Alltop fights technological determinism. The experts are wrong

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Less than a week ago Alltop launched its Personalized Feed Reader. Alltop is an online magazine rack that aggregates RSS feeds of every major topic from wine to personal finance and everything in between. It saves a reader from having to identify and add RSS feeds to a personalized Google page. All the best feeds on a given topic are easily scannable and can now be added to a customized page with a single click. Alltop is a simple, useful service for those who don't care to spend time creating RSS feeds and customizing them.

But Alltop has been bashed in the technology community. And in my opinion this bashing represents the worst of the technology community. This can be summed up in one phrase - technological determinism. I feel that many of the digerati and even folks in the social media space suffer from a technological determinism bias ( I do too at times). Technological determinism's doctrine is based on the premise that a society's technology determines its cultural values, social structure or history. It is the belief that technology is good for humanity and that it shapes humanity for the better. Got a problem - solve it with better technology. Technology is defined as the central causal element that promotes social change.
I strongly suspect that people dislike Alltop because it does not represent technological advancement for them. The technology driving it is inconsequential and for someone who enjoys technology and immerses himself (or herself) in it, Alltop provides no new value. And that's primarily why it gets slammed by some parts of the blogosphere. But by slamming products like Alltop, those bloggers do more harm than good for innovation online. Not every piece of innovation has to be about technological advancement. Innovation can also be when tasks are made simpler, when information is presented in a different way and when the user experience is the driving force.

As a counter balancing force to technological determinism is the doctrine of social construction of technology or SCOT. Here its not the technology that's driving societal change or human action but rather human action and human agency that shapes the technology. SCOT also emphasizes that the exact way a piece of technology is used cannot be understood without an understanding of how the technology is embedded in its social context.

The people who slam Alltop don't pay attention to the social context in which it is used. Its not necessarily designed for the digiterati but for the everyday people who want to quickly discover the top blogs on a given subject and have an easy way to read them and share their lists with others. That's all there is to this. Sure there are some things that Alltop could do better. For example, I'd like to see the blogs ranked in some logical fashion and I'd like to be able to search the feeds too but that's not the point. Alltop provides a valuable service for people who don't care to find blogs and put a lot of effort into creating personalized pages. There are lots of people like that around and for them Alltop is a godsend.

Follow me on Twitter (@shivsingh) for more insights on digital strategy and social media.


Connie Reece said:

I never saw the value of Alltop until we tried teaching RSS in a social media workshop for non-tech types. RSS seemed complicated, but they instantly grasped Alltop. And with the new I've become a user as well. Your point about digital snobs is well taken. Alltop is a tool for the masses, not early adopters.

Gil said:

Alltop is so disliked because Guy Kawasaki has chosen a spam marketing strategy on twitter to get the word out. That annoys a lot of people. He's also a polarizing speaker at industry events (to put it nicely). It's part of his "thing" to be controversial and irritating. I suppose this creates awareness....but then, look what it is doing for his personal and company brands.

Shiv Singh Author Profile Page said:

Thank you for the feedback. Twitter spamming can certainly annoy people but aren't we always in control - choosing whether to follow the person or not?

Gil said:

Sure, and that's why I stopped following Guy on Twitter. He ruined his brand with me. He went from being a thoughtful marketer, to being a spammer. He knows he's doing it... he practically admits that it's spam, but he believes the return is worth the cost.

Ian Lyons said:

I too had to stop following Guy because of the frequency of the alltop posts - that's a shame because it seems to have turned into a useful product and it took this post to get me to revisit.

I agree, anything that is a step to helping people get more access to and value out of information is a very positive thing. We tend to forget the total amount of time we've invested in learning how to use a specific technology - such as twitter.

Personally I'd like to see from AllTop a profile relevance filter which gives me control over what the term "best blogs" means. I'd be happy to provide a level personal profile information so I can filter on "people just like me" or perhaps "people just like my customers". I'm not a big fan of homogeneous averages, particularly as the sample size increases.


Shiv Singh Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for your comments. You're right Ian, its easy to forget how much time is spent in learning a piece of technology. We take far too many things for granted.

I think a profile relevance filter would be fascinating. Here's another thought - imagine if my Alltop blog listings were filtered or prioritized by who I follow on Twitter and who follows me.

Chris Boese Author Profile Page said:

Great post. I love that you get into technological determinism and social constructionism.

I have to admit I've never warmed up to Alltop, and not because of Kawasaki's twitter spam either.

And even tho I am a longtime RSS geek, the kind of functionality Alltop offers does appeal to me, to the point that I am now using a completely different reader than I have for the past 9 years (really 14 years, as I was a fan of CRAYON, or Create Your Own Newspaper in 1996 or so): feedly.

What feedly gives me is a cleaner interface, keeping the focus on the stories more so even than the feed identity, while hiding all the messy RSS details. That would appeal to the Alltop audience as well, I think. It also has a nice integration with FriendFeed, so if you want to go crazy with social features, you can do that too (I don't do that much, because I'm too much of a news junkie to annoy all my friends with the massive amounts odd stuff I follow). So feedly has a newbie appeal.

And what I don't like about Alltop, the thing that really pushes me away is that it presumes to make too many of my selections and decisions for me. Bleck. I just really don't like that at all.

For me, and my jury is still out on this, I think, feedly also scales somewhat for the sophistication that I require... meaning I am subscribed to a MASSIVE number of feeds. It was far more than I could ever read comfortably in one sitting long ago, but rather than scale back, I've actually INCREASED my number of subscriptions with feedly from Bloglines, because of the elegant parsing feedly seems to be doing. My jury is still out, because like monitoring Google or Technorati, if I start getting bad results, I'll probably notice that feedly is hiding things from me that I want it to surface. But so far I'm liking that intuitive side of it, so long as the rules are operating correctly (I have a habit of putting ALL feeds on my favorites list, for instance, just to keep stuff surfacing).

Anyway, just my 2 cents.

Ally S said:

I don't see why anyone would be against Alltop. I work in web / tech and even I use it pretty regularly. It's been a good way for me