A thought: Read­ing blogs through RSS or Atom feeds is a great way to get chunks of infor­ma­tion deliv­ered on a daily basis. I think that this format is amenable to deliv­er­ing some­thing like a text­book: every day you could post a subchapter-​sized chunk of infor­ma­tion. Since I’m already set­ting aside time in my day to check Google Reader, the mar­ginal cost of adding one new feed isn’t very much.

Com­pare this to the cost of get­ting a text­book and find­ing time in the day to read it reg­u­larly. Adding a new task to one’s rou­tine is always a tricky propo­si­tion, and I doubt I’m the only person who has dif­fi­cultly com­mit­ting to these sorts of things. For exam­ple: how many people stick to their New Year’s res­o­lu­tions after the first month? Or even the first week?

But let’s say you shimmy the new habit into an exist­ing rou­tine (e.g., deliv­er­ing a text­book via a web feed). That is, trick your­self into doing some­thing new by making it look like some­thing old. Well then, my friend! You might just have a higher suc­cess rate.

I’ve seen a few blogs that kinda do this. One exam­ple is James Tauber’s Poincaré Project, which walks you through the math­e­mat­ics required to under­stand the famous Poincaré con­jec­ture1. How­ever, if a reader comes to the site after the project has started they poten­tially have to read an archive­ful of arti­cles to get up to speed. In this case they have essen­tially the same bar­rier to entry as with a text­book.

To get around this prob­lem, users should be able to sign up for a per­son­al­ized feed that gives them asyn­chro­nous daily updates drawn from the blog’s archives.

Let me explain. Let’s imag­ine a blog that attempts to teach its read­ers com­puter sci­ence. Like a text­book, the first post starts by cov­er­ing the absolute basics (“What is a com­puter?”); over time it builds to more com­pli­cated con­cepts (oh, let’s say… con­cur­rency). Unfor­tu­nately, by this point the blog’s RSS feed is use­less to new read­ers: they won’t under­stand the most recent updates with­out having slogged through months of archives. The big idea behind the blog-​textbook2 is basi­cally bupkus.

To resolve this prob­lem, what if there were button on the front page that said “Sub­scribe from the Begin­ning”? New read­ers sub­scribe with this link just as they would any other feed. But unlike a reg­u­lar feed, when they go to Google Reader they don’t see the newest post about con­cur­rent pro­gram­ming. Instead it’s the first update, the one explain­ing what a com­puter is. And the next day, they won’t see some incom­pre­hen­si­ble post about locks and sem­a­phores. No—it will be the second update ever, per­haps a brief overview of the his­tory of com­puter sci­ence. And so on and so on: the new reader con­tin­u­ally receives updates—just offset by a few months. It’s as though they stum­bled across the blog right when it began.

Inci­den­tally, such a per­son­al­ized asyn­chro­nous feed could work beau­ti­fully for web­comics. Comic archives can become intim­i­dat­ing pretty quickly, and many require sev­eral hours’ com­mit­ment to pore through. (*cough* *cough*) Some people might enjoy such marathon ses­sions, but it takes time and I often find myself rush­ing through things, not enjoy­ing the strips as much as I should, becom­ing desen­si­tized to the jokes and art after hun­dreds of doses. The “Tag This Comic” func­tion­al­ity (now ubiq­ui­tous thanks to Comic­Press) is a step in the right direc­tion since it helps break an archive crawl over sev­eral sessions—but it’s still not quite there.

But if I could have comics deliv­ered to me one day at a time from the very beginning—as though I’d sub­scribed to the comic right at its incep­tion? I’d def­i­nitely be more amenable to read­ing some of the long-​running web­comics I’m cur­rently miss­ing out on.3

You know, I assume that archive intim­i­da­tion is a big prob­lem for long-​running story-​based strips. In fact, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if it were the single biggest bar­rier to growth for well-​established web­comics. If I were making my living off my strip, I’d be hugely con­cerned about it. That’s why I’m sur­prised to see so many big web­comics still rely­ing on story guides and “New Read­ers” tabs.4 Aside from the “Tag This Comic” inno­va­tion, what else is there?56

