So I’ve made this website for building blog communities, and it’s called datafall.org. Datafall lets you start these things called “blogcircles”. If there’s some group of people– maybe the people from your web forum, or your fish club, or just your circle of friends– that you know have blogs, you can go start a blogcircle for those people, and then send those people a link to it. Then all they have to do is hit the “click here to join this blogcircle” link at the top of the page and enter the URL of their blog, and from then on, whenever they post something at their blog it will appear at your circle at Datafall, too, with a link back to the blog that posted it. (Datafall doesn’t host any blogs on the website itself– if that’s what you want, there are lots of great free websites for that. What Datafall does is bring blogs together.) Finally (as you can see in my own sidebar, on the right of my own blog’s main page) once you’ve got everyone hooked up to the blogcircle, Datafall gives you several ways of embedding the stream of links from your blogcircles right into your blog, so that your own blog can show in realtime a list of the new posts by all your friends without you having to do anything.
In other words, Datafall is an RSS Aggregator, except that normal RSS Aggregators are controlled by just one person and read by just one person, and the blogcircles at Datafall are open to the world.
If you want to see how this works in practice, take a look at the Platformers community blogcircle, which is the first (and as of this writing only) blogcircle on the site; I set it up for the people I know at Platformers.net, a website that has a small gaming forum I belong to. I hope you’ll consider setting up a blogcircle for the people you know, too.
This next part mostly has to do with the history of the website at datafall.org right now, and this may or may not be of any interest to you. But, here it is anyhow.
I actually started Datafall something like a year and a half ago, but until the last couple of weeks it was actually a completely different site. The original Datafall was kind of modeled to be an RSS-based implementation of Scoop, which is the engine that DailyKos and Kuro5hin use. Scoop sites are kind of like little Slashdots, with a stream of special “official” blog posts on the front page approved in some way by either the site operators or the community of users, and then a stream of “diaries” freely posted on the side pages by normal users. My thought was that I’d used a couple of Scoop-based sites and liked them a lot; but the problem was it was hard for Scoop communities to get started, and they died really easily, since being a user on a Scoop site is kind of an all-or-nothing proposition. Becoming a user on a Scoop site effectively meant either starting a blog there or moving your existing blog, and once your blog there was set up there it was likely no one would be reading it except the other site users– so you kind of had a lot invested in the site. Scoop sites which have a real critical mass to them, like DailyKos, could make this argument easily and thrived; others couldn’t and struggled.
I looked at this situation and thought: Scoop sites has great community integration features. But they usually aren’t very good [i]blog[/i] sites. So, why not make something Scoop-like which has all of Scoop’s great community features– but which doesn’t try to be a blog site at all? The blog posts could be posted elsewhere, and the scoop site could just slurp them from RSS, and categorize and link to them. So I installed Ruby on Rails and did some tinkering, and this is basically what the first Datafall was. It looked exactly like a Scoop site, but if you clicked on any of the posts you’d find yourself on an external blog.
A year passed, and I eventually realized two things: One, I hated Ruby On Rails; and two, nobody was using my Scoop-style Datafall site, nor did it seem likely anyone was going to start doing so in future. Why would they? The site didn’t really give you any reason to use it; the site had all these community features, but these features only made sense if the site already had a big community, and this site didn’t. The only people who were using Datafall were the people who knew me from this Platformers forum I visit; Datafall was basically being used as a blog tracker for the Platformers forum users. Which was actually kind of neat, but it meant most of the Scoop-style features were useless.
So, okay then, I thought, if these Scoop-style features aren’t any use for the way people are using the site, then why keep those features? So I deleted the whole site, installed Django to replace the Ruby On Rails stuff that wasn’t working, and started over. The result is the site you see there now. The database contents, and the CSS file moved over from the old site to the new one; everything else is new.
So, what’s the point of the new site?
