Website traffic + ad-driven business models = why prefer Facebook over RSS feeds?

Curious thing happened to me this afternoon.

Yesterday, I’d done another Internet Monitor Dashboard – this time located at the following redirect: chester.wiki/pride.  It attempted to pull together, from a position of relative ignorance on my part, some thoughts, contrasts and conflicting attitudes on the subject of LGBT Pride events, in particular in my city of residence, Chester – but also pulling back from the day itself (last Saturday) and taking a broader and historical point of view.  I’m aware of its limitations, but felt it useful to attempt to try out the tech and show how it could be used, even if less effectively than it should have been.*

In a parallel way, I did a far better job on poverty and hunger, which I know a lot more about as I’m involved in helping to operate a local foodbank’s website.  I was thus able to produce the following site: chester.wiki/poverty.  Mind you, I was also able to find a lot more RSS feeds relating to the subject, which suit the Dashboard widgets currently available.  Chester Pride’s website itself, for example, was not equipped with such feeds as far as I could see.

Which brings me to the subject of such feeds.  One RSS I was waiting on to function was the Chester Chronicle feed at its Chester Pride dedicated section.  The feed as I inputted it then looked like this:

http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/all-about/chester-pride?service=rss

The Chester Chronicle is actually pretty damn constructive about RSS.  It has a link at the bottom of the homepage which goes to an explanation of how to extract a feed from any of its sections.

Chester Chronicle RSS-feed page

It’s taken from the Birmingham Post, mind – bit of editing needed there, I think! – but when, for example, I go to the Guardian newspaper, I am unable to find corresponding feeds to their respective content (which doesn’t, of course, mean they don’t exist – it just means I’m not up to the job).

As you can see from a closer look at the explanations, however, I’d actually missed out one forward slash in the feed.  This might explain why it didn’t seem to work.  It doesn’t explain why at least two items from today (though not the weekend reports) have appeared in the feed.  Have the dear Chester Chronicle backroom people been adapting their feeds so something appears on one I wrongly constructed?

🙂

If so, we must doff our caps to what would appear to be a hyperlocal and local journalism-friendly approach to the distribution of news.  They might, of course, make it even more friendly by putting an RSS button on their section pages, to avoid incompetents like myself missing out important characters.  (I could do the same myself, actually; after writing this post, I realise I must!)

Which now brings me to the final issue to hand: as I reported previously, it would seem our local council and my local parish council have locked down their websites (either on purpose or by not thinking things through) as far as RSS is concerned, by a) not activating or b) removing what’s generally a basic facility on most content-management systems.  This means journalists and interested citizens have to manually return to the physical website to see if the pages have been updated or not.  RSS, meanwhile, works like a Facebook notification (and no one is ever against those, now are they?!): it tells you automatically when anything gets posted.  It’s really damn useful, and helps spread any organisation’s messages at zero cost, and to a whole world of content-hungry people and media groups to boot.

I wonder if in the case of traditional newspapers which refuse to make RSS easily visible and available to the public whether this isn’t because their ad-driven business model requires page impressions and plenty of web traffic.  The fears being generated are understandable enough, in this sense; what isn’t so clear, however, is why some organisations – the aforementioned Guardian is one – are embracing so wholeheartedly the full impression of entire articles on Facebook, in preference to an RSS which would allow their content to be distributed automagically via the growing sector of alternative local and hyperlocal organisations.

Why do we think the future lies in a smothering Facebook (my opinion – hey-ho, we’re still allowed to have them, right?) and not in an RSS environment we’d have far more control over?  Facebook effectively (OK, only figuratively) burns your printing-press, and replaces it with a list of suddenly borrowed customer-information – ie your customers – in virtual spaces of their making.  Right now, they give you plenty of dosh and exposure, but when your website traffic is close to non-existent, what as a content writer, developer and publisher will be your bargaining chip then?

Here’s my suggestion then, for the future we’re discussing: follow the Chester Chronicle model by making RSS easier – not more difficult – to access.  You can still keep your website traffic with RSS because (at least as far as I know) the embedded link info of an RSS feed elsewhere can be the full text, intro text or simply just the story headline.  It’s under your control.  If your headlines are competent, people will still click through.  Facebook’s alternatives may offer short-term growth – but mark my words, it’ll be cancerous long-term for the publishers who too readily give up their formerly jealously guarded distribution environments: ie their websites.

In a hyperlocal ecosystem where volunteer organisations learn synergy with more mainstream paid approaches, RSS could become the alternative to Facebook’s unseemly takeover of everything online.  Do you really want to form part of a walled garden belonging to the behemoth, where the stats and tech are not under your direct control?

Reach out, then, I suggest, to initiatives like the Internet Monitor Dashboard and other approaches I am personally not aware of: you might find there are alternatives which could benefit us all.

