Directories for Domains: a Community Approach

Many of us in a certain subgenre of edtech have been working for a long time to try and use RSS to syndicate and aggregate posts from individual blogs into community sites. These sites are sometimes referred to as planet sites, mother blogs, aggregator sites, syndication hubs, etc. A good example of this is ds106, where posts are not only syndicated into the Blog Flow, but also the assignment bank—making for a richer, more targeted contextualization of student posts. Over the last seven years ds106 has syndicated more the 75,000 posts, providing a point of creative contact—if you will.

The syndication and aggregation for ds106 is all handled by FeedWordPress, which can grab the RSS feed of just about any publishing platform that exposes one. In order to simplify things, we’re using a Gravity Form to help automate the sign-up process. It’s far from a perfect setup, but it has been working fairly well for almost seven years now. In fact, it has been a template for other site aggregators, including the first Community directory site that Martha Burtis and Tim Owens built around UMW Domains in 2014 (which is no longer in use).   Read more

TIny Tiny RSS

ttrs-300x300It’s taken me more than six months to resurrect my RSS reader (pathetic, I know), but I’ve finally imported my forlorn collection of feeds into the open source application Tiny Tiny RSS. I went with this application based on a recommendation from Joss Winn a while back.  It also made sense given UMW has rolled out Domain of One’s Own this year—an initiative that offers the entire campus community their own domain, hosting, and one-click installations from a vast selection of open source applications—amongst which is Tiny Tiny RSS. A little bit of practicing what we preach is always good. More than anything, however, my six month hiatus from reading the web via RSS has reminded me just how invaluable it is to the work I do. A fact that has actually re-inspired my evangelical impulse to push faculty, students, and staff to get on the RSS bus. I mean, how can I resist it’s value when one of the first posts that showed up in my reader was this Rankin Bass animated mashup of John Carpenter’s The Thing (care of Bryan Alexander’s ever inglorious Infocult).

It just feels like I am on the web again.

My RSS Reader Tiny Tiny RSS

A few things about Tiny Tiny RSS. It has a pretty solid collection of plugins with a small, but fairly active, development community. Some of the plugins are packaged with the application, but there are also a fair number that aren’t. The Google Reader Importer plugin is included, you just have to activate it. Given I was moving my archive from Google Reader, this was the first plugin I used. I also had a couple of hundred posts starred in Google Reader that didn’t come over with the import, so I used this hack to the Google Reader importer plugin to preserve the favorited posts as well.

One of the things I noticed right away was that videos don’t embed in Tiny Tiny RSS out-of-the-box. The Videoframes plugin fixes this by enabling embedded videos from a wide range of sites (YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo, etc.), but you have to add it via FTP. This one should be baked in.

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 6.20.58 PM

Also, there are a wide range of plugins for sharing posts in your reader out to Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, etc. The plugin for Twitter worked fine, but the plugin for sharing on Tumblr is throwing an error with the latest version, so I might have to jump on the forum.

But that’s kinda what I like about Tiny Tiny RSS, it reminds me a bit of the early days of hacking around WordPress. I have to work a bit to customize it for my needs—that said it’s very mature application as is—which helps me understand how it works. I can start trying to trouble shoot some plguins, and even become part of a community around the application to figure it out. I don’t need to be a programmer, I just need to articulate the issue and be patient and willing. What’s more, I can bring what I learn back to the UMW community and beyond.

I initially installed Tiny Tiny RSS in the rss.murderinc.biz to give it a test drive. I originally wanted to install it at rss.jimgroom.com, but I didn’t realize I hadn’t set jimgroom.com as an add-on domain at UMW Domains yet. So, when Tim Owens informed me I could add jimgroom.com as an add-on domain to UMW Domains, I wanted to move everything I setup at rss.murderinc.biz to rss.jimgroom.com. Thanks to Installatron, the one-click application  installer we have running on both UMW Domains and Reclaim Hosting, it was a cinch. You click on the Clone button for the particular application you installed, and point rss.murderinc.biz to the new subdomain rss.jimgroom.net and alle ist gut! Making sure things are relatively simple as you try and bring an entire campus up to speed on installing and managing their own applciations on their own domain (and subdomains) is absolutely crucial.

And what’s available for the UMW community through UMW Domains is also available to anyone who is interested in this experiment outside of UMW at Reclaim Hosting. It’s just another venue through which we can spread the love of what’s possible in one’s own space. Along these lines, I was excited to discover (through Brian Lamb’s most recent post) that there’s a broader sense the web’s not dead yet. And there are a list of excellent reasons why staking your own space on the web that you build, maintain, and future-proof independent of third-party sites (though not necessarily at the exlusion of them) might make good sense. I was never under the delusion that a certain group in edtech was alone in this push, but I admittedly live in my own bubble (if and when I am hooked into my feed reader :) )—so it’s nice to read a broader frame for such an approach.

Decentering Syndication or, a Push Away from RSS

Yesterday Steve Covello tweeted a post at wpmu.org my way.

