Peter Campbell's blog

How and Why RSS is Alive and Well

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Image: SRD
RSS, one of my favorite protocols, has been taking a beating in the blogosphere. Steve Gillmor, in his blog TechcrunchIT, declared it dead in May, and many others have followed suit.

Did Twitter Kill it?

The popular theory is that, with social networks like Twitter and Facebook serving as link referral tools, there's no need to setup and look at feeds in a reader anymore. And I agree that many people will forgo RSS in favor of the links that their friends and mentors tweet and share. But this is kind of like saying that, if more people shop at farmer's markets than supermarkets, we will no longer need trucks. Dave Winer, quite arguably the founder of RSS, and our friends at ReadWriteWeb have leapt to RSS's defense with similar points - Winer puts it best, saying:

"These protocols...are so deeply ingrained in the infrastructure they become part of the fabric of the Internet. They don't die, they don't rest in piece."


My arguments for the defense:

1. RSS is, and always has been about, taking control of the information you peruse. Instead of searching, browsing, and otherwise separating a little wheat from a load of chaff, you use RSS to subscribe to the content that you have vetted as pertinent to your interests and needs. While that might cross-over a bit with what your friends want to share on Facebook, it's you determining the importance, not your friends. For a number of us, who use the internet for research; brand monitoring; or other explicit purposes, a good RSS Reader will still offer the best productivity boost out there.

2. Where do you think your friends get those links? It's highly likely that most of them -- before the retweets and the sharing -- grabbed them from an RSS feed. I post links on Twitter and Facebook, and I get most of them from my Google Reader flow.

3. It's not the water, it's the pipe. The majority of those links referred by Twitter are fed into Twitter via RSS. Twitterfeed, the most popular tool for feeding RSS data to Twitter, boasts about half a million feeds. Facebook, Friendfeed and their ilk all allow importing from RSS sources to profiles.

So, here are some of the ways I use RSS every day:

Basic Aggregation with Drupal

My first big RSS experiment built on the nptech tagging phenomenon. Some background: About five years ago, with the advent of RSS-enabled websites that allowed for storing and tagging information (such as Delicious, Flickr and most blogging platforms), Techsoup CEO Marnie Webb had a bright idea. She started tagging articles, blog posts, and other content pertinent to those working in or with nonprofits and technology with the tag "nptech". She invited her friends to do the same. And she shared with everyone her tips for setting up an RSS newsreader and subscribing to things marked with our tag. Marnie and I had lunch in late 2005 and agreed that the next step was to set up a web site that aggregated all of this information. So I put up the nptech.info site, which continues to pull nptech-tagged blog entries from around the web.

Other Tricks

Recently, I used Twitterfeed to push the nptech aggregated information to the nptechinfo Twitter account. So, if you don't like RSS, you can still get the links via Twitter. But stay aware that they get there via RSS!

I use RSS to track Idealware comments, Idealware mentions on Twitter, and I subscribe to the blog, of course, so I can see what my friends are saying.

I use RSS on my personal website to do some lifestreaming, pulling in Tweets and my Google Reader favorites.

But I'm pretty dull -- what's more exciting is the way that Google Reader let me create a "bundle" of all of the nptech blogs that I follow. You can sample a bunch of great Idealware-sympatico bloggers just by adding it to your reader.

Is RSS dead? Not around here.

Succession Planning



Idealware's blog is not the best place for me to talk about my kid. There's Facebook and Flickr for that sort of thing. But I want to talk about him anyway, and open a discussion, if possible, about children and the nptech community.

My career is in nonprofit technology (nptech). My plan is to continue working for nonprofits (or, if for profit, a for profit with a mission and a socially beneficial bottom line) until I retire or expire. While my ten year old boy's stated goal is to become a NASA engineer, and that's great, I want him to understand why I chose my path of purposeful work and understand what's involved in it, should he, at age 15 or 25, decide that NASA isn't the only option.

A few year's back, former NTEN CEO and current MobileActive CEO Katrin Verclas suggested adding a program for teenagers at the annual nonprofit technology conference. This is a brilliant idea. We have a great opportunity to educate children in the work we do: advocating for social justice and good; raising funds and resources in order to act effectively and independently; and collaborating in a supportive community to accomplish our varied, but sympathetic goals. Whatever our children end up doing with their lives, we have something worthwhile to teach them.

