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About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Enterprise RSS must not die

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Marshall Kirkpatrick over at ReadWriteWeb has said that enterprise RSS is dead. Brad Feld, an investor in Newsgator, disagrees and thinks that RSS is alive and well. There’s a spirited discussion in both posts’ comments that’s worth a scan.

I was talking about enterprise RSS only yesterday, and my experience with it has been that it’s nigh on impossible to get RSS readers rolled out in my clients’ companies (except the really small ones, and they tend to go for Google Reader or something else that’s free, not enterprise). Only two clients over the last four years have actually piloted an RSS reader internally.

One client tried Newsgator, but didn’t like it. I wasn’t privy to that conversation, so all I know is that the feature set wasn’t adequate for the money. That was a couple of years ago, so that doesn’t tell us much about the situation now. The other client also tried Newsgator and the jury was still out at the time my engagement finished, but given that their budget was subsequently slashed to £0, I’m guessing that they too didn’t end up with an enterprise-wide installation.

Of the others, we often didn’t get as far as discussions about cost or features, because the response from IT was a flat “No”. There just was no political will within the company to even investigate the possibility, let along start assessing possible tools. I’ve also had reports of companies saying “Yes, we’ll think about it, but a code review might take upwards of a year”, which is so close to “No” that you couldn’t get a piece of paper between them.

So what’s going on? Certainly it’s not that RSS is a difficult concept to explain. I explain it all the time, and whilst it helps to be able to draw diagrams for people, when you say “Instead of you going round to all those websites you check on a daily basis, the content just comes to you” most people understand. And I don’t believe the people who complain about RSS being a three letter acronym either - I just don’t think people are that stupid.

The Web 2.0 evangelists within enterprise that I’ve known have all been really smart people who totally understand the usefulness of RSS, but often they don’t have the political capital to get things done properly. Often they are working with no budget, and have a hard enough time protecting basic tools such as blogs and wikis from senior managers who’d prefer everything to be in SharePoint instead. They don’t necessarily have the heft to get a new tool rolled out company-wide.

Often, RSS readers are seen as a tool that might benefit a minority of people (the evangelists themselves) and the wider uses across the business are either not discussed or not recognised. This gives IT, or other sections of management, the excuse they need to shut down any sort of RSS reader project. Of course, RSS is not just for edge cases, but a useful tool for anyone who has to deal with lots of incoming information, from marketing to competitive intelligence to research to development… the list goes on and on. Yet if it can be characterised as just for a minority, it can be side-lined and binned.

The Catch-22 attitude - if a technology isn’t used by the majority then it’s not going to be rolled out company-wide, meaning that only a minority can ever use it - is endemic in IT these days. I know that’s a comment likely to bring the IT defenders out of the woodwork, but so often I see IT departments whose only mission is to keep the network secure. Obviously that’s important, but IT is also suppose to be about enabling business, and when IT starts to get in the way of important advances in business technology, hard questions should be asked.

But we can’t lay the blame entirely at IT’s door - it’s more complex than that. It’s partly to do with the immaturity of social tools in business, and the propensity for evangelists to fight on alone instead of seeking external expert advice to bring in an ally. It’s also partly to do with the anti-technology culture that I see rife in some British businesses. It’s partly to do with management’s reluctance to see social tools as a suite, preferring to look for a “quick fix”, which of course doesn’t exist, or engaging in tech tokenism: “Oh, we have a blog, we get 2.0.”

Yet I am also rather worried by the fact that Newsgator seems to be the only kid on the block these days. There are a number of different blogging platforms, with Wordpress and Movable Type being the main contenders. Several wiki platforms, including Socialtext, ThoughtFarmer, Confluence. So why aren’t there more RSS aggregators pitching for the enterprise market? Where’s the competition? Newsgator might be doing fine, but it should be only one of a number of companies providing enterprise RSS solutions, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t the case.

Of course, there are no easy answers, because this really isn’t about the tech as much as it’s about people. It’s about demonstrating the benefits, communicating use cases, reaching and persuading decision makers, and supporting evangelists. None of that can be done easily, quickly, or simply. Can we really expect Newsgator to turn around the attitudes of the tens of thousands of people needed to create a genuine sea change? Enterprise RSS readers can help companies organise and filter information, which is a critical business function in a range of industries. But with Newsgator the last company standing, will they be able to prove RSS’ worth before it’s too late.