And if I am wrong … well … it wouldn’t be the first time.  I’m no longer deluded enough to think I can change an industry.  Such foolishness lies firmly in the past.  I’m now, quite simply, a very simple proofreader.

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* In my defence, when I finally tweeted the Pride Dashboard link this evening, I did suggest that Chester Pride, the fabulous organisers of the weekend’s event, cloned the Dashboard, made it their own, and built upon it/radically changed it if necessary, with the corresponding knowledge and empathy they would bring to such analysis:

After all, what the Internet Monitor Dashboard, and wider project, brings to web traffic analysis is the ability to develop and build on content from the points of view of those most affected by issues.  Truth comes from such closeness to experience and knowledge, and I think that is where we should be aiming.

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Update to this post, 06/10/2015: I’ve just received this excellent overview and explanation by Damian Radcliffe – another welcome one in a recent series of other welcome articles – on the subject of hyperlocal publishing.  Today’s report grapples with motivations, self-defined labels and a number of other fascinatingly documented issues – the keyword being documented, backed up as the observations are with carefully collected statistics.  You can read more here.  I suggest you do.

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Website traffic + ad-driven business models = why prefer Facebook over RSS feeds?

What we need ain’t just OPEN data but also ACCESSIBLE data

For those of you who know this subject, you’ll know already where I’m going.

For example, on my local council’s website, we have this introduction to the subject of “open data”:

Open data is about increased transparency and about sharing the information we hold with the wider community, to allow them to use the information as they see fit. To achieve this aim, the data must be in open, machine readable formats that can be easily reused.

We’ve created an Open Data section to help:

  • Make data we hold available online (unless private or sensitive).
  • Encourage residents, businesses and other interested parties to interrogate the data and develop applications, hacks and widgets.
  • Increase transparency and accountability.

This is really good, and much appreciated – probably legislated somewhere too; but let’s really not be churlish.

The site links to an explanation of the term “open” when used in this context, which is useful and constructive.  Wikipedia says similar things:

Open data is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.[1] The goals of the open data movement are similar to those of other “Open” movements such as open source, open hardware, open content, and open access. The philosophy behind open data has been long established (for example in the Mertonian tradition of science), but the term “open data” itself is recent, gaining popularity with the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web and, especially, with the launch of open-data government initiatives such as Data.gov and Data.gov.uk.

The “open” bit relates primarily to the licences, the conditions of use and reuse etc.  What I suspected, but also – I realise in hindsight – not exactly what I was looking for.

I’ve already discussed on these pages how the same council doesn’t have RSS feeds on any of its web pages – though they have said they would consider them if there was evidence of a desire amongst its users to have the facilities.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on adding such feeds, where they exist (local newspapers, blogs, etc do have them), in order that we may have a citizen-managed overview of what’s going on in the city of our residence.

I’ve even created, alongside the original chester.wiki, a more localised chester.wiki/upton (the village where I live).  The content is pretty much the same at the time of writing, as in order to create the new Dashboard (site) all I did was press a button and clone the old one.

So over the afternoon, on and off, I’ve been looking around for more localised information to include on the Upton version of the “news-wiki” idea I’m developing.

I stumbled across a WordPress.org-based site which is run by my local parish council.  It’s a beautifully presented site – clearly some thought has gone into its making and content development.  However, at least today, there is one thing that was missing from a standard WordPress.org installation: RSS feeds.  What’s more, the whole site, even the bits of it relating to regularly updated items, appears to have used the “pages” format of WordPress.org instead of the far more functional blogging engine.  We have, essentially, a static website using a blogging platform, with regularly updated pages that don’t use blogging technology!

I don’t know if the RSS has been left off by accident, if I’m simply unable to find it or if the site is in a kind of lockdown mode for some reason or other, but it’s a pretty sad state of affairs any way you look at it that both the main council website as well as what I assume is this official parish council site should choose to make it necessary for citizens and journalists to physically return to its pages every day to check if there have been any updates, instead of taking the cheaper, terribly simple alternative of using automatically notifying RSS feeds.

What’s more, the advantage of RSS feeds from a marketing point of view is that anyone can embed the content, so freely spreading the message of the originator.  Surely this is something that any public body must embrace.

Which brings me to what I realise I’m actually looking for in order that very local news-wikis may get off the ground: not just open data, where the licences offer reusability, remixing and transformation in exchange for proper attribution etc, but also accessible data.  Make it as easy as possible for an ordinary citizen to reuse, remix and transform your information.  Don’t demand that your website or Twitter feed or Facebook page be the only ways the citizens you serve can engage, get closer and – why not? – examine you!

What we need ain’t just OPEN data but also ACCESSIBLE data