The idea for the new site can actually be seen in one of my “to do” bullet points for the old site. If you’ve ever used LiveJournal, you’ve probably seen these “groups” they have. LiveJournal groups are like little group blogs, where anyone with a LiveJournal account– when they write up a blog post– can choose to drop the post to the LiveJournal group instead of the normal blog. Which is really neat, but of course it has the problem that you have to have a LiveJournal account in order to use it. This doesn’t make much of a difference since you can of course start a LiveJournal account just to post in the groups, but in a certain sense this still is a little bit like the “all or nothing” problem I mention with Scoop– you can take advantage of this neat blog community feature on this one site, but unless you just happen to host your blog on the same site then a lot of the community integration is lost. I thought– as long as the point of Datafall is to offer blog community-building features, based around using RSS to paste different sites together– that replicating this groups feature on Datafall would someday make sense too. But at first I assumed that this was something to put off until the site had grown a bit– since after all, who would join these groups if the site doesn’t have any users yet?
On the other hand, Datafall in the pseudo-Scoop era was, if you think about it, basically like one little LiveJournal group unto itself– the Platformers community LiveJournal group, say. No one there wanted to use the Scoop-style features, but there was this group of people in this existing, external community who had blogs and were using the Datafall site for LiveJournal-group-style features. Looking at this I figured, well, if the people on Platformers are using Datafall for this purpose, might there also be other small net communities who might be interested in doing so too, as long as the site supported it?
So, that’s basically what Blogcircles are: Blogcircles are kind of like the “groups” on LiveJournal, but posts can go there from any blog, myspace page, any website at all, not just the blogs on LiveJournal. And hopefully this gives the reason why people would want to use Datafall in its new form: because there are people who already have some little community they’re in in which the community members just happen to have blogs, and Datafall gives some way for that community to organize itself.
OKAY, SO HOW DO I USE THIS THING?
If you go to Datafall, you’ll see a handful of links on the front page. Feel free to browse the feeds and blogcircle[s] already on the site, but probably what you want to do is either add a new RSS feed to Datafall, or add a new Blogcircle. (Don’t worry about making an account; this will be done automatically once you start doing things.)
Let’s say you want to add a new blogcircle. Hit the “Add a blogcircle” link, and fill out the form– all you really need to give it is a name, but if you want you can also add a description and a URL of your choice. (If you’re not already logged in, the form will also have you create a new account.) Once you’ve created your blogcircle, when you look at that blogcircle logged in there will be some extra options visible to you– as the owner of the blogcircle– which don’t appear for anyone else. Specifically you’ll be able to edit the blogcircle’s information, or “attach a feed”. You might actually want to do the second one of these– what this means is that you can add a special item to the Datafall sidebar, visible whenever anyone looks at the blogcircle, containing the contents of an RSS feed of your choice. (For example, remember me mentioning the blogcircle for the “Platformers” video game forum? Well, on the Platformers blogcircle, the “attached feed” shows the recent front-page posts on Platformers itself.)
Alternately, let’s say you want to add your blog to Datafall. Datafall calls the blogs it’s keeping track of “feeds” (since, after all, they might not be a blog exactly). You’ll probably want to do this in the context of adding your blog to a blogcircle– if you want, you can just add your feed now and join a blogcircle later once more blogcircles have started, but I don’t have the site to the point yet where you can get a lot of use out of it without being in some blogcircle! Maybe later. So what you’ll probably want to do for now is go to the page for a blogcircle you want to join; if you look, you’ll see at the top a link that says “Click here to join this blogcircle”. Hit that, and a form will appear asking for the URL of the website you want to add (and creating an account if you aren’t signed in already). That’s it! Your most recent post will appear on the blogcircle immediately, and when you make posts in future Datafall will notice and add those to the blogcircle, too.
Note that once you’ve logged in, the front page will appear as a summary of all the different blogcirlces you belong to; the links that are normally in the front page directory can after you’ve logged in be found in the sidebar to the right.