When I was a teenager, I was active in a youth group called Liberal Religious Youth (LRY). LRY was an independent group affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, but it was not a particularly religious group. The themes were more along the lines of addressing social concerns and building community. At ages sixteen and seventeen, I was creating flyers, renting facilities, giving presentations, leading sessions, planning menus and taking a leadership role that prepared me far better for my current career than high school actually did.

When I look at our nptech community, I see a similar environment, where our commitment and excitement regarding our work is bolstered by a natural adoption of supportive camaraderie and peer development. We definitely model something of value to our high school age kids who will face career choices and challenges like ours. We can develop a mentoring program that passes on our expertise in resource management, activism, fundraising, community building, nonprofit technology and social media as a social activism tool. This would provide them with an early introduction to the skills that will be needed when we retire to continue the important work that we do. As much as a grant, donation, or volunteer effort, this is an investment in our work and our world that we should be making.

I want my son to develop his skills and community with socially-conscious peers and mentors. I want his generation to be more effective than we are at solving problems like poverty, pollution and social injustice. It's not enough for us to try and save the world. We should be prepping the next generation to keep it protected.

Who's with me?

Swept Up in a Google Wave

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Photo by Mrjoro.


Last week, I shared my impressions of Google Wave, which takes current web 2.0/Internet staple technologies like email, messaging, document collaboration, widgets/gadgets and extranets and mashes them up into an open communications standard that, if it lives up to Google's aspirations, will supersede email. There is little doubt in my mind that this is how the web will evolve. We've gone from:

  • The Yahoo! Directory model - a bunch of static web sites that can be catalogued and explored like chapters in a book, to

  • The Google needle/haystack approach - the web as a repository of data that can be mined with a proper query, to

  • Web 2.0, a referral-based model that mixes human opinion and interaction into the navigation system.


For many of us, we no longer browse, and we search less than we used to, because the data that we're looking for is either coming to us through readers and portals where we subscribe to it, or it's being referred to us by our friends and co-workers on social networks. Much of what we refer to eachother is content that we have created. The web is as much an application as it is a library now.

Google Wave might well be "Web 3.0", the step that breaks down the location-based structure of web data and replaces it completely with a social structure. Data isn't stored as much as it is shared. You don't browse to sites; you share, enhance, append, create and communicate about web content in individual waves. Servers are sources, not destinations in the new paradigm.

Looking at Wave in light of Google's mission and strategy supports this idea. Google wants to catalog, and make accessible, all of the world's information. Wave has a data mining and reporting feature called "robots". Robots are database agents that lurk in a wave, monitoring all activity, and then pop in as warranted when certain terms or actions trigger their response. The example I saw was of a nurse reporting in the wave that they're going to give patient "John Doe" a peanut butter sandwich. The robot has access to Doe's medical record, is aware of a peanut allergy, and pops in with a warning. Powerful stuff! But the underlying data source for Joe's medical record was Google Health. For many, health information is too valuable and easily abused to be trusted to Google, Yahoo!, or any online provider. The Wave security module that I saw hid some data from Wave participants, but was based upon the time that the person joined the Wave, not ongoing record level permissions.

This doesn't invalidate the use of Wave, by any means -- a wave that is housed on the Doctor's office server, and restricted to Doctor, Nurse and patient could enable those benefits securely. But as the easily recognizable lines between cloud computing and private applications; email and online community; shared documents and public records continue to blur, we need to be careful, and make sure that the learning curve that accompanies these web evolutions is tended to. After all, the worst public/private mistakes on the internet have generally involved someone "replying to all" when they didn't mean to. If it's that easy to forget who you're talking to in an email, how are we going to consciously track what we're revealing to whom in a wave, particularly when that wave has automatons popping data into the conversation as well?

The Wave as internet evolution idea supports a favored notion: data wants to be free. Open data advocates (like myself) are looking for interfaces that enable that access, and Wave's combination of creation and communication, facilitated by simple, but powerful data mining agents, is a powerful frontend. If it truly winds up as easy as email, which is, after all, the application that enticed our grandparents to use the net, then it has culture-changing potential. It will need to bring the users along for that ride, though, and it will be interesting to see how that goes.

