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by Jacob O'Bryant

Discussion apps > reading apps?

Welcome to my weekly newsletter about practical ways to improve the information environment, focused on my own work in that space. I'm Jacob O'Bryant.

A few days ago I read an article that caused me to question one of my fundamental assumptions: what if discussion apps are more important than reading apps?

The article was this manifesto from the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure (iDPI). In a nutshell their recommendation is that:

  • There should be more emphasis on small community/discussion apps instead of stuffing everyone into a few giant platforms.
  • There should be "loyal clients" which let users interact with multiple communities from one place, and which are designed to prioritize users' interests over platforms' interests.
  • There should be a bunch of 3rd party algorithm services which can be used by loyal clients to provide ranking, filtering, discovery etc.

I've been following iDPI for a little while; their recommendations come closer to my own scheme than any other initiative I'm aware of.

The main point where I disagree with them is that I think having "full" loyal clients—3rd party apps that can read posts from and publish posts to a bunch of different community apps—would introduce too much coordination cost and would slow down innovation. Community apps wouldn't be able to release new functionality to all their users immediately; they would have to wait for 3rd party clients to add support as well.

Instead I think that the reading of posts should be aggregated into 3rd party clients, but publishing posts doesn't need to be. You want a single feed of content so that you don't have to check a bunch of different communities regularly, but if you want to reply to one of those posts, it's acceptable if you have to click on the post and switch to the app it came from.

I could be wrong though, and either way I'm interested to watch their progress.

As I was pondering the differences between our approaches and my ongoing dissatisfaction with the community software available to me, I started to have a small epiphany: what if there was an app that looked like Discord/Slack, and one of its main features was that you could subscribe to RSS feeds from within the channels, and it published an RSS feed for each channel?

Think of it like a community-focused RSS reader. Moderators can add subscriptions to a channel. When a subscription publishes a new post, it'll show up in the channel. Members can comment on it, or make their own top-level post in the channel. The outbound RSS feed for that channel includes all the top-level posts, including posts from members and posts from that channel's subscribed RSS feeds. You could have a channel where you subscribe to other channels.

Similar to how Discord and Slack have 3rd-party bots for doing various stuff, there could be bots for ranking and filtering content from the incoming RSS feeds. Maybe some bots would be sources of content on their own—a Yakread bot might recommend articles and keep track of which recommendations get the most comments/emoji responses.

I'm still fleshing this idea out—there are a lot of UX details that would need to be handled—but in general I'm mostly convinced of at least two things:

  • I would definitely benefit from having a new type of community app. Discord, Reddit, Discourse and everything else I've looked at just don't quite fit my needs. (High confidence.)
  • A discussion app that emphasized subscribing to and publishing RSS feeds might be useful to more people than a reading app like Yakread. (Medium confidence.)

We'll see if that idea goes anywhere 🙂.

A few other things I read last week:

Published 24 Jun 2023

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