There's no question that one of the great deliverables of social technologies and networks is the way in which they efficiently aid us in the filtering and organizing content. This is not a story about RSS, but I want to use it as an example of a technology that's relevant to the larger challenge of sharing and/or archiving content that's hosted in multiple but dissimilar "containers." I see it as an uber-tagging problem.
RSS is unquestionably a social technology and for the sliver of Internet users that have discovered and leveraged it so far (and, percentage-wise, it's still a sliver), there's a good chance that they're wading through far less muck than others are in order to snack on the content that most interests them.
For example, I rarely if ever visit the main entry points (home pages, category pages, etc.) of the tech media (InfoWorld, eWeek, ComputerWorld, Slashdot, The Register, ZDNet, etc.) any more. With their different layouts, it's far too time consuming for me re-orient myself as I jump from one of those sites to the next, only to have to dig around their pages looking for the content that most matters to me. RSS readers like Google Reader (the one I use), Newsgator, and Attensa give me one interface (no re-orientation necessary) through which to experience the latest content from all my favorite sources (an act that by itself efficiently weeds out the sources I could care less about).
It takes some discipline, but part of my daily ritual involves periodic visits to a Firefox tab that's always open to the "New Items" view of my Google Reader account and:
- Hitting the refresh button
- Using the "N" key (for "next") to advance through the headlines that arrived since I last visited the tab
- Pressing the "M" key (for "mark") to mark the headlines I don't care about as "read"
- Hitting the refresh button again so the marked items disappear and all the remains are unread items -- the items I intend to do something with.
In fact, I'll bet that for most people, virtually every act of content consumption ends this way. Whether it's our RSS readers, our e-mail inboxes, our voice mail, some set of search results, or just random visits to Web sites, we're doing one of three things with each item we encounter; we dismiss it, we act on it immediately (eg: I reply to your e-mail) or we archive it with the intention of acting on it later. Archiving an item could be a simple as leaving it where it is. After all, as long as you're not dismissing it or acting on it now, you're saving it for later (another word for archiving). When we do that, whatever container it's in (eg: our e-mail client) ends up becoming an unnatural extension of our to-do list.
Thankfully, to make it easier for us to take action on that archived content later (which means having to find it), we have plenty of organizational tools at our disposal for categorizing and clustering related items. Some are socially oriented. Others not. Herein lies the problem: if I have 10 related items that, for archival purposes, need to be clustered together with the idea of using them all in some single future project, and 3 of those items are in e-mail, 3 are in my RSS reader, 2 are simply Web pages I visited, 1 is a document on my hard drive, and another is a message that someone texted to me on my cell phone, how do I easily find and retrieve them from that one archive (virtual as it may be)?
Via e-mail for example, I get pitched by vendors on all sorts of stories. Some get dismissed (deleted). Some get acted on right away (I'll reply, write about them, tweet about them on Twitter, or forward them to fellow bloggers that might want to write about it themselves). Others, I archive thinking that I'll come back to them and write them up in my blog, or I'll come back to them as part of a larger project that I'm working on.
Let's say that project is one on green computing. But let's also say items are also arriving in my RSS reader that have to do with green computing as well. In Outlook, I could file the e-mail in a folder called "Green Computing." In Google Reader, I can tag the item with the tag "Green Computing." If I happen across some content on the Web that didn't show up on one of my "antennas" (email, RSS), I can bookmark it in a Firefox bookmark folder called "Green Computing." Ideally, I don't want to have to go to multiple places to get at all the archived information that's relevant to my Green Computing project when the time for that project comes up.
As more business people begin to discover the efficiency of social tools when it comes to discovering and archiving content that's relative to them and those social tools end up as part of their organizations' IT fabric (whether the IT department knows it or not), the larger challenge of efficiently organizing and collaborating over that information is going create some technology challenges, perhaps forcing IT managers to rethink their infrastructures and set some standards.
Today for example, there are ways to "ubertag." But unless certain solutions are escaping me (please let me know if you know of one or more), not only does ubertagging force you into making some long term commitments that you might later wish you hadn't made, there's also a bit of friction that makes it feel rather unnatural.