--------

A few more interesting Google Wave stories popped up while I was drafting this one. Mashable's Google Wave: 5 Ways It Could Change the Web gives some concrete examples to some of the ideas I floated last week; and, for those of you lucky enough to have access to Wave, here's a tutorial on how to build a robot.

Beta Google Wave accounts can be requested at the Wave website. They will be handing out a lot more of them at the end of September, and they are taking requests to add them to any Google Domains (although the timeframe for granting the requests is still a long one).

Is Google Wave a Tidal Wave?

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"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).


Google is on a fishing expedition to see if we're willing to take web-surfing to a whole new level. My colleague Steve Backman introduced us to Google Wave a few months ago. I attended a developer's preview at Techsoup Headquarters last week, and I have some additional thoughts to share.

Google's introduction of Wave is nothing if not ambitious. As opposed to saying "We have a new web mashup tool" or "We've taken multimedia email to a new level", they're pitching Wave as nothing less than the successor to email. My question, after seeing the demo, is "Is that an outrageous claim, or a way too modest one?".

The early version of Google Wave I saw looked a lot like Gmail, with a folder list on the left and "wave" list next to it. Unlike Gmail, a third pane to the right included an area where you can compose waves, so Wave is three-columner to Gmail's two.

A wave is a collaborative document that can be updated by numerous people in real-time. This means that, if we're both working in the same wave, you can see what I'm typing, letter by letter, as I can see what you add. This makes Twitter seem like the new snail mail. It's a pretty powerful step for collaborative technology. But it's also quite a cultural change for those of us who appreciate computer-based communications for the incorporated spell-check and the ability to edit and finalize drafted messages before we send them.

Waves can include text, photos, film clips, forms, and any active content that could go into a Google Gadget. If you check out iGoogle, Google's personal portal page, you can see the wide assortment of gadgets that are available and imagine how you would use them -- or things like them -- in a collaborative document. News feeds, polls, games, utilities, and the list goes on.

You share waves with any other wave users that you choose to share with. User-level security is being written into the platform, so that you can share waves as read-only or only share certain content in waves with particular people.

Given these two tidbits, it occurred to me that each wave was far more like a little Extranet than an email message. This is why I think Google's being kind of coy when they call it an email killer - it's a Sharepoint killer. It's possibly a Drupal (or fill in your favorite CMS here) killer. It's certainly an evolution of Google Apps, with pretty much all of that functionality rolled into a model that, instead of saying "I have a document, spreadsheet or website to share" says "I want to share, and, once we're sharing, we can share websites, spreadsheets, documents and whatever". Put another way, Google Apps is an information management tool with some collaborative and communication features. Google Wave is a communications platform with a rich set of information management tools. It's Google Docs inverted.

So, Google Wave has the potential to be very disruptive technology, as long as people:

  • Adopt it;

  • Feel comfortable with it; and

  • Trust Google.



Next week, I'll spend a little time on the gotcha's - please add your thoughts and concerns in the comments.

The Case Against Internet Explorer 6

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Photo courtesy JChandler's Tombstone Generator


Internet culture addicts like me have taken gleeful note of Mashable's campaign to rid the world of Microsoft's Internet Explorer version 6. Anyone who develops public web pages (and cares if they are compatible with other and/or modern browsers) is sympathetic to this cause. The hoops that we have to jump through to make our pages look acceptable in IE6 while taking advantage of the nearly decade old CSS positioning commands are ridiculous. When I was doing web consulting a few years back, IE6 compatibility coding generally took up about 20% of the total project time.

Microsoft's response to the Mashable campaign was to defend the brontosaurus-like pace of corporate IT Departments in performing application updates. Here's the pertinent MS Spokesperson quote:

“[Corporate IT departments] balance their personal enthusiasm for upgrading PCs with their accountability to many other priorities their organizations have. As much as they (or site developers, or Microsoft or anyone else) want them to move to IE8 now, they see the PC software image as one part of a larger IT picture with its own cadence.”


Huh! This from the company that kept threatening to drop Windows XP support in order to force us to Vista.