I’m not saying this per­son­al­ized asyn­chro­nous doohickey idea of mine is a panacea. For one thing, its use would nec­es­sar­ily be lim­ited to people who know what the heck it is. Few enough people under­stand (or choose to use) reg­u­lar feeds, so I don’t know how many new users this idea would snag. Then again, if some­one were to code up a solution—say, as a handy Word­press plug-in—it would be triv­ial and cost-​free for a blog­ger or web­car­toon­ist to add to their site.7

And now, only after having writ­ten this long man­i­festo, the pos­si­bil­ity that I am not the first person to have con­ceived this idea has finally crossed my mind. If anyone has heard of some­thing that does this sort of thing—well, that’s what com­ments are for.


1 “Every simply con­nected, closed 3-manifold is home­o­mor­phic to the 3-sphere.” I know what each of those words means inde­pen­dently. I only have trou­ble when you put them all together like that.
2 If this idea catches on then we absolutely need to start call­ing them blext­books. Oh my god yes we need to do that.
3 Oh, and here’s an added bonus: if the comic in ques­tion updates less-than-daily, then your per­son­al­ized de-​synched feed will grad­u­ally catch up with the main strip over time! For exam­ple, if I’m sub­scribed to the archive of a Monday-Wednesday-Friday web­comic, my per­sonal feed will update from the archive every day. The strip itself, on the other hand, updates only three times a week. Thus, I’m gain­ing ground on the newest updates by four strips a week. If the archive has 200 strips, I’ll be caught up in about a year.
4 No, I’m not being a hyp­ocrite. (1) I agree that a well-​written story guide/cast page page is def­i­nitely a bang-​up idea and can go a long way. (Look to Octo­pus Pie for stel­lar exam­ples.) (2) Chronillogical’s archives aren’t that daunt­ing (rel­a­tively speak­ing). (3) It’s a matter of incen­tives. John and I don’t make a living from Chronil­log­i­cal. I’m merely sur­prised that people with strong incen­tives to attract new read­ers aren’t inno­vat­ing more. (Of course, it could be that the prob­lem is to some degree insol­u­ble.)
5Well, there’s always the pos­si­bil­ity of a reboot. That’s what Kris Straub did at the begin­ning of this year with Starslip, when (among other rea­sons) he felt that the strip’s com­pli­cated back­story was dis­cour­ag­ing new read­er­ship. And John Alli­son cited archive intim­i­da­tion as one of the rea­sons he’s replac­ing Scary-Go-Round with a new strip. That said, there are obvi­ous prob­lems to this approach. John Alli­son runs the risk of aban­don­ing a story, char­ac­ters, and a brand that he’s spent years build­ing up. Kris Straub’s reboot was def­i­nitely a suc­cess, but many read­ers will still prob­a­bly see the large archives and be intim­i­dated. Regard­less of what­ever assur­ances you may give them, some people just don’t like jump­ing into a story mid-​stream. Heck, I’ve been unwill­ing to jump into gag-a-day strips with­out read­ing the archives. It’s irra­tional, but some people just like being com­pletists.
6 You can always tell when my thought processes become mud­dled and befud­dled because the foot­note den­sity increases dra­mat­i­cally.
7 “Greg!” I hear you say. “Greg! Are you not a recently grad­u­ated com­puter sci­en­tist? Could you, per­haps, be the one who codes such an inge­nious diver­sion? Is that not a pos­si­bil­ity?” True enough, dear reader. True enough. How­ever, I have much on my plate at the moment (read: job search) and I am not at all famil­iar with the intri­ca­cies of feeds. That said, if anyone is inter­ested in col­lab­o­rat­ing with me on such a project, feel free to get in touch.

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Discussion ¬

  1. dartigen says:

    Hm. Makes sense.
    The main prob­lem, I think, is the actual off­set­ting.

    What could pos­si­bly (IANACS, nor am I some­one who knows all about feeds) is having each user with their own feed, which will update with a link to the next dated arti­cle as they read through one. That way, you can read as you wish – in long ses­sions, or little chunks.