader. That's like comparing a Vespa to the Space Shuttle.

How can the content get continuously better, while the tools to manage it get continuously worse?

It's all quite mad, I tell you.

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New DNA Update, in which I argue with myself about the worthwhile-ness of our webcasts.

We saw The Scorpion King today: that movie is a lot of fun. Oh man, it is so much better than Episode II. (Though I will concede that Ep2 will spawn the better toys.) rzr_grl would groan every time there was a chain-mail-bikini moment, but I think it helped when I reminded her that she was supposed to be communing with her inner 13-year-old boy to properly enjoy a film like this. It was not as good as Conan the Barbarian, but hey, you can't touch the classics.

I'm enjoying the new friends-of-friends hack way more than I can explain.

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