The feed is gone

Over the weekend, I added my Ma.gnolia bookmarks feed to my blog post template, such that every post would be followed by links to and descriptions of the last five external web pages to have caught my fancy. Inserting the feed into the template was easy and took all of three minutes.

This morning, I removed the feed.

Why I inserted the feed

From 1995 until around the time Happy Cog worked on the Ma.gnolia design project, one of the things I wrote about here was other people’s websites. I did it because I was passionate about web design, and so were the people who read this site. And of course, writing about other people’s sites also provided a ready form and steady stream of content. From 1995 until about 2001, I wrote here several times a day, and had millions of readers.

Then married life, and a business that grew in spite of my lifelong effort to avoid commercial success, ate into my blogging time. Today I write less frequently and have fewer readers. In an effort to provide linkage even when I don’t have time to write posts, I added my Ma.gnolia feed to my site’s sidebar in 2006. (It’s still there, on my front page. You may need to scroll down to see it.)

A flaw in the design

Not everyone notices the Ma.gnolia feed in my sidebar, due to a flaw—one of many—in the way I redesigned in 2004. (I used to redesign this site several times a year, but haven’t touched it since Spring of 2004.)

When I redesigned in 2004, I thought it would be “neat” to make my sidebar’s linked text almost the same color as the background until you hovered over it. The idea being that the focus was on the site’s content, not all the little crap in the sidebar. The sidebar was like sand, and you, the reader, were like a beachcomber with a metal detector. Hover the metal detector over the sand, and you might find a quarter. Hover over my sidebar, and you might find additional content.

Like most “neat” ideas that aren’t entirely practical, this one required compromise in the execution. The result is a conventional sidebar with low-contrast text. Because of the low contrast, lots of people (including people with certain kinds of dyslexia) pay little attention to the sidebar’s content. So I need to redesign.

But meantime, slipping the Ma.gnolia feed out of the sidebar (on blog posts) and into the body of posts itself seemed like another neat idea. People who’d ignored the Ma.gnolia feed in the sidebar would now, finally, bask in its glory. Every post would end with the last five third-party links I’d reviewed. Neat, neat, neat.

Why I removed the feed

This morning I removed the feed from the body of the blog posts for a technical reason and a design/usability reason.

Technically, as we all know, it’s not a great idea to pull content from a third-party site. The third-party site can be slow. It can get hacked. It can even go down, causing one’s own pages not to finish rendering. (As I write this, Ma.gnolia’s server appears to be taking a little nap—an infrequent occurrence, although the server is often slow. As for my embedded Twitter feed, like yours, it suffers from near-constant narcolepsy.)

And from a design usability perspective, the idea just didn’t gel. For one thing, people would dig up old posts and write comments on them about sites newly added to the Ma.gnolia feed. Owing to the age of the posts, those comments were unlikely to be found by other readers. And as soon as the feed updated, the comments would become nonsensical, because they discussed content no longer found in the post.

So the feed is gone.

[tags]design, usability, ma.gnolia,, happycog, links[/tags]

42 thoughts on “The feed is gone

  1. It sounds like the ideal situation would be a wordpress plugin that attached Ma.gnolia links to the post at the time you wrote it. The links would be the same age as the post, and you wouldn’t be dependent on an external resource.

  2. The sidebar is almost invisible until you really focus on reading it. I don’t see that as a problem, but then again, I can see the text on it.

    The content from 3rd party feeds are often not worth the trouble they cause, especially when one has any difficulties serving content in the first place. This is something that’s become quite clear to me during the last couple of days.

  3. Michael:

    For about six months, I’ve been trying to figure out how to create a plug-in that would associate any stream (such as Flickr, Ma.gnolia, and Twitter for example) with a given post, so that a post from a particular day in April 2008 would have photos and Tweets and links from that same day, or a user-determined close time frame.

    The idea is to collect time-related objects, as one can easily do when hand-rolling a blog post in HTML, but as one presently cannot do with automated blogging software and social networking applications.

    Imagine a blog post from five years ago that talks about your band, and is associated with Flickr photos of you and your band as you looked five years ago—not because you manually inserted the photos, but because time-linkage between web applications is possible.

    Imagine a blog post from five years from now that talks about your wedding and is associated with Flickr photos of your wedding—not because you manually inserted the photos, but because time-linkage between web applications is possible.

    Imagine the poignance and reality blogs and blog posts could take on with these kind of related materials. That would be a real Web 2.0.

  4. I have not been following your Ma.gnolia feeds from here because I follow them from Ma.gnolia. But you’re right, I don’t think I even noticed they were there in the sidebar.

    As far as your time-related association goes, I think this is just fallout from the “fresh is better” primary attitude that blogging has made pervasive. Fresh can be great but so can useful content be good. The time-ordered organization of blogging has kind of turned the taxonomy of subjects on its head – despite the associated tags.

    I think it’s simply time for products like Word Press to grow up a little more and go to the next level.

  5. Thanks, as usual, for your insight. I’ve been wondering the same thing about contextual (content- or time-based) relationships between different streams, Twitter, Flickr, what have you. If you figure out a workable solution, please share! (I’ll try to do likewise in the unlikely event I beat you to it.)