For example, one way to solve the the problem above is to annoint your e-mail client as the ubertagger. Using the above example, if I'm using Outlook (a decision) and the Newsgator plug-in for Outlook (another decision), I could create a folder called Green Computing (I can even make it a shared folder for collaborative purposes) and archive Green Computing-related RSS items as well as Green Computing related e-mail into that folder. I can even drag the URL's of randomly visited Web pages from my browser into that folder.
In my case however, once I do that, Outlook's security prevents me from opening it for fear that it's an unsafe item. I can probably reconfigure Outlook to let me open it, but then, am I creating some other vulnerability that's not worth creating? To work around the problem, instead of dragging the page into my Outlook folder, I can send it to myself via e-mail and then drag the resulting e-mail into the Green Computing folder. Not only do a lot of Web pages I visit have an "e-mail this story" button, both Firefox and Internet Explorer can send the current URL via e-mail to the recipient of your choice.
Another approach, one that I was playing around with this morning, relies on Yahoo's del.icio.us social bookmarking service. Suppose for example you don't want to use Outlook or an RSS reader that can be plugged into it like Newsgator. If a Green Computing item shows up in Google Reader's river of headlines, I can click through to the actual Web page and post it as a bookmark to my del.icio.us account and tag that bookmark "GreenComputing." Even better, I could use the del.icio.us plug-in for Firefox and instead of having to click through Google Reader in order to retrieve the page that I want to post to del.icio.us, I can right click on the URL in Google Reader and post that URL directly into del.icio.us (with the GreenComputing tag) through the resulting pop-up dialog.
Likewise, if I'm using Web based e-mail (eg: the non-AJAX version of GMail), I can also bookmark and tag individual e-mail items in my del.icio.us account. The same goes for documents if I pick a Web-based productivity suite like Google Apps which is capable of assigning the equivalent of a bookmarkable permalink to each document (with the one caveat being that not everybody who can see your del.icio.us bookmarks will be able to see those documents because they won't have the credentials to get into your Google Apps account).
What got me into thinking about ubertagging (or uberfoldering as it may be)? In the course of sifting through headlines in Google Reader, I started to take advantage of Google Reader's tagging capability. For example, right in Google Reader, I can tag some item for "GreenComputing." Much the same way GMail allows for tagging of e-mails in such a way that you can dive into a tag and see all e-mails to which that tag was assigned, tagging an RSS item in Google Reader creates the equivalent of a folder in Reader's left-hand nav that can be used to view nothing but RSS items for one tag like GreenComputing.
But the more I used it, the more I realized it was becoming a relatively isolated island of personal technology. If for example, I randomly encountered a page through Google Search that I'd also want to tag for GreenComputing, I could do it through del.icio.us. But to get that URL into Google Reader, I'd have to take the extra step of subscribing my Google Reader to the RSS feed associated with my del.icio.us account and then waiting for the page that I bookmarked in del.icio.us to show up in Google Reader and then using Google Reader to tag it. I could also pipe everything over to GMail (eg: send Web pages to my GMail account) and use GMail's tagging capabilty to arrive at what's essentially the same conclusion. Only in that case GMail is my ubertagger instead of Google Reader. OK, it's not pretty and I can't imagine one of the clerks down in the general counsel's office figuring out a work around like that, but hey it works.
At some point (this is hopefully on Google's to do list), I'll be able to access Google Reader with the same Google account that I use to access Google Apps (I can't seem to do that right now) and, by doing so, Google will centralize my tag taxonomy in such a way that, whether I'm tagging Google Apps documents, Google Reader RSS items, or GMail-based e-mails, I not only have access to all three through the one tag, it's also in a collaborative context so that those I'm working with can join in on the fun. When you think about this, it's hard to imagine search results not coming into play here which is why, if you ask me, between the need to tag and the need to collaborate, Google can't avoid having a del.icio.us competitor at some point. Even if it has to "back" into it.
Finally, in the bigger picture, given the collaborative possibilities with just about any approach, there are some important implications for IT managers to consider as more so-called information workers start to discover the efficiency of social technologies and, in the course of working around the friction in ways that I've described, end up making choices that may not necessarily jive with the choices that others within an organization are making. It can't hurt to start thinking strategically about this problem now so that somewhere down the line when it makes more sense to standardize on certain social technologies, a handful of your earliest adopters aren't faced with some sort of massive and painful export/import project.