But, sarcasm aside, this is a flawed argument. The "cadence" in which an IT Department upgrades software should be influenced by changes in the general technology landscape. Business (and nonprofit!) networks use the Internet. Those networks are already integrated with the world at large. Since the web browser is one of the primary interfaces to external data, it's easy to make the case that it needs to be upgraded more often than word processors and spreadsheets.

Many major webs sites are designed with CSS 3.0 formatting. IE6 doesn't fully support the 11 year old CSS 2.0 specification. IT departments that aren't prioritizing this upgrade are providing poor support for users who need such websites. They're also creating more work for themselves supporting the workarounds. Large companies might have far more computers to upgrade, but they also have software that automates that process. The key issue is training. Microsoft dramatically changed the user interface of Internet Explorer with version 7, but there are options to default back to the IE6 layout. The hassle of learning the new interface is certainly not as bad as not being able to properly use websites that are designed for more modern browsers.

What really irks me is the way that Microsoft has described the "IE6 must die" campaign' as being intended to appease "technology enthusiasts". The push to move users to modern browsers is not about my desire to use non-business applications like Facebook, Digg and YouTube (and classifying these web sites as "non-business"is a pretty debatable point as well). It's about my desire to benefit from advancements in web technology, and provide my staff with new tools that promote their mission-focused work.

With the HTML 5 specifications about to become the new standard, IE6 is obsolete. The types of things that IE6 doesn't support are the things that are making web-based applications viable, affordable alternatives to traditional software. Microsoft has been in the driver's seat of the companies that set the pace of technology advancement. They should be consistent in supporting the migration and adoption to those new standards, given a reasonable amount of time. Eight years is reasonable. IE6 must die, and Microsoft should join the chorus.

Evaluating Wikis

I'm following up on my post suggesting that Wikis should be grabbing a portion of the market from word processors. Wikis are convenient collaborative editing platforms that remove a lot of the legacy awkwardness that traditional editing software brings to writing for the web. Gone are useless print formatting functions like pagination and margins; huge file sizes; and the need to email around multiple versions of the same document.

There are a lot of use cases for Wikis:

  • We can all thank Wikipedia for bringing the excellent crowd-sourced knowledgebase functionality to broad attention. Closer to home we can see great use of this at the We Are Media Wiki, where NTEN and friends share best practices around social media and nonprofits.


  • Collaborative authoring is another natural use, illustrated beautifully by the Floss Manuals project.


  • Project Management and Development are regularly handled by Wikis, such as the Fedora Project


  • Wikis make great directories for other media, such as Project Gutenburg's catalogue of free E-Books.


  • A growing trend is use of a Wiki as a company Intranet.



Almost any popular Wiki software will support the basic functionality of providing user-editable web pages with some formatting capability and a method (such as "CamelCase") to signify text that should be a link. But Wikis have been exploding with additional functionality that ramps up their suitability for all sorts of tasks:

  • The Floss Manuals team wrote extensions for the Open Source TWiki platform that track who is working on which section of a book and send out updates.


  • TWiki, along with Confluence, SocialText and other platforms, include (either natively or via an optional plugin) tabular data -- spreadsheet like pages for tracking lists and numeric information. This can really beef up the value of a Wiki as an Intranet or Project Management application.


  • TWiki and others include built-in form generators, allowing you to better track information and interact with Wiki users.


  • And, of course, the more advanced Wikis are building in social networking features. Most Wikis support RSS, allowing you to subscribe to page revisions. But newer platforms are adding status updates and Twitter-like functionality.


Before choosing a Wiki platform, ask yourself some key questions:

  • Do you need granular security? Advanced Wikis have full-blown user and group-based security and authentication features, much like a standard CMS.


  • Should the data be stored in a database? It might be useful or even critical for integration with other systems.


  • Does it belong on a local server, or in the cloud? There are plenty of great hosted Wikis, like PBWorks (formerly PBWiki) and WikiSpaces, in addition to all of the Wikis that you can download and install on your own Server. There are even personal Wikis like TiddlyWiki and ZuluPad. I use a Wiki on my Android phone called WikiNotes for my note-keeping.