  6. I’ve been in the same boat as you in a way. I’m debating on redesigning my site (which entails probably 60-70 pages). My main reason is when I designed my site a year and a half ago, I was only shooting for html transitional but since then, I have designed all my sites to validate as Strict. I guess time is the only thing stopping me, and a lack of inspiration for a new design.

    I like the design of your site but it probably could be freshened up a bit. Perhaps it’s time to switch to a 960px wide layout? You could give your content a bit more room to breath that way. I would continue to use all the same colors since you’ve sort of branded yourself with these for so long now.

  7. Smacking my forehead right now for not thinking up that “time-associated” plugin idea for third party content. Love the concept of going back to a previous post and having all the included Flickr/Twitter/etc content be from the time the post was created, not the most current items. Historical context, and solves a very mundane issue of content repetition to boot.

  8. Another thing that could help (along the plugin front) would be to aggregate the feeds you want into database tables. That way you could more carefully control how old entries access the data (by timestamp, keywords, or location, say).

    And if you’re storing this content directly (albeit redundantly) you wouldn’t have to worry about the state of Twitter or Ma.gnolia when it comes to your site loading.

  9. @j. rainsford, the site need a rethink before it gets a redesign. It will likely either do more or less than it does now. Either way, it feels like it will require a substantial reworking.

    @Neal G, it might be time to switch to a 960 px wide layout, but it might rather be time to switch to an even narrower single column layout that focuses purely on the primary content. A single column layout could also be quite sweet on the iPhone. A single column layout is how I’ve been daydreaming it for the past six months or so.

    @David Sleight, we discussed this idea six months ago, remember when?

    @Jeff Croft, caching the content pulled from Ma.gnolia _would_ solve the speed problem. How would you do it?

    @Erik, same question as Jeff Croft. Thanks!

  10. I’ve followed your “Outside Reading” links for years. They’re always carefully selected, relevant AND interesting. The color scheme never bothered me, but my eyes are pretty good. I did find the inclusion of the feed within the main posts confusing and distracting, especially since I already followed them on the sidebar.

    Whatever you end up doing as far as redesigning/reformatting your site, I hope you do keep some kind of “Outside Reading” list.

  11. I think you should at least put them back in the sidebar. I’ve often found those links to be interesting and informative, and there’s no reason not to include them on the post pages as well as the main page.

    I like the idea of being able to gather up a temporally-appropriate selection of feed items per post as well though. As Erik said, it seems like it would be a reasonably simple task to create a local table (feed date/URL/title/description) and then throw an appropriate query at it to pull entries from a preset window either side of the post date.

  12. Well, I do exactly that on my site (all of my links come from Ma.gnolia), and I just store them in my database permanently. I query Ma.gnolia’s API every 10 minutes for additions to my bookmarks, pull the data down, and save it in my database.

    But, that’s a bit of a heavy solution, because I want to save the data permanently — something lighter might work for you. You could set up a cron job to grab the feed every x number of minutes and save it locally — then include that file in your site, rather than the remote copy from Ma.gnolia. That’s what I’d suggest! :)

  13. First I must say that my wife and I love the Mr. B Natural short (re: your current links). MST3K has been one of our favorites for years.

    As for relating social bookmarks to dates or date ranges, the information seems to be available (posting dates are on your page, as on my page). Now if I could make a nice little PHP script to scrape the data and get it into WordPress… I’ve never created a plugin before. Might be time to try.

  14. Gak, you’re right. Apologies. Present conditions have rendered into swiss cheese what was once a glittering pile of crackling synapses. I’d take a crack at it myself if my back-end skills were beyond their current “Wicked Training Wheels” phase.

  15. For me, the important part of your post is:

    people would dig up old posts and write comments on them about sites newly added to the Ma.gnolia feed.

    When there is a website hosting content from “outside”, it is important to make it very clear to the reader.

    For example: I run a site that enables NGOs to open a page about the organization. Often, readers of MY site contact me, the webmaster, about ANOTHER organization that they found in my site.

    Since people see only an inch around the mouse arrow, they don’t understand where they are.

  16. wow, wish you were using a .Net platform….I could gin this up in a minute for ya. Payback for years of entertainment.

    Great idea though, since work blocks twitter, magnolia etc at the firewall, alot of the pages I read just fall apart when rendering. Pain in the A!

  17. It’s over 3 years since this design? Feels like no more than 2. I still remember the spaceman and the orange…and when you had a photo of you looking slightly manic, with long hair.

  18. Hey man, I’ve been following your site since… gosh think it’s 1996 – first from Germany and now from Canada. I used to love you frequent re-designs and all the struggles that came with them. Especially when I was still coding html and css almost every day. I understand the commercial (and personal) constraints but I wish there was a little more time to follow our passion. Maybe there will be a retired coders club at some point in the future ;-)

  19. Peter Urban, thanks for the very kind words, and congratulations on Doorbell!

    I understand the commercial (and personal) constraints but I wish there was a little more time to follow our passion.


  20. mario:

    The feed can still be viewed in the sidebar of the home page.

    It just doesn’t appear in the *body of individual blog posts*, which it only did for a week, anyway.


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