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Set-top box and game console as stealth RSS adoption tools

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Recently, I’ve been devoting too much of my quality time to twiddling with my MythTV setup. It gives my old Dell Latitude CPx PIII machine something useful to do. After getting the system up and running, I went the full monty and installed the Myth plugins, which turned a neat little free TiVo-esque setup into so much more, like a media centre with RSS goodness. I just wish that I could have my TV or radio playing in a small window as I do that. And the Myth weather centre with the great satellite animation beats anything I can easily get on any UK website. (The BBC site is getting better, but the navigation is a mess.)

UPDATE: Just as I was thinking about RSS on set-top boxes, I found this story about the Associated Press creating an RSS news feed for the Nintendo Wii. Wow. Except, it’s not RSS. I assumed news feed, meant it was powered by RSS. No, my gaming friends tell me. Still, an interesting way to syndicate news, no matter what the technology. Gizmodo has some screen shots. Nice mash up. Wii owners, let us know how this works.

People talk about RSS being an edge case activity, but that really misses the point. RSS is a powerful tool in its own right, but now, we’re seeing how RSS really unlocks your content from your website, opening up a world of syndication opportunities. It will be the applications where RSS is invisible to the user that really drive adoption, and media companies are only now beginning to scrape the surface.

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Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Is Flock the ultimate blogging tool for journalists? Almost.

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I first used Flock last year after meeting Chris Messina in Paris. He was working to get the word out about the read/write browser at the time. I really liked the idea, partially because it just makes sense as a concept. With blogs, photo-sharing sites Flickr and social bookmarking sites such as Del.icio.us, it makes sense to have a support for these social tools on the browser level.

I have to admit. I downloaded it in December, wrote one blog post and quickly decided that it wasn’t ready for prime time. The tools didn’t work as advertised. I couldn’t even get it to work with my Flickr account, and it made life more difficult not easier.

That was then. This is now. A few weeks ago as I was looking for an RSS reader and other blogging tools to make life easier for my new colleagues at the Guardian. I downloaded Flock again. It’s now my default browser at work. The RSS reader alone is pretty good. RSS is the most under-utilised technology for jourrnalism bar none. For journalists wanting to use RSS, Flock is definitely worth a download (and this article is worth a read). It’s not as full-featured as NetNewsWire, but it’s damn good.

And from a blogging standpoint, it’s better than Sage, my favourite RSS plug-in for Firefox. If you see a post in your feed reader you want to blog, just click the blog button and up pops a window for a new blog post.

I actually like the uploader tool for Flickr photos better than Flickr’s own tool, although truth be told I haven’t used the Flickr uploader in a few months. But even more than the uploader, I like the fact that with a click, I can create a new blog post from my Flickr photos. I can easily see the pictures of my Flickr friends, too, which is a nice feature for personal use.

It has all the search functionality of Firefox and more. You can also set it to search your local history. It has all of the search plug-ins from Firefox.

OK, that was the good. Now for the bad, or at least the work in progress. I liked the spell checker because as you well know if you’ve read Strange for a while, I really benefit from a good editor. However, I discovered just yesterday that it puts span tags around the words it questions or changes. Well, initially, I just saw all the span tags and wondered WTF? It was only after a quick Google that I discovered it was the spell checker that was spawning the spans. It doesn’t look like a new problem, blog posts about it since the summer. I hope it gets fixed.

Suw downloaded Flock after finding Firefox 2.0 broke her can’t-live-without session saver plug-in. Here are her impressions:

I am finding that it isn’t behaving well when posting to a blog either - it just sits there and tries to post without ever completing the action (even though it does post). As you say, minor but annoying.



I also have a problem with the behaviour of their search bar - the sub-menu comes up whenever you click in the search area, instead of when you click on the G, (which is Firefox behaviour) meaning that when I am trying to select all by triple-clicking, it doesn’t work so well.



I have to admit, I am still liking Firefox better than Flock, but determined to still give it an honest trial

The HTML code is not entirely clean. I’m just looking at the source code of this post. The code definitely needs a tidy up.

But it’s getting there. Beginning bloggers could definitely do worse, and journalists who find Movable Type or WordPress’s interface daunting or difficult will find it much easier. It’s come a long way in the last year. I’m hoping that development continues and the bugs and quirks get ironed out.

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Blogged with Flock

Thursday, February 10th, 2005

Fighting ‘feed intimidation syndrome’

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Tammy Green takes my post about RSS overload and turns it into a great guide for people who want to start using RSS but really aren’t sure where to start.

