Today c|net published some red-hot coverage (well, the news was months old, but whatever) of the RSS/Pie/Echo/Atom dynamics. The story genially ignored all the technical issues and focused on a thinly-documented tale of internecine infighting. But it was well-written and, I must admit, came out pretty readable. Herewith some notes on the story itself, on latter-day journalism, and on personalities.
The Story · I profoundly hope that, to quote Dave Winer, “this marks the last gasp in the Great RSS War of 2003.” RSS 2.0 won’t go away. Pie/Echo/Atom won’t either. Lots of people will deploy both. Then we’ll see. Anyhow who wants to predict the future is a whole lot braver than me.
Speaking for myself, I thought the story left out one important thing: Paul Festa, the c|net writer, asked me what I thought of the transfer of the RSS copyright to Harvard, and I said I thought that was an excellent idea, and ought to make the RSS intellectual-property issues moot. In fact, on June 23rd I’d written to Dave:
If RSS were “A Harvard Spec” rather than “A Userland Spec”, obviously that would make all the potential FUD go away. Is that achievable in any useful sense?
I can’t imagine I was the first to suggest this, but any way you cut it, I like it.
Aside from that, I’m mildly pissed about Paul’s selective out-takes from my blog, but he pointed to it and hey, he’s working under a lot of different pressures and I might not do better.
Reflective Journalism · On July 23rd, Paul called preparing for this story, and actively tried to get me to say something bad about Dave. By my count, on three occasions in a less-than-half-hour interview. I wouldn’t go for it, but right after I got off the phone, I wrote up the call, because I thought the meta-story was interesting. The next day, I got a friendly but kind of stressed-out message from Paul:
I would really appreciate it if you could give some considerations to the exigencies of journalism, one of which is that in general it's nice not to have my colleagues at other publications tipped off as to the content of my ongoing stories.
Oops. He had a point, and I felt bad. (Mind you, in my experience, c|net people usually work on an insanely short fuse, and when they call you for a comment you better get back to them in minutes or the story’s live.) But anyhow; I agreed with Paul that it was unfortunate.
The interesting thing is, if a lot of quotable, influential people in some discipline like technology or politics or business start to be bloggers, it’s going to create an amusing two-way dynamic:
Bloggo: <answers phone>
Journo: Hi, this is <name> from <important-pub>. Got a minute?
Bloggo: Sure, always happy to talk to you.
Journo: OK, can we go off-blog to introduce the subject of the conversation?
Bloggo: Depends. Not if it’s the IBM press release.
Journo: No, it’s the DOJ settlement rumor.
Bloggo: Well, some of it anyhow.
Journo: OK, first question is off-blog. Do you think they ought to settle?
Bloggo: Hmm, ....off the record, OK?
Bloggo: I can give you some generalities on the record, but I got some hot stuff from Doc last week in Santa Barbara that I can’t be a source for.
Journo: That’s fair, shoot.
Bloggo: Except for, it’s real interesting that you guys are onto this story. If I give you the good stuff, I get to blog that you called me.
Journo: Oh man, I can’t do that, we’re never going to get this out before Tuesday.
Bloggo: Well, can I blog it Monday? That way nobody can possibly get in front of you.
Journo: Hmm... OK, and that gives me a gun to hold to the editor’s head. Let’s have it.
Personalities · Paul’s story is subtitled Bitter Power Struggle and, to find material that actually mentioned Dave by name, had to reach back for stuff that had been public for over a month at ongoing, and then he had to excerpt pretty selectively. So pretty clearly what happened was, somebody told him about the nasty stuff, and he called everyone and nobody would go on the record about personality issues (surprise, surprise), and so had to write the story quoting weeks-old blog pickings.
At one level this is kind of sad, but at another, I really sympathize. As Doc Searls points out today (albeit in a totally different context), a story about a big fight makes for snappier narrative than a story about engineering design choices, and I like a snappy story as much as the next man. I also like reading about interesting engineering trade-offs, but freely admit to being in a minority on that.
Both Dave and John Palfrey argue that this isn’t about personalities, but I really have to disagree. Who built the Great Pyramids, and the Roman Roads, and the Postal System, and the Welfare State and Interstates and the Internet? People. Do you believe for a microsecond that any one of those got done without a maelstrom of passionate, bitter personality issues? Does anyone believe for a second that RSS would be where it is today without Dave putting his great big huge personality behind it? RSS succeeded partly because of personalities, and Atom/Pie/Echo exists in large part because of personality issues, and if something else comes along to replace it all, there’ll be personalities all over that story too.
You can’t understand the real story—ever—without understanding the personalities and who said what to whom and when and why. Marxism had an alternate theory of history: that it was all predetermined by socio-economic forces and that the individual was not a factor in the story. There’s a word for that theory: wrong.
Look, here’s the ugly truth: the progress of RSS has been totally shot through with “personality” issues. Some of them nasty. But in the big picture, it wasn’t much worse than any other of the big stories I’ve been lucky enough to see from the inside. This is how people are; deal with it.