Using Google Reader as an OPML editor and feed blender

Last week, Google announced a new feature for Google Reader that is worth noting here, if only because it will make my work a little easier. They’ve introduced the idea of ‘bundles’ of feeds that anyone can create and share via Google Reader, email, OPML or as an Atom feed. There was a bit of confusion at first about what happened after you create a bundle and shared it. Dave Winer, based on an exchange with Kevin Marks, thought that the bundles were dynamic ‘reading lists’ based on a proprietary format. This isn’t the case but it’s worth reading Dave Winer’s original post with comments, and his follow up post which clarifies what reading lists are (technically, they’re ‘subscription lists‘ – part of the OPML 2.0 specification).

Anyway, what Google has introduced in this update to their feed reader is still very useful and functionally quite similar to the reading list concept. It allows me to group multiple feeds into a set/reading list/bundle and then share that set of feeds with my Google Reader ‘friends’, email a link to a web page of that bundle or download an OPML file of the bundle. This last feature is particularly cool because it means your bundle is portable via the OPML open standard and can be shared beyond Google Reader.

Build your bundle

Ways to share it

Email a link

Read it, subscribe to the feed or download the OPML

Effectively, Google Reader has become a simple OPML editor, allowing anyone to gather feeds together and export them as an OPML file. Even better, your bundle is also available as a ‘blended’ Atom feed, achieving something similar to Dave Winer’s notion of a dynamic ‘reading list’ where the creator of the bundle can add or remove feeds and the Atom feed is dynamically updated to reflect those changes. Until now it was a bit of a hassle to create a blended feed from multiple sources. Yahoo! Pipes is a powerful way of doing it but Pipes isn’t for everyone and I’ve found the feeds it produces are not always available and compatible with other feed reading applications. Recently, I’ve been creating ‘digests’ in feed.informer, but I’m more inclined to use Google Reader now as it’s where I do all my feed reading and I know the application well. Note that you don’t have to remain subscribed to the feed in Google Reader in order for a bundle to remain persistent either. You can create a bundle from feeds you later unsubscribe from in your reader and the feeds are not deleted from the bundle.

There are two obvious uses for all of this. First, a teacher could bundle a reading list of feeds and share them with students via Google Reader, as a simple web page, an OPML file or dynamic Atom feed. Second, using the Atom output, it’s now easy for anyone to create a lifestream feed of all their activity on the web and embed it on their web page or just archive it in Google Reader or elsewhere.

A few notes on data portability

I had a bit of fun over the weekend looking at how I could both aggregate my online presence and make it portable, all under my own domain name. I ended up touching on a bunch of interesting initiatives revolving around web and data standards. The minor output of this is over on my personal ‘home page’ at http://josswinn.org

You’ll see that there’s an Attention Profile (APML), Friend of a Friend document (FOAF), hCard generated from my contact details, an OPML file of the significant feeds I have spotted around the web (Delicious, this blog, Twitter, Last.fm, etc), an aggregated feed of my OPML file, and a link to my LinkedIn profile, which I happily learned includes hResume microformat markup. My OPML, FOAF profile and RSS feed are all auto-discoverable.

All links on the page are marked up using the XFN markup rel=”me” tag, which should help consolidated my identity on the web. There’s an interesting discussion over on Marshall Kirkpatrick’s blog about how our Twitter profiles are starting to rank higher in search engines than our personal blogs or home pages because Twitter is using the rel=”me” tag. Marshall suggests that we start using rel=”me” somewhere on our own sites to counteract that.

To add to the fun, I also tried to get the page to validate as HTML5, but in doing so, I had to remove the meta tag that provides OpenID Attribute Exchange via my OpenID Service Provider. I get the error:

Bad value X-XRDS-Location for attribute http-equiv on element meta.

Apparently the draft HTML5 spec currently disallows values for http-equiv. OpenID AX is a good thing if you want to consolidate your identity while at the same time ensure it is portable. It’s certainly more useful to me than validating as HTML5.

In addition to this, I added a Google Friend Connect (OpenSocial) widget and integrated Apture. I thought about adding the ability to leave comments via Disqus, the advantage being that comment authors could retain control over their own comments. But to be honest, I don’t think you or I need yet another method of communicating with each other. There are plenty of ways to do that already.

Other than providing a playground for fun, what this bit of tinkering on my home page has taught me is that microformats and the ethos of data portability is being embraced quite widely on the web and although I spent my time hand-crafting my new home page, there are opportunities to do much the same, quite easily, through the use of a WordPress blog and a bunch of third-party services. More on that later…