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:
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:
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:
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.