Are you already using a Wiki? You might be. Google Docs, with it's revision history feature, may look more like a Word processor, but it's a Wiki at heart.


Word or Wiki?

An award-winning friend of mine at NTEN referred me to this article, by Jeremy Reimer, suggesting that Word, the ubiquitous Microsoft text manipulation application, has gone the way of the dinosaur. The "boil it down" quote:

"Word was designed in a different era, for a very specific purpose. We don't work that way anymore."


Reimer's primary reasoning is that Word was originally developed as a tool that prepares text for printing. Since we now do far more sharing online than by paper, formatting is less important. He also points out that Word files are unwieldy in size, due to the need to support so many advanced but not widely used features. He correctly points out that wikis save every edit, allowing for easy recovery and collaboration. Word's difficult to read and use Track Changes feature is the closest equivalent

Now, I might have a reputation here as a Microsoft basher, but, the truth is, Word holds a treasured spot on my Mac's Dock. Attempts to unseat it by Apple's Pages, Google Docs and Open Office have been short-lived and fruitless. But Reimer's absolutely right -- I use Word far more for compatibility's sake than the feature set. There are times - particularly when I'm working on an article with an editor - that the granular Track Changes readout fits the bill better than a wiki's revision history, because I'm interested in seeing every small grammatical correction. And there are other times when the templates and automation bring specific convenience to a task, such as when I'm doing a formal memo or printing letterhead at work. But, for the bulk of writing that I do now, which is intended for sharing on the web, Wikis put Word to shame.

The biggest problem with Word (and its ilk) is that documents can only be jointly edited when that's facilitated by desktop sharing tools, such as GoToMeeting or ReadyTalk, and now Skype. In most cases, collaboration with Word docs involves multiple copies of the same document being edited concurrently by different people on different computers. This creates logistical problems when it comes time to merge edits. It also results in multiple copies of the revised documents on multiple computers and in assorted email inboxes. And, don't forget that Track Changes use results in larger documents that are more easily corrupted.

A wiki document is just a web page on a server that anyone who is authorized to do so can modify. Multiple people can edit a wiki concurrently, or they can edit on their own schedules. The better wiki platforms handle editing conflicts gracefully. Every revision is saved, allowing for an easy review of all changes. Earlier versions are simple to revert back to. This doesn't have to be cloud computing -- the wiki can live on a network server, just as most Word documents do.

But it's more than just the collaborative edge. Wikis are casual and easy. Find the page, click "edit", go to work. Pagination isn't an issue. Everything that you can do is usually in a toolbar above the text, and that's everything that you'd want to do as well.

So when the goal is meeting notes, agendas, documentation, project planning or brainstorming, a wiki might be a far simpler way to meet the need than emailing a Word document around. Word can be dusted off for the printed reports and serious writing projects. In the information age, it appears that the wiki is mightier than the Word.

Next week I'll follow up with more talk about wikis and how they can meet organizational needs.



Pop Quiz: PCI Compliance

The credit card industry is doing the right thing by consumers and enforcing proper security measures regarding the handling of credit card information. You might have heard about this - a number of the popular vendors of donor databases are recommending upgrades based on their compliance with these regulations. The "Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard", commonly known as PCIDSS, is a set of guidelines for securely handling credit card information. The standard has been around for about four years, but early enforcement efforts focused on companies with a high volume of credit card transactions. Now that they're all in compliance, they've set their sites on smaller businesses and nonprofits. So, what does this mean? Here's the simplest F.A.Q. that you're likely to find on the topic:

  • Do you ever process online, phoned in, or mailed-in credit card donations in-house? e.g., do you maintain the credit card number, expiration date and name of a donor?


If no, you don't have to worry about this.

  • If yes, do you have more than 20,000 such transactions annually?


Well, if you do, congratulations! Most nonprofits don't, so they qualify for level 4 of the PCI Compliance scale. That results in a Self Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) Validation type of "4". Higher validation types are subject to stricter security standards.

The Self-Assessment Questionnaire will ask you all sorts of technical questions about your network and security procedures. Do you have a firewall? Are all of your transactions encrypted? Do you use anti-virus software? Is credit card information properly restricted to authorized staff?

Depending on your network, you might already comply with a lot of the requirements. If you don't, then it might require a significant investment to get there.

