Beyond RSS: Using Alltop.com to Teach Writing

This is the excellent foppery of the world.
–Edmund, in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Remember last summer those Korean Christian missionaries who came up with the bright idea of spreading their gospel in, of all places, Afghanistan? Sure you do. It was all over the news for a couple weeks. They were taken hostage by the Taliban, and a couple of their pastors were executed. Strangely enough, they were from a church in my old neighborhood in Seoul.

I don’t mean to be callous, but my reaction was: “Well, what did they expect?” Talk about “tempting the Lord.” Why not trust Him to protect a scuba dive in a lava bed? “What were these people thinking?” I asked.

They didn’t know what I want to call the First Rule of Evangelizing: Know Your Potential Converts.

I think we web 2.0 evangelists – at least this one – have to come to terms with a similar case of our own foppery: spreading the Gospel of RSS.

Even though we all use RSS readers – and even that’s a questionable assumption as the flood of feeds rises, and I, for one, find myself reading Twitter links far more than RSS feeds these days – can we all agree that our success rate at converting others to do the same is dismally low?

As a classroom teacher who has tried to convert students to the Good News of RSS Aggregators for almost two years now, the picture is even grimmer. All those hours walking students through setting up accounts, finding feeds, and all those additional hours of trying to guide them to the explosive learning that comes from the feed-reading habit? Fast forward a year later, and almost none of them have seen the Light.

Burn me at the stake, dear reader, and rail at this heretic if you must, but I must draw this conclusion: Maybe RSS is not The Only Way. We need a New Gospel.

Buddha is said to have advised seekers of Truth, faced with so many dogmas and doctrines and sects and claims, “Don’t mistake the fingers for the moon.” (For the metaphorically-challenged, the Moon would be the Truth, and the Fingers would be all mortal attempts to formulate it. Buddha is saying not to mistake the attempted answers with the ineffable reality they try to contain. Words can’t touch the Ultimate Truth, whatever that may be. It’s another reason I’ve always thought Buddha was cool. I’d love to hang out with that guy.)

So to riff off The Awakened One: if reading blogs and such is the moon, and RSS is a finger pointing the way to them that the vast majority of humans are too lazy and habit-driven to adopt, let’s be open to other ways.

I’ll share one that I found the day it was launched, and used in a writing classroom the day after. It’s called Alltop.

Guy Kawasaki, former Apple Evangelist, author, venture capitalist, Truemors creator, and Top 100 Technorati blogger, launched Alltop.com about a month ago. True to his mantra-making form, he describes Alltop as an “Online Magazine Rack.” It’s an apt description. As this screenshot shows, Alltop’s main page feels like an online version of the magazine section at a Borders or Barnes and Nobles. Click on the picture for full-size:

alltop main

You see the main categories -Work, Living, People, Interests, Culture, Geekery, Good, News – that function as the “sections” in a magazine area of a bookstore. And beneath each category, you see the “subsections” – under “Culture,” for example, you have Design, Fashion, Movies, Music, and Photography (since he’s asking for suggestions, I’ve asked Guy to add “Books” to this work-in-progress).

By clicking on any of the subsections, you drill deeper into that subject by going to its subdomain page – for example, culture.alltop.com. Here you get a page of links “top” sites about the topic and, as the screeshot below of the “Interests > Crime” page shows, the latest five feeds from each site. Again, click the picture for full-size view:

alltop subdomain

I chose to screenshot the Crime page because I have a student in my Networked Learning/PLN elective class who chose to do a project on detectives in real life, and on TV and film. She’s writing crime humor scripts that she wants to direct and film, so she needed to find websites to research real detective life and find plot ideas involving funny crimes. The “Dumb Criminals” and CSI sites were just what she needed for these purposes.

But I had all of my students in this class do an exercise about the importance of titles and opening paragraphs using the main page of whatever Alltop site best suited their self-designed project – sports journalism, restaurant and bar design, comfort foods and recipes, political satire, game reviews – and the final feature of Alltop that has value for teaching writing. You see it in the screenshot below: the popup first paragraph of each feed’s post:

subdomain popup

So here’s how the writing exercise went: 1) Go to the topic on Alltop that fits your project; 2) List the three best, and three worst, blog or website titles from the page, and explain why they shine or stink; 3) Select the three best and worst post titles, and explain the same; 4) Hover over the links of posts and find three excellent introductions from the popups, and three lousy ones, and explain your choices; 5) Post your analyses on the group PLN blog (here’s an example from a student: “The Difference a Title Can Make”).

Since doing that exercise – and then assigning students to re-title and re-write the opening paragraphs of all their posts – I’ve seen the evidence that the lesson worked. And I’ve also found that Alltop is a way for my students to find fresh information about their interests – without facing the tribulations of evangelizing RSS readers.

