Web 2.0 is all about community, collaboration and conversation. It is for this reason that another term for Web 2.0 is social media. Conversations online are not new: Forums and discussion boards have been places of discourse for years. However, within Web 2.0 discussions are not longer bound to one space, they can travel freely between different services and spaces. That way, discussions can jump from blog to blog, they become decentralized. As a side effect, they get archived and can get tracked easily. The push technology behind all this are RSS feeds (“Really Simple Syndication”), or what can be described as the glue of Web 2.0.
How does it work?
The RSS feeds most blogs and web 2.0 services produce are not just sent to a feedreader (like Google Reader) to be read by a person, but they are sent to other services. Those sites combine several feeds to create extra value. Combining several services is called a mashup. How does RSS work? Watch this brief introductory video (licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-sa, author Lee Lefever):
Video: RSS in plain English
Featured application: Friendfeed
One application that excellently uses RSS feeds to foster conversations is a relatively new service called Friendfeed. What Friendfeed does is take all kinds of RSS feeds – your blog’s feed, your Twitter feed, the feed from your social bookmarking service (like del.icio.us) and more – and combine them in one space. All items from all those feeds are displayed within your friendfeed. What’s more, every item that is imported into Friendfeed automatically can be rated, commented and discussed.
As you can see in the screenshot, a brief Twitter message by Nico_Lumma is “liked” (i.e. marked as favorite, indicated by the smiley icon) by one user, two more have replied with comments. All this happened within a few minutes. Without any extra work, all your online activities are gathered in one feed that automatically becomes subject to your peers’ scrutiny and discussion. It all happens in near-real time, but is also asynchronous. That way, it is possible to get instant feedback, but also to have a longer discussion. Of course, a very brief item of information is more likely to trigger a number of equally brief comments than an in-depth discussion. Note that Friendfeed feeds can also be generated for those people who are not actively using the service. To do this, any RSS feed can be put into Friendfeed, which creates a so-called virtual friend.
Track topical discussions through feeds
Friendfeed allows to track feeds about a certain topic and aggregate them into one space (called a room in Friendfeed). As an example, we set up a room called “education 2.0” which automatically collects the following feeds (and will be expanded step by step): weblogs@UBC, the Digital Media and Learning blog by the MacArthur Foundation and Not So Distant Future, a blog by American librarian Carolyn Foote. Also, it collects all bookmarks Howard Rheingold collects about educational technology. All these feeds are collected in the Education 2.0 room on Friendfeed which also means that all the posted items can easily be commented and tracked. It’s possible to import basically all kinds of information as long it is provided in a RSS feed.
Individual items or whole rooms can also be shared with other users, so this is a simple yet powerful tool for online collaboration. Note that the strength of Friendfeed is not in creating new information, but in filtering: By very selectively watching a small number of information sources recommended by peers and experts, information overload can be more easily managed and handled.
How to know whom to track?
Often, but not always fellow researchers and peers will be able to point you to recommended, high-quality sources that are guaranteed not to waste your time. However, sometimes a topic is too obscure to have an expert at hand. Here, other services can help to identify sources, and thus explore a certain field of expertise.
One such service is called Summize. It specializes on searching Twitter for certain keywords. (Note: Summize was recently acquired by Twitter and is now part of Twitter’s service.) By just entering a keyword, Summize collects the most recent mentions of said keyword. In the screenshot, you see the most recent posts about “education 2.0“. Note the RSS icon on the right side of the screenshot: Here you can get the RSS feed for this particular search query. This feed can be imported back into Friendfeed, so that automatically every mention of “education 2.0” on Twitter will be displayed in the Friendfeed room “education 2.0” introduced above.
Other sources to import into Friendfeed could include: Links from Digg, news from your Google Feedreader, any Blog, Flickr photos or even an Amazon wishlist. What other sources are there? Please share your ideas in the comments!