  • What will happen if I ignore this?


This isn't government regulation (although your state might have laws in place that do mandate some similar response). participation is mandatory. But, should your security be breached, two things will happen:

1. The compliance requirements for your organization will be reassessed to level one or two, and they'll be much more costly and complicated to meet. The credit card companies might decline to do business with you if you don't comply. Can you afford to not take Visa?

2. You will likely be indirectly fined for non-compliance. The credit card companies will hold your bank liable for losses due to credit card theft in situations where your security was substandard. Your bank will likely pass that fine on to you.

  • So what's the easiest way to deal with this?


Simple: don't handle credit cards. There are a number of services that, for a price, will do this for you, from Paypal and Google Checkout to CharityWeb and Blackbaud's BBNow. Outsourced ECRM software (NetCommunity, Convio, Democracy in Action, etc.) will also handle it. The cost is likely not as significant as that of maintaining compliance or suffering the consequences of a non-compliant breach.

I'll share that, at the Goodwill where I used to work, outsourcing wasn't an option, because we were both a charity and a retailer. Our frustration was not that we didn't have good security in place. It was that there were differences in how we had set up our security and the PCIDSS requirements. So, while we had done a lot of work and made significant investments, we still had to reconfigure things and spend more in order to be compliant. In addition to making our internal IT changes, we had to switch software programs in order to avoid storing credit cards unencrypted in our database, a typical problem. We also engaged a consultant. Once you are reasonably sure that you comply, then you must pay a security service to verify your efforts, another non-trivial expense.

Blackbaud has put together some good further reading on this topic (and they are one of the vendor's whose latest software is compliant; ask your eCRM vendor!).

Compensating for Chaos

In 2000, after spending 15 years at corporate law firms, I made a personal choice to start working for organizations that promote social good by reducing poverty and protecting our planet. I understood that this career move would put some serious brakes on what was a fairly spiraling rise in compensation - my salary tripled from 1993 to 2000. And that was fine, because, as I see it, the privilege of being compensated for doing meaningful work is compensation in it's own right.

We all know that we make less in this industry than we might in the commercial world, and we're all pretty okay with that. But how much, or how little, the discrepancy between "real world" and nonprofit salaries should be is a metric with little established thought behind it. We don't base our pay scales on any rationale other than what we determine others are paying and what we can afford. My concern is that, by not taking a strategic, reasoned approach to compensation, nonprofits are incurring far more unnecessary expense than they might, particularly when it comes to technology support, although these thoughts apply across the org chart.

The problem is that, when it comes to determining the market value of a nonprofit employee, we often go to nonprofit salary surveys, such as the one put out by NTEN and the Nonprofit times. But job seekers don't read those surveys. In San Francisco or New York, a good System Administrator can make $70-80k a year at a for-profit. Even if they come in to your org understanding that they aren't going to be offered the market pay ($75k), they have an expectation that they'll either be on the low end of it ($70k), or within 10% of it ($67.5k). The recent NTEN Staffing Survey puts the average nonprofit Sysadmin salary at $52k, which is about 75% of that market. So, given this scenario, here are my questions:

  • How many excellent candidates are eliminated from consideration because they can't afford to take a 25% pay cut?


  • Of the ones who can afford that pay, how many can afford it because they aren't qualified for the work required?


  • How many can afford it because they have other primary income sources, and therefore can take a low paying job and not feel very committed to it?


  • If a good Sysadmin takes a job at that rate, how long will it be before they decide that they need more money and leave?


  • What is the impact of having a heavy rotation among the staff that maintain and upgrade your technology?


  • What is the impact of having of having often empty critical IT positions?


But, let's get really into this. Unless the IT people that are hired at the 75% rate are extremely mature, then they might have some of the common failings of immature Sysadmins:

  • Many are often controlling and secretive. I've been in multiple situations where I've come into an organization and learned that the prior IT staff left with the key system passwords. I've also seen numerous situations where the IT staff left en masse.


  • Most Sysadmins are lousy about writing things down. What is the ramp-up time for your new staff when they have to research and guess how everything works on arrival?