Full disclosure: Beyond School is featured in Alltop’s Education page. But I was using Alltop in class before that. I’d switched my homepage to Alltop from Popurls.com, which featured only social bookmarking hits from del.icio.us, Digg, and so forth, and thus was uneven at best (the Ron Paul crowd learned how to manipulate these sites to push their posts to the top, along with many other sensationalistic titles). Alltop is an improvement for this reason.

Finally, be warned: puritanical classrooms will not be comfortable with Alltop because it features topics like “BLTG” – bi-sexual, lesbian, trans-sexual, gay – and it also features posts with some taboo vowel-consonant combinations. Me? I find it the perfect opportunity to train my students in not freaking out over real-world realities and language, and to get over any hangups about them caused by schooliness – whether Monday-Friday schooliness, or Sunday-schooliness. Let’s be real. They’re in high school, and they’re not strangers to these things.

19 thoughts on “Beyond RSS: Using Alltop.com to Teach Writing”

  1. I’m totally with you on the failure of RSS to go mainstream. I’m not convinced Alltop is the answer more than twitter is the answer. These are examples of filters. Twitter at least is filtered by folks you choose to be part of your network. Alltop is Guy and his crew, who while may be doing a fine job finding quality sites are still a limited and in most cases are limiting the choices they offer. That may be a good thing for some but eventually everyone needs to build their own network and information stream.

    As well Alltop also succumbs to typical manipulation as evidenced by this response in their FAQ:

    How, as a site owner, do I get my site (or blog) moved up the page?

    A. Send us a persuasive email. FYI, telling your readers about Alltop and blogrolling is particularly persuasive.

    I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.

    So if the original point is to find ways to get people to start thinking about push technology, RSS remains the best tool. Even if folks begin by bookmarking 5 people’s shared deli.cio.us or google reader shared items, that would provide a decent more personal start to network building. Alltop, while useful, doesn’t get at the heart of network building.

    *Full Disclosure: my blog isn’t on Alltop but I assure you this isn’t a sour grapes comment…just someone who finds Clay’s posts stimulating.

    Dean Shareski’s last blog post..Diigo you have given me a headache

  2. Clay,

    I can see where this would be a good introduction to RSS, but severely limiting if you are promoting RSS as a PD tool.

    I found some of my favorites in the Education section, but by no means all or even most. By pre-selecting the content, Kawasaki can manipulate the point of view presented. Lesser know or lower-rated blogs might benefit from a “sites to see” spot, perhaps.

    It’s interesting, but I’ll stick with my Google Reader.

    diane

    diane’s last blog post..A Confederacy of Dunces

  3. It is, in fact, heresy for me to have you dis RSS. I live and breathe RSS. If I have a third child I’m going to have his/her initial be RSS. It hung the moon and could have made the umpires come clean in the disastrous Seattle Pittsburgh Super Bowl.

    But I haven’t had much success with forcing Google reader on my kids.

    On the other hand, they love iGoogle and from there it’s not so hard to get them to insert blocks from a list of blogs or use G. Readers preset blocks of feeds to get them started. I’m thinking next year to have my kids use feeds to spur weekly blog posts on subjects that interest them instead of reacting to articles I find. I’m still too schooly as you might put it.

    G. Reader is not quite Afghanistan…maybe more like Capitol Hill in Seattle?

    Nate Stearns’s last blog post..?It’ll be fine?really!?

  4. Okay, call me an addict. I’m in a hotel in downtown Seoul after midnight, on a weekend “late honeymoon” getaway with my bride. But I had to check in :)

    I hope to answer all of you individually later, but just want to clarify that

    a) this is about those people who will not try our RSS readers, and might find this an easier pool to swim in;

    b) this is an alternative path, a Plan B if RSS doesn’t work (and I notice nobody has said, “Hell yeah, people jump on Bloglines and GReader when I show them!!)

    c) it’s a starting point, not an ending one – maybe people will see the value of subscribing to some of these things after browsing the magazine rack long enough;

    d) I agree about the limited and seemingly arbitrary nature of the selections for each page, but again, my point was that for those who don’t use feed readers, it’s better than pushing them to. Been there, done that to muscle failure.

    e) Dean, I hear you about the mutual back-scratching, but somebody – maybe @derrallg? – in my Twitter network knows that I tweeted Popurls as a good homepage a couple months ago.When I found Alltop, I immediately made it my homepage because of my Networked Learning class. You’ll remember in our podcast (or maybe it was the one with Cory) that we asked how to branch out beyond the edu-networks to find content of a wider range, and couldn’t come up with an easy solution? This was a one-site fits all browser for literally every student project my self-directed learning class. As a classroom teacher, I know how painful and sometimes impossible it is to find feeds to fit every interest – so maybe that’s why I still maintain that, warts and all, Alltop is better than other solutions for classroom use (and you know I tried Twitter with my students, and they didn’t take to it).

