RSS, Twitter, and a World of Opportunity: An Interview with Marshall Kirkpatrick
I believe that nonprofits have a real opportunity to use RSS to change the world. Take feeds seriously and you can get in on important conversations from a position of power through superior access to information.
Marshall Kirkpatrick, as many of you probably know, was previously one of the interviewers for NetSquared. He's left his legacy here and some very big shoes to fill. Now that I'm working with NetSquared, Marnie thought it would be fitting for Mr. Kirkpatrick to be my first interviewee. I'm glad that was the case because Marshall is a great guy to talk with and has some very valuable insights.
Marshall Kirkpatrick: I intended to start a nonprofit consultancy when I got out of school but first I worked at a convenience store to pay my rent while blogging about the bloggy things I was learning and could teach. I did a couple of little consulting jobs, but then started getting hired to write. NetSquared and AOL's Social Software Weblog (now defunct) were my first two writing gigs. I loved working at both. The AOL gig put me on the radar of the founder of TechCrunch, Mike Arrington, because I kept writing first on important news. He hired me to write there and then one thing's lead to another. I worked for a while at a startup in between there and RWW but I decided I wanted to get back to writing about a variety of topics and to do more consulting. Now I'm half time RWW and half or more time consulting, which I really enjoy.
The themes throughout these few short years though have been that I have used RSS to learn about news early in the news cycle, I've focused on adding all kinds of value for my readers and I've consistently spoken my mind politically. I think that the United States, besides being a decent place for a straight, middle class guy like myself to live, is also a horrifying force of genocide and imperialism. I don't often put it that explicitly, but almost, and those beliefs inform most of what I do online.
NR: Over the years you've seemed to advocate advocate RSS/Atom feeds quite a bit. Why do you think they are so important?
MK: RSS is a life changing technology. It's what makes all of Web 2.0 possible. It's what makes blogs viable because more people are able to read them through subscription, it's what keeps wikis healthy through recent changes feeds, it delivers podcasts, it makes search a fundamentally different experience. More importantly, perhaps - at this point in the game, a savvy RSS strategy can confer a real first mover's advantage to those that employ it. RSS essentially supports my family and I, without it I'm not sure what I'd be doing for a living.
I believe that nonprofits have a real opportunity to use RSS to change the world. Take feeds seriously and you can get in on important conversations from a position of power through superior access to information. Once I'm done working in the for-profit sector, whenever that is, I'm going to focus on finding social change organizations that are really on fire and help them use technologies like RSS more effectively to do some damage to the dominant paradigm.
NR: You say "RSS essentially supports my family and I, without it I'm not sure what I'd be doing for a living." With the ever changing world of technology, do you have any guesses on what's next either for RSS or a possible alternative technology? What should we prepare for?
MK: I think more tactile, game-like interfaces will emerge like Twitter clients on AIR, and I think more free flowing information will be available with things like data portability, increased scalability and the semantic web reducing friction online.
NR: You've probably explained RSS/Atom so many times, do you have any resources you can share that best explain what it is, or perhaps do you have an explanation?
MK: Google the phrase teaching RSS and you'll find an old article I wrote on the topic. Bop around my personal blog marshallk.com and you'll see posts tagged RSS that will explain it from a variety of perspectives. Essentially, the story is this: RSS brings new content from any web page to you automatically when it is available. That's just the beginning though because information available in RSS feeds is more pliable than almost anything else on the web, too.
NR: What application of RSS/Atom feeds do you think is the most powerful right now?
MK: I love AideRSS.com and I think readers here will as well, let your imagination run wild with it. I also love Dapper.net for extracting feeds. For simple beauty I have a real thing for Netvibes. Feedburner is good for more than people give it credit for too. I want to spend some time with MagpieRSS. That's a wide variety there, you could base an entire consulting practice off of those handful of RSS apps. I almost do, in fact!
NR: Ok, let's switch gears to some other current trends. I follow you on Twitter, but I'm curious what other social tools you might use on a daily basis, and why? What do you get out of each one?
MK: I use Twitter more than anything else just because it's easy and I get big returns from it. Big returns, like today I was looking for candidates for a job I was trying to fill and with one tweet I got 5 responses from some highly qualified people around the world. Great ROI there.
Besides twitter, I use Ma.gnolia for social bookmarking. I like it better than Del.icio.us because of it's adoption of emerging standards, mostly. It doesn't have the user numbers, so you've still got to research at Del.icio.us but it's a great service to use. What do I get out of it? All kinds of things; I build relationships with several hundred people who have subscribed to my links tagged "toshare," I make a reading list accessible on my mobile by putting the feed for items tagged "toread" into my Netvibes page. I participate in a couple of groups that share topical links in Ma.gnolia and the service makes that really easy to do. I also save things for later reference, but if that was all I was getting out of it I wouldn't do it.
I do use Del.icio.us almost daily, too. If I want to know what my options for screencasting are, I go first to http://del.icio.us/popular/screenscasting, for example.
I consider AideRSS a social tool too, as it leverages explicit attention gestures from the online community in general in order to filter feeds. I use that daily as well to look for the hotness in fields outside my central area of interest.
NR: Those are some great tools you mentioned. What trends do you find really compelling about the web or any technology these days? What sets your keyboard on fire?
MK: I love scraping feeds and making custom search engines using the very simple Google CSE service. Both of those things are pure magic. They enable a whole new world of options on line. The web with tools like that and the web without are like two different species. One of them is like the kind of flying, sparkle-glistened unicorn that makes grown adults want to jump up and sing. Really. It's awesome. And it's not that hard to do, any of it.
NR: If you had to pick one problem that faces web users today, what would you fix?
MK: What I'd like to see changed includes increased access for marginalized groups, an increased emphasis on free will (yes to cross platform mashups, for example, but a big no to brain implants) and the expansion of new economic roles like in-house news editors for organizations of any size.
NR: Marshall, thank you for your time and valuable insights from the edge of new social media.
If you'd like to ask Marshall some of your own questions, feel free to contact him directly.