I agree with Tammy that the blogosphere, and RSS, can be very intimidating for those who are just starting to feel their way, and think her suggested methodology is eminently sensible:

  • Start with a list people or authors whose opinions you know and respect, and then check if these folks have blogs.
  • Subscribe to their feeds, if they have them…
  • Live with the feeds you’ve found for a few days and then ruthlessly delete those that don’t add value to the topic you’re pursuing.

Tammy has some other intermediate steps, but that last one is the one that I think is both the most important, and the hardest.

Thursday, February 3rd, 2005

How metafeeds will lead the way to RSS nirvana. Maybe.

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I have blogged before about RSS overload, the problem of simply having too many feeds in your aggregator to be able to read them all. Now Bill Burnham gives it a name, Feed Overload Syndrome, and discusses how “RSS threatens to sow the seeds of its own failure by creating such a wealth of data sources that it becomes increasingly difficult for users to sift through all the “noise” to find the information that they actually need.”

He then describes the problem in detail and discusses possible solutions. Syndicating the results of keyword searches instead of actual blogs, he says, is not an ideal approach for three reasons: many RSS feeds are excerpt not full post, thus preventing comprehensive indexing; keyword searches become less effective the more data you index; keywords can have multiple meanings which produce noise in the results.

The new Technorati tag system is also ‘fundamentally flawed’ in his view:

The problem at the core of tagging is the same problem that has bedeviled almost all efforts at collective categorization: semantics. In order to assign a tag to a post, one must make some inherently subjective determinations including: 1) what’s the subject matter of the post and 2) what topics or keywords best represent that subject matter. In the information retrieval world, this process is known as categorization. The problem with tagging is that there is no assurance that two people will assign the same tag to the same content. This is especially true in the diverse “blogsphere” where one person’s “futbol” is undoubtedly another’s “football” or another’s “soccer”.

I agree that this is a big problem with tagging, if what you are aiming to achieve is a flawless, cross-referenced database of blog posts. In an ideal world, that would be nice, but this is not an ideal world and people are used to the internet not working quite right. Users learn how to rephrase their search terms to improve results and once Technorati allow for more complex tag searches or starts to produce clustered search results then semantic issue becomes less important. (Although I doubt they will ever become irrelevant regardless of what is done.)

Instead, Bill Burnham believes that the way to RSS nirvana is through the use of metafeeds - “RSS feeds comprised solely of metadata about other feeds”.

Combining meta-feeds with the original source feeds enables RSS readers to display consistently categorized posts within rich and logically consistent taxonomies. The process of creating a meta-data feed looks a lot like that needed to create a search index. First, crawlers must scour RSS feeds for new posts. Once they have located new posts, the posts are categorized and placed into a taxonomy using advanced statistical processes such as Bayesian analysis and natural language processing. This metadata is then appended to the URL of the original post and put into its own RSS meta-feed. In addition to the categorization data, the meta-feed can also contain taxonomy information, as well as information about such things as exact/near duplicates and related posts.

RSS readers can then request both the original raw feeds and the meta-feeds. They then use the meta-feed to appropriately and consistently categorize and relate each raw post.

The benefits of using metafeeds as outlined by Bill look great. You would be able to find related documents, eliminate duplicates, create custom taxonomies, combine metafeeds and have your information “consistently sorted and grouped into meaningful categories”.

I have to admit, that sounds great. It would be wonderful to be able to create complex search strings and to get a feed back from the web that would contain only relevant posts and no duplicates. It would indeed be a form of RSS bliss.

It won’t, however, solve the problem of RSS overload - it is likely that it will just make it worse. Bill’s fix is a technical solution to a non-technical problem, and as such it is only half a fix.

We have always lived in a world where there was more information available than any one person can comprehend, but before email, the internet, blogs and RSS feeds, the limiting factor was not the existence of the information but gaining access to it. The form of the information limited the speed with which it could be accessed: having to go to a library, find the right book or journal, turn the pages, reading them one by one; gaining an introduction to an expert, persuading them to sit down with you and discuss the matter at hand; or doing empirical studies in order to reveal the information sought. It all took time.

Now the data we seek is easily accessible and the problem has shifted - it’s not finding information that’s the issue, it’s finding the right amount of the right information. The limiting factor is no longer access but discrimination. There is so much information available that it’s hard to know which bits to trust.