I was prepared  to read about a premium suite of plugins that I could buy for the privilege, but was pleasantly surprised to find Chris Knowles’s post “How to Publish to Multiple WordPress Sites from a Single Install” to be a thoughtful, clear, and  beautifully documented articulation of how the spoke/hub model for pushing content from one site out to another works more generally in Content Management Systems, but for the purposes of his example in WordPress in particular.

452_oseAt first I was interested in this post to start showing faculty and students alike how they can use their WordPress sites to push content out to a number of different social media services like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., but still keep their own version of everything they publish. That, for example, is one relatively simple and powerful reason to use such a spoke and hub model, you are the hub that pushes content out to the various spaces around the web you want it to appear.

But as we got talking in DTLT about this model at 9:30 this morning, it started to get much more interesting. In particular, the plugin that is pushing ones posts, images, videos, etc. in WordPress to all these different sites (what I’ll affectionately called “the pusher”) is Push Syndication  Syndicate out [Update: Tim and Martha tried Push Syndication but couldn;t get it to work so went with a similar plugin Syndicate Out]. One way to think about this plugin is it is does the absolute opposite thing then FeedWordPress, rather then pulling RSS feeds in, it uses XML-RPC to  push content out. So, as Marx did to Hegel, DTLT is doing to distributed course blogs—we’re standing syndication on its head :) Rather than insisting on making the course the hub as has been the case with ds106 (and scores of courses sites on UMW Blogs over the years), why not decentralize the syndication and allow each of the sites to push their content to the hub. Same effect, jut a different approach.

But why? What are the benefits? 1)  it is techncially inline with the ethos of giving the students more control over their work; they can control the syndication in this regard because “the pusher” plugin is installed on their blog. 2) It is far simpler than FeedWordPress for faculty to get up and running with—you don’t have to ask faculty to load in tens of feed URLs for the syndication engine to work. 3) It’s immediate, with XML-RPC, there is no wait for the post to show up. Publishing on the course hub is immediate. 4) It allows for both students and faculty alike to become a hub or a spoke. When I was at the Reclaim Open hackathon at the MIT Media Lab in April Kin Lane was conceptualizing the Reclaim Your Domain around this idea. 5) Less load on the server CPU pulling 100s feeds as weas the case in ds106, in this model you decenter that to a distributd push. 6) The whole process can be automated to some great degree on both the Reclaim Hosting and the Domain of One’s Own server thanks to Installatron. Tim Owens did a mock-up of what this might look like for students and faculty alike.

mock-up_the_pusher.png-large

 

When going through the process of installing a WordPress site in Installatron (pictured above), we can actually build in a dropdown list of courses that you want to publish to from your own site. Martha Burtis, who has been working on the idea of packaging WordPress plugins suites  in Installatron already, is seeing if we can’t get the Syndicate Out plugin to not only get automatically installed and activiated on the student (or spoke) blog, but also identify the hub it will be publishing to based on the dropdown selction. If a student or faculty member choses to create a course on the fly by selecting that option and then naming it accordingly, it will immediately populate in the dropdown along with  a unique identifier. Instantaneously it will allow others to subscribe to it seamlessly. All of this with no mention of RSS! EDUGLU heresy, and I love it!

Thinking out loud here, what Howard Rheingold labored through for his Social Media Issues site, which admittedly is awesome, could be accomplished at the server level with next to no overhead. This is the in-a-box that we actually need to make synidcation course practical in highered. It is a bit hazy here for me (as much of it is right now), but I  think we can manage copy all the login information from the student blogs into the hub at the level of Installatron by grabbing their username and password and copying them to the hub database.  In other words, every student and faculty in such an environment becomes a spoke and/or hub, the idea of the motherblog becomes deprecated  and we start to move toward a more decentered approach wherein each learner can control what syndicates where.

And this is just the beginning, this model would also allow students with a Domain of One’s Own blog at UMW to use the Syndicate Out plugin to seamlessly send their posts out to any UMW Blogs blog they’re an author of. We tried it out today, and it’s absolutely seamless. You can see the spoke post here and the hub republishing on jimgroom.umwblogs.org here. So cool.

We still have a lot to figure out with all this, but as we were talking about it today we started recognizing the fact that Domain of One’s Own has already given way to Reclaim Hosting, Installatron plugins and theme packages, and now a whole new way of approaching spoke/hub syndication models for courses. And I firmly believe this is just the beginning of a whole new level of re-conceptualization, experimentation, and innovation—we’re just now realizing that Domain of One’s Own is more than just giving everyone a domain, WordPress blog, portfolio site, etc.— it’s quickly beginning to feel like a  paradigm shift for what’s possible when it comes to digital publishing at UMW and beyond. It’s actually kinda hard to explain just how exciting it is to go to work these days—my head is constantly buzzing, it’s almost hard to think, no less concentrate, on anything else. DTLT is in the zone right now….