One last thing you might want to do, if you’ve found or started a blogcircle you really like, is embed the blogcircle into your own blog in such a way that anyone visiting your blog can see what’s been posted in your blogcircle lately without having to go all the way to Datafall. I am trying to set up Datafall so as to make it simple to embed a “faucet” from Datafall into absolutely any web page, anywhere– although how you do it may be different depending on where your site is hosted. Maybe I’m biased because I’m trying to sell you on this Datafall thing I made here, but this is actually a feature of a kind I’ve been wishing blogs had for a long time. Most blogs have a little “blogroll” bar on the right side of the page, linking an occasionally huge number of different blogs that the blogger likes; but you usually don’t have any idea which, if any, of these different blogs actually have new content. I think it would be neat if instead of forcing viewers to check each item on your blogroll manually, you could just show them an up-to-the-minute listing of all the newest posts by people on your blogroll. The Datafall embedding feature tries to be a step toward that.
If you want to try to do this, what you should do is go to Datafall and look on the right-hand sidebar, underneath where the login box normally would be. On some pages on Datafall, particularly blogcircles, there will be a little box here labeled “Embed”. This box will contain a link, which will take you to a page containing instructions on how to embed the live listing from that specific particular page somewhere else. The instructions page in question will have different instructions for different kinds of websites and blogs– blogspot accounts, WordPress blogs, plain html sites, etc– and most of the instructions will consist of a large block of HTML which you’re supposed to paste somewhere or other. Part of the reason why I have different instructions for each different kind of blog is I’m trying to provide some way of embedding that can blend into your site completely seamlessly– I’m trying to set things up so that if you embed a blogcircle in a webpage it looks like it was designed to be there. Note, though, that although , as, I only have a few things listed there now. If you have a blog or website that isn’t covered by the instructions on that page, then please do post in the comments below, tell me what kind of blog it is and why it is that the existing instructions don’t work, and I’ll see if I can add a section for your blog type.
IS THAT IT?
So this is basically what Datafall is right now. I’m still actively working on it, and since the new site is a lot easier to make changes on than the old one I hopefully should be able to do them at a potentially fast clip. I’m happy to take any suggestions for improvements, and I’ve got a list of improvements I’m going to try to add as soon as I can. Here are some of the things I want to work on with Datafall in the future:
- Right now you can’t post to any blogcircle except one you’ve specifically joined– and once you’ve joined, you can’t not post to it. Every post you make on the blog will appear on all of your blogcircles, period, and you can’t remove them. This needs to be fixed stat. You should be able to add yourself to a blogcircle “conditionally”, such that your posts are displayed on the blogcircle only when you assign them to be rather than automatically; you should be able to withdraw a post from a blogcircle or from datafall if you want; and ultimately I think it would be neat if there were “open” blogcircles that anyone could post to, whether they’ve joined the blogcircle or not. (So for example there maybe be like a “Science” blogcircle, and any individual post from any feed on Datafall could be assigned to appear on the Science blogcircle so long as it had science content.) This kind of hands-on way of using Datafall probably isn’t the way most people would want to use it– better to just use it the normal way and have the site do everything for you automatically– but it should at least be an option.
- Right now there really aren’t any limits on who can join what blogcircle. This could potentially be kind of bad; in many cases it would make sense for some kinds of blogcircles to be able to control their membership and content. There needs to be the ability for the operator of a blogcircle to remove feeds and posts that aren’t appropriate to that blogcircle, and it needs to be possible to set a blogcircle such that when people click “join blogcircle” they aren’t instantly added, but have to be approved first. (Conversely, if there’s a feed on Datafall you like or think is appropriate to a particular blogcircle, maybe it should be impossible to invite people.)
- Right now the only person who can do any kind of maintenance on a blogcircle is the person who created it. The blogcircle owner should be able to delegate authority. This doesn’t make much difference right now, when there’s very little that even the blogcircle owner is able to do, but once the blogcircle owner gains the ability to delete posts approve feeds etc the blogcircle owner should be able to also give select members of the blogcircle the ability to do same.
- Combining the above three ideas together,
- AJAX. If you don’t know what AJAX is, then don’t worry about it too much, but in my book this is a biggie. The old Datafall had some great AJAXy features– this was the one thing Ruby On Rails was good at– but the new Datafall has none, mostly because. Incidentally, if anyone can recommend a Python library for AJAX generation hopefully analagous to RJS for Ruby, please let me know.
Okay, that’s it.