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A Post about Feeds

A thought: Reading blogs through RSS or Atom feeds is a great way to get chunks of information delivered on a daily basis. I think that this format is amenable to delivering something like a textbook: every day you could post a subchapter-sized chunk of information. Since I’m already setting aside time in my day to check Google Reader, the marginal cost of adding one new feed isn’t very much.

Compare this to the cost of getting a textbook and finding time in the day to read it regularly. Adding a new task to one’s routine is always a tricky proposition, and I doubt I’m the only person who has difficultly committing to these sorts of things. For example: how many people stick to their New Year’s resolutions after the first month? Or even the first week?

But let’s say you shimmy the new habit into an existing routine (e.g., delivering a textbook via a web feed). That is, trick yourself into doing something new by making it look like something old. Well then, my friend! You might just have a higher success rate.

I’ve seen a few blogs that kinda do this. One example is James Tauber’s Poincaré Project, which walks you through the mathematics required to understand the famous Poincaré conjecture1. However, if a reader comes to the site after the project has started they potentially have to read an archiveful of articles to get up to speed. In this case they have essentially the same barrier to entry as with a textbook.

To get around this problem, users should be able to sign up for a personalized feed that gives them asynchronous daily updates drawn from the blog’s archives.

Let me explain. Let’s imagine a blog that attempts to teach its readers computer science. Like a textbook, the first post starts by covering the absolute basics (”What is a computer?”); over time it builds to more complicated concepts (oh, let’s say… concurrency). Unfortunately, by this point the blog’s RSS feed is useless to new readers: they won’t understand the most recent updates without having slogged through months of archives. The big idea behind the blog-textbook2 is basically bupkus.

To resolve this problem, what if there were button on the front page that said “Subscribe from the Beginning”? New readers subscribe with this link just as they would any other feed. But unlike a regular feed, when they go to Google Reader they don’t see the newest post about concurrent programming. Instead it’s the first update, the one explaining what a computer is. And the next day, they won’t see some incomprehensible post about locks and semaphores. No—it will be the second update ever, perhaps a brief overview of the history of computer science. And so on and so on: the new reader continually receives updates—just offset by a few months. It’s as though they stumbled across the blog right when it began.

Incidentally, such a personalized asynchronous feed could work beautifully for webcomics. Comic archives can become intimidating pretty quickly, and many require several hours’ commitment to pore through. (*cough* *cough*) Some people might enjoy such marathon sessions, but it takes time and I often find myself rushing through things, not enjoying the strips as much as I should, becoming desensitized to the jokes and art after hundreds of doses. The “Tag This Comic” functionality (now ubiquitous thanks to ComicPress) is a step in the right direction since it helps break an archive crawl over several sessions—but it’s still not quite there.

But if I could have comics delivered to me one day at a time from the very beginning—as though I’d subscribed to the comic right at its inception? I’d definitely be more amenable to reading some of the long-running webcomics I’m currently missing out on.3

You know, I assume that archive intimidation is a big problem for long-running story-based strips. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the single biggest barrier to growth for well-established webcomics. If I were making my living off my strip, I’d be hugely concerned about it. That’s why I’m surprised to see so many big webcomics still relying on story guides and “New Readers” tabs.4 Aside from the “Tag This Comic” innovation, what else is there?56

I’m not saying this personalized asynchronous doohickey idea of mine is a panacea. For one thing, its use would necessarily be limited to people who know what the heck it is. Few enough people understand (or choose to use) regular feeds, so I don’t know how many new users this idea would snag. Then again, if someone were to code up a solution—say, as a handy Wordpress plug-in—it would be trivial and cost-free for a blogger or webcartoonist to add to their site.7

And now, only after having written this long manifesto, the possibility that I am not the first person to have conceived this idea has finally crossed my mind. If anyone has heard of something that does this sort of thing—well, that’s what comments are for.

1 “Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere.” I know what each of those words means independently. I only have trouble when you put them all together like that.
2 If this idea catches on then we absolutely need to start calling them blextbooks. Oh my god yes we need to do that.
3 Oh, and here’s an added bonus: if the comic in question updates less-than-daily, then your personalized de-synched feed will gradually catch up with the main strip over time! For example, if I’m subscribed to the archive of a Monday-Wednesday-Friday webcomic, my personal feed will update from the archive every day. The strip itself, on the other hand, updates only three times a week. Thus, I’m gaining ground on the newest updates by four strips a week. If the archive has 200 strips, I’ll be caught up in about a year.
4 No, I’m not being a hypocrite. (1) I agree that a well-written story guide/cast page page is definitely a bang-up idea and can go a long way. (Look to Octopus Pie for stellar examples.) (2) Chronillogical’s archives aren’t that daunting (relatively speaking). (3) It’s a matter of incentives. John and I don’t make a living from Chronillogical. I’m merely surprised that people with strong incentives to attract new readers aren’t innovating more. (Of course, it could be that the problem is to some degree insoluble.)
5Well, there’s always the possibility of a reboot. That’s what Kris Straub did at the beginning of this year with Starslip, when (among other reasons) he felt that the strip’s complicated backstory was discouraging new readership. And John Allison cited archive intimidation as one of the reasons he’s replacing Scary-Go-Round with a new strip. That said, there are obvious problems to this approach. John Allison runs the risk of abandoning a story, characters, and a brand that he’s spent years building up. Kris Straub’s reboot was definitely a success, but many readers will still probably see the large archives and be intimidated. Regardless of whatever assurances you may give them, some people just don’t like jumping into a story mid-stream. Heck, I’ve been unwilling to jump into gag-a-day strips without reading the archives. It’s irrational, but some people just like being completists.
6 You can always tell when my thought processes become muddled and befuddled because the footnote density increases dramatically.
7 “Greg!” I hear you say. “Greg! Are you not a recently graduated computer scientist? Could you, perhaps, be the one who codes such an ingenious diversion? Is that not a possibility?” True enough, dear reader. True enough. However, I have much on my plate at the moment (read: job search) and I am not at all familiar with the intricacies of feeds. That said, if anyone is interested in collaborating with me on such a project, feel free to get in touch.