Anyone who paid attention at university learnt that the way you do library research is to cross reference your sources - you can’t trust one single source to be telling the truth so you learn to triangulate. The more sources that tell you that zebras are black and white, the more you believe it. Then you learn to weight your sources by credibility and reputation. If Learnéd Academic Journal tells you that zebras are black and white, then you feel confident that all other sources are going to agree with that, and it’s easier then to discount the Tabloid Freakshow Magazine article that claims to have discovered a purple zebra.

That’s basic research methodology. Cross reference. Consider the source. Keep a bibliography. And it’s a hard, hard habit to break, even for people who didn’t know that they were doing it.

RSS overload is partly to do with trying to triangulate the ‘truth’ from too many sources. There are many blogs devoted to Macs, for example, and the urge is to read them all to see what each one is saying, to compare the information in order to draw some conclusion as to what is most likely to be true. In blogging, there really aren’t any Learnéd Academic Journal-type sources with the sort of standing that allows you to immediately trust them. There are many reliable blogs written by many well-informed people, but it is difficult to tell which they are until you have completed your triangulation, reached your own conclusion and found that it syncs with what your now trusted blog tells you.

Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as many previously trusted data sources are being shown to be less than trustworthy, but we do have to recognise that this whole process of building up a list of trusted blogs takes time and effort. Although to some degree trust can be passed on to other readers through word of mouth recommendations, we are still doing more work to locate trusted sources than we used to.

Another problem not solved by Bill’s metafeeds is that of completism. If you’ve ever met a rabid collector of stuff then you have probably met a completist, someone who just can’t bear not to have every last Star Wars toy, or every last scrap of Elliott Smith memorabilia. That’s what makes collectors collectors.

Many bloggers are completists too - information completists. To go back to the Mac example, you may rapidly decide which feeds are most reliable and which are mainly talking rubbish, but that doesn’t mean you are going to delete the rubbish feeds from your aggregator because there is the possibility, however slim, that they might just break the rumour of the G5 PowerBook that you’ve been desperately waiting for all these months.

Then there are the long link trails left for us to follow when we are researching our next post. You come across an interesting post, it contains links, which you follow, and then that contains more links which seem relevant so you follow those too… and then you check Technorati and read the posts you find there, and they lead to more and more posts and before you know it you’ve spent a day researching a blog post that is only two paragraphs long.

Information completism is dangerous - it leads to chronic information overload and can turn into a form of ‘legitimate procrastination’. Because link trails are convoluted and potentially exceedingly long, it’s easy to over-research instead of actually get on with the post.

The only cure is to accept that we are human and flawed and we cannot possibly know everything about everything. We can’t even know everything about one thing, because there is too much to know, too many perspectives to take on board, too many angles to look at it from. We cannot and should not attempt to read every post and comprehend everyone’s point of view on a subject.

Instead we should refine our lists of sources down to a few trusted writers, and let the rest go. Is the Mac idiot whose blog makes you fume really going to break news about a new G5 PowerBook? No. Ditch it. Is reading every post about RSS really going to make your post about RSS overload any better? No. Read what you need then get on with the writing.

If anything, Bill’s metafeeds could well add to the problem of RSS overload by adding more sources to the mix. Instead of cutting down the number of feeds people try to read, it will add to them by providing alternative concretions of data which supplement existing sources rather than supplant them. This is because of the third flaw in his plan - blogs are social, and his fix is technological.

Most of the blog feeds I read on a daily basis I read for social reasons rather than informational reasons. I have 56 feeds in my ‘friends/dailies’ group in NetNewsWire, another ten under ‘acquaintances’. None of these feeds have anything to do with information per se. They could not be replaced by any sort of keyword search and metafeeds would be simply irrelevant in this context. I read them because I want to know what these people are up to - they are friends or people I wish were friends.

But even here, where you would think that the territory is fairly well defined, there is a problem of bloat. Social networking is great, it allows you to meet a whole bunch of interesting people you would never otherwise have met, but widening your social circle also means you have more friends and acquaintances to keep up to date with. Whilst individuals may not expect you to read their blog, (indeed, I remain in a state of permanent surprise that anyone reads any of my blogs at all), there remains a nebulous feeling that one really ought to. I’m now connected to a ludicrous number of people, and in all honesty there is no way I can read everyone’s blog.

