Four Web Technologies That Shouldn’t be Geeky Anymore

Blogs have been great. You can now create one without much technical knowledge at all, using Blogger or WordPress.com . This technology, originally seen as some type of journalism, really just makes it possible to create a web page without worrying about all the trimmings, or learning Dreamweaver or, God forbid, HTML. Facebook works (though I find it’s interface unfriendly) — people figure out how to use it for what they want. Twitter is easy. So is shopping for goods and services, at Amazon or Craigslist — sites that have to make it easy so you’ll come back. YouTube just works, because it’s so big it’s easy to search.

But why are the very best technologies the web have to offer so geeky still?

1. RSS
I was trying to explain RSS feeds to people way back in 2006, with RSS the Oprah Way. This really shouldn’t be necessary anymore, to understand RSS. It’s ridiculous to have to look for the orange RSS symbol, copy the feed URL, and paste it into an aggregator. It feels like having to crank up the car. Words like “subscribe” never caught on. And the readers are still clunky, even Google Reader, which is best because it finds the feed even if you just have the URL of the site. But why are we copying and pasting URLs at all? Why is the main improvement on this system disparate buttons on pages to help us “Add to Google Reader”? This should be a simple as bookmarking — a Save button. No one should have to know the word “feed”.

2. Wikis
They should have been like blogs were originally — set up as editable documents, but with multiple authors. Instead, they are awkward, with Edit tags on pages, and weird CamelCase linking. It feels like you have to be a member in the Wiki club. They should be drag-and-drop by now, like Gmail’s mail tags — just pull in a link. They should have sidebar menus that make themselves, or where you can make a map and it all falls into place. Meant for collaboration, they are now basically just webpages, run by a person or small group.

3. Tags
Folksonomies be damned, without drop-down tag menus everyone does their own. Tagging is such a great idea — tagging instead of folders, so an item can go in more than one place. It’s revolutionary, even without the idea of sharing or searching other people’s tags. But it’s so hard to search tags anywhere, since there is no obvious hierarchy or assumption of tagging. No, I’m not in favor of an approved list of tags. But you have to be a filing expert to use them properly. Why not something like a menu, but you can add to it and customize it if you want to? That way ordinary people can find stuff. I can’t even find my own stuff, my tags are such a mess.

4. Embed
It changes everything, yes. But why do we need to see the code? Why can’t you click Embed and have something just ready to put wherever you want. No clipboard, no “copy code”. Open your blog, wiki, or webpage, click Embed, drag the thing you want to embed from another window.

These are the four technologies that will help us manage information, be creative, work together. So why can’t they be less geeky?

6 comments to Four Web Technologies That Shouldn’t be Geeky Anymore

  • Pilar

    Hear, hear!

  • I think it’s worth giving a major shout-out to the Common Craft Show in the context of this discussion. Their videos have done more than anyone else to dispel the techno-wizardry of the topics you mentioned.

    I just can’t think of a better introduction to any of these concepts than one of their hand-drawn clips, because they approach the subject from an extremely basic level. The fact these sorts of clips and explanations aren’t as prevalent is, I think, part of the problem.

    In some regards I think the relative insularity of the first wave of tech users is partially to blame for the fact these technologies remain largely unexplored outside the realm of the initiated. Those of us who know blogs, wikis, rss, etcetera and have the opportunity and time to explore them have become so proficient in their use that it’s become second nature to us.

    I think in some ways this is starting to result in the emergence of a new digital divide – except instead of the divide referring to access to the hardware, it refers to lack of awareness on the affordances and effective use of the tools.

    Given the time, energy and patience I think those of us who are proficient could help inspire a second wave of later adopters to pick them up as well.

    As an example, recently a few of the hardcore academics approached me about an innovative way to facilitate a group activity at the Learning & Teaching Forum (happening tomorrow actually). Initially they wanted to use Twitter, but I actually advised against it because it didn’t suited the outcomes they were trying to facilitate.

    Instead I showed them EtherPad, and they really took to it. So much so that after demonstrating the tool they started to get excited about the different possibilities they could include in the activity – some of which hadn’t even occurred to me.

    The point is – at least in my experience – there is definitely interest in social media amongst people who don’t currently use it. They just sometimes need a bit of assistance to get going.

  • I’ve bookmarked and tagged in google but when I actually figure out an effective tagging system, I’ll move my links over to De.licio.us or Diigo. I think it’s a bit like planting the grass and then laying the sidewalks the following year when the most efficient pathways between buildings have been trampled into the grass. I know my interests but it certainly would be more manageable to use a general bookmarking site and then when there’s more time to divide it somewhere else into personal interest sites and educational sites. I like to look at google maps of virus and pirate sightings but it looks a little weird if you don’t know that I studied nursing and my son is in the navy.

  • RSS is a continuous struggle. But so is Podcast. Many ‘podcasts’ are (really only) MP3 files available for download. I do use feeds a lot though, but like to paste them straight into a themed page. Clicking the WordPress
    Entries (RSS) link on your page was also a two step process (I had to retrieve http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/?feed=rss2).

    I agree with you though, the whole idea of RSS is still alien to most people while the reality (being able to use RSS) is great.

  • Interesting followup to my previous comment. Because I found your blog via the Firstmonday article and clicked the link from there I was ‘stuck’ with a Firstmonday url. That is why the RSS didn’t work.

  • I am afraid I disagree. Using Bloglines as my RSS feeder, I don’t have to paste anything – when I click on the orange RSS symbol, the site (usually…) gets added to my list on Bloglines – I say usually because sometimes it fails, but hey, it is the internet, and sometimes stuff doesn’t work.

    Embedding is simple – I would guess the code is necessary because different proprietary systems would work in different ways – work with the code and you are working in the basic functionality.

    Tagging isn’t geeky at all, and everyone seems to get it and use it in a way that works for them – which is as it should be.

    Wikis I must agree with you about: setting up a Wiki seems overly complex. But ANYONE geek or not can use them, easily and without fear.