    Moreover, Dean, isn’t there a good-old-boys network of mutual back-scratching in the edublogosphere itself via link-love and twitter-backslaps? Many people seem to think so.

    f) Diane, I agree with you. But as soon as you click on a few of the selected blogs in any category, you see blogrolls in many of them that lead you deeper. And you have to admit, don’t you, that the exposure to more categories than edublogs is a benefit by taking us beyond our isolationist readings?

    g) Nate, the iGoogle approach is interesting. If you’ve had any successes with that, please reply with a link to any posts you’ve done about it. (And nice to hear from you, fellow English teacher ;-)

    Okay, back to real life. Thanks all – and keep the criticisms coming.

  5. Oops: one last shot: Can anybody deny that, for teaching the importance of titles and strong introductions, this is a pretty simple and elegant approach? And one that leads students to more reading – instead of time-consuming searching for reading – about their chosen interests?

    That was the main point of the second half: just a teaching tip.

  6. Now Clay, don’t go all over defensive: of course we believe you that your motive was not self-promotion!

    Yes, you can (and I do) connect to other blogs from places that you visit. And I love your LP for students, as an introduction to the concept of RSS.

    Guess I’m just tired of having to water down tools and content for reluctant “professionals.”

    The revolution has begun, the time is now! Wear water wings if you must, but dive in! Mixed metaphors, but you get the point. The desire to learn can’t be mandated. If the teachers and administrators don’t model it, where and how will our students acquire it?

    The Dude abides, but he could use a little company here.

    diane

    diane’s last blog post..A Confederacy of Dunces

  7. Agreed about the back scratching but alltop is fairly explicit. I only link to beyond school if I think it’s valuable, not because I owe anyone.

    I really like your use with students, not to mention the writing exercise. But not sure I’d use it with teachers. But I see your point. Now get back to your honeymoon!

    Dean Shareski’s last blog post..Diigo you have given me a headache

  8. I like the lesson plan. It has great application to the students (especially since they have blogs), and easily gets the point across.

    I’m not sure Alltop can replace RSS, or even really be considered an RSS-lite. The benefit it may have is to introduce students to several blogs they like, which will invariably each introduce them to even more blogs they’ll like, until eventually they can’t remember all the blogs they want to check. They’ll be driven into using RSS aggregators.

    I feel that if we want students to become digital consumers, Utilizing RSS feeds is something they need to be proficient in. However (as with most things introduced in school), it really takes their own motivation and interest to use it. A teacher telling students that they’re required to use RSS aggregators doesn’t have the same effect as students deciding to use aggregators.

    Is the goal instead to have students read lots of online information? RSS aggregators really only serve a purpose if you’re doing lots of online reading. If you’re just checking out a few sites regularly there isn’t much necessity for an aggregator.

    Ben’s last blog post..YES!

  9. This is a wonderful analysis of the current state of online interaction. I’ve struggled with RSS feeds since their emergence. I’ve never been one to thoroughly read or even browse everything I’ve marked; it would like require more than 24 hours a day!

    I’m simultaneously interested and frustrated by Twitter. Perhaps I haven’t found the right group of friends yet. There’s no question I’m learning a great deal about things I’ve never previously explored, so for that reason it’s compelling enough.

    However, the constant distraction of on-going Twittering sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate and actually get some work done. I truly wonder how others seem to have no problem posting Tweets every few minutes all the while attending meetings, conferences, visiting the spa, eating pizza, drinking beer, and generally goofing around. Is it possible for us to actually live life and be present in it when we are constantly recording our every move in text, photographs, audio, video, podcasts, etc., etc.? Is “living your life online” a mark of a creative, original individual making a difference in the world or someone willing to commit “ego-cide” as a contribution (read: sacrifice) to furthering digital culture?

    I’ll stop my rant and go check out AllTop.com.

    Oh yes, one more thing . . . my impression from reading Guy Kawasaki’s Tweets is that AllTop is intended to operate as a sort of moderated Wiki making use of the positive, worthwhile contributions of those willing and interested in doing so (i.e., Web 2.0). As an alternative to the all-inclusive ever expanding (and sometimes unstable) nature of Wikipedia, he’s creating a curated, high-quality guide to the Internet. If it’s successful, it will end up being a better guide to the Internet than Google (I was always a bit skeptical of the “popular” kids).

    Remiss63′s last blog post..New Noguchi-Kenmochi book

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