  • The general instinct of a new IT person is to rip everything out and install their favorite things. Got Windows? They like Linux. Got Word? They like Google Docs. They don't necessarily understand that one platform is much like another, but imposing massive change on an organization can be dangerously disruptive.


Technology candidates need to be assessed not only for their technical skills, but also for their attitude and maturity. A very sharp tech, who can answer all of your Outlook questions, might have little patience for documenting his or her work or sharing knowledge with other technical staff. And those skills are the ones that will allow you to transition more smoothly when the tech leaves.

Mission is a motivator, and it has value that can be factored in to overall compensation, but not to the point where it's so unattractive that it knocks the pool of candidates down to a pool of uncommitted or desperate ones. The impact of paying poorly isn't isolated to the salary bucket on the balance sheet. In many cases, particularly with technology, it's tied directly to the ability to operate.

Google Reader Reaches Out

As the internet has progressed from a shared source of information to a primary communications tool, a natural offshoot of the migration has been where the two things meet: people referring internet information. If you're active at all on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Friendfeed, or any of the numerous online communities, big or small, then you are regularly seeing links to useful articles and blog posts; cute YouTube videos, and entertaining photos. Much of this information is passed along from online friend to online friend, but where does the first referral originate from? Usually, it's somebody's RSS reader.

The main reason that I'm such an RSS advocate is that I believe that it's the tool that lets me find the strategic and useful needles lost in the haystack of celebrity gossip, prurient content, and corporate promotional materials that they're buried under. But it isn't "RSS", per se, that does the filtering -- it's other people, whom I call "information agents", who do the sifting. If I want to keep up with fundraising trends, a topic that interests me, but, as an IT Director, isn't my primary area of expertise, I'm not going to spend thirty minutes a day doing research. I subscribe to some very pertinent blogs, and I follow a few people on Twitter and in Reader who find the important and insightful articles and share them with me.

Now it appears that Google wants to cut out the social media middlepeople. As I alluded to in my article on RSS, and fleshed out in this post about sharing with reader, the ability to refer information that you find in Reader is one of the things that makes it so powerful. Last week, Google seriously upped the ante by adding Twitter/Facebook/Delicious-like following, "liking" and sharing to the mix.

Here's what the new features do:

Sharing now lets you share with the world, or just those members of the world that you want to share with. Google has always allowed you to share items, but connecting to other people was a bit arcane and limited, as, by default, Google only allowed you to connect to those that you chat with in GMail. If you read up on it, you learned that you could change that to any defined group of associates in your Google Contacts (all of this assuming that you use Google Contacts - many Google Reader users don't). As someone who does use all of the Google stuff, I still found that opening this up to 80 or so people in my contacts didn't make it clear to many of them as to how they could connect with me.

The new Following feature lets you follow anyone who is willing to share, not just people that you personally communicate with. Now my shared items are marked as public, so anyone can follow my shared items feed by clicking on "Sharing Settings" (in the "People You Follow" section) and searching for me by name or email address. Once you locate me (or someone else), you can (and should) browse through their items to make sure that they share things that you'll find useful. For example, I share a lot of things that are on the topics that I blog about here. But I also share items related to civil rights issues and the occasional link that I find funny. Since humor and politics are very subjective topics, you might want to be sure that you're not going to be annoyed or offended you before you subscribe to a feed.

But the internet is not just about who you know. The Like feature allows you to find new people to follow based on common interests. You'll note that certain articles have a new note at the top saying "XX people liked this", where "XX" is the number of people who have indicated that they like the article by checking the option at the bottom of the post. This message is a link, and clicking it expands it into links to each of the people who "liked" it, allowing you to browse their shared items and optionally follow them. This, to me, enables the real power of the social web -- finding people who share your interests, but have better sources. It's what initially was so exciting about social bookmarking service Delicious, and it's about time that Google Reader enabled it.

I'm hoping the Google's next round of Reader updates will improve our ability to not just tag and classify the information that we find, but also share based on those classifications. That will enable me to selectively publish items that I think are of interest to others, perhaps sending nptech links to Friendfeed and the humorous stuff to Facebook. But I welcome these improvements, and I appreciate the way that reader becomes more and more of a single stop for information discovery and distribution. The Internet would be a messier place without it.
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