The problem of RSS overload is not completely technological and a technological fix will not work. Instead it is partly technological, partly cultural, partly social, and partly down to our own personality quirks and habits. Metafeeds may help us find more relevant information more easily, but they won’t cure the information overload problem. Only we can do that, by cutting down on the number of feeds we read, the number of tabs we leave open in Firefox, and the number of people whose blogs we follow.

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Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

500 down, 3061 to go

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I’ve been gathering feeds in my Bloglines aggregator for some time now, hoarding them like a bower bird in a tinsel shop, weaving them together into one unholy unread mess. A few months ago I had a flurry of half-hearted search activity for the perfect aggregator, and although then I think I concluded that the RSS plug-in for Firefox was nifty and that BlogMatrix Jäger was also worth a look, my nomadic non-laptop owning lifestyle of the time meant that a web-based aggregator was the only serious option, so I stayed with Bloglines.

At the beginning of this week I had 310 feeds showing around 25,000 unread posts. I had toyed with the idea of declaring RSS bankruptcy and just starting again, but I was getting increasingly unhappy with chaotic state of my feeds and deep down I knew that hitting ‘mark all posts read’ would do nothing to solve the problem in the long run.

There were two issues. Firstly, I never had enough time to sit and read all my feeds, or even to work out which ones I could safely mark as read whilst actually leaving them unread. Thus I would pick which feeds to read based on which had the lowest number of unread posts (anything in double figures was likely to get ignored, triple figures ensured I wasn’t gonna touch it for a goodly long time). Secondly, although I had made a stab at categorising them through the use of folders, they really were all over the place and utterly chaotic. This meant that ever time I glanced at Bloglines I was confronted with one fugly mess.

Aggregator crisis point had been reached.

The advantage of hanging out with well informed blog-geek Mac-obsessives is that when I whine about needing a new aggregator, I am given advice and I happily make the assumption that whatever is recommended is going to be good. So over the last couple of days I have migrated my OPML (someone, please sort out some sort of OPML standard so that I can export/import without having to manually to fix crappy, import-snafuing code) from Bloglines to NetNewsWire.

Immediately my unread headlines list diminished to less than 4500, just because NNW only pulls down the latest 30 headlines, instead of the maximum of 200 that Bloglines marks as unread before it stops counting. I managed to quickly delete 25 blogs I knew I didn’t need anymore, and easily sorted the rest into folders. Sitting now on the train back to Dorset, I’ve read through around 500 posts, because NNW caches them locally so I don’t need to be connected in order to read.

At last, I feel like I am in control of my aggregator again. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that I ought to be absorbing, instead of feeling scared to open my aggregator because the unread posts are gonna overtop any second and flood my poor little brain, I feel like I have a nice, tidy resource that I can dip into any time I want. Of course, much of this is an illusion, facilitated by a folder cunningly called ‘blogs/tech/stuff’ which contains pretty much everything that’s currently uncategorised, but I can cope with that act of wilful self-deception.

All this, the offline reading, the chilling out with my friends’ feeds, the feeling of regained control, has been reinvigorating. There have been blogs of friends that I’ve not read in ages because I felt like I ’should’ be reading blogs related to work, even though frequently those are some of the least interesting blogs to read. No one can begrudge me spending a train journey reading through non-work stuff, not even me and I’m the worst workaholic I know.

Thing is, it’s reading the unrelated stuff, the fun stuff, that is important. It’s through picking up on a random comment by someone else that some how fits in just so with something that someone else said and something that I was thinking that pokes my brain and gives me that a-ha! moment that I constantly seek. It’s through faffing and playing around on the edges of things and allowing my brain to synthesise ideas without the imposition of expectation or structure that I stand the greatest chance of coming to some new understanding. It’s through finding a gem of a post that I regain/retain my love for blogging - and, doing what I do, maintaining a love for blogging is essential.

Thursday, August 19th, 2004

Shop by RSS with Woot!

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Woot! is a webshop which specialises in “buying stuff cheap”, usually electronic gadgets, and then selling it online at a heavy discount. Each day Woot! makes one new product available on the site which stays there for 24 hours, or until they sell out. If you fancy the gadget and like the price, you have one day to buy it, then its gone forever.

Today’s gadget, for example, is a Archos Ondio 128MB MP3 Player/Ripper with FM Radio which is selling for $60, against a usual price of ~$150.

The really cool thing about Woot! is that you can get an RSS feed and shop via your aggregator. Now, that really is a bargain.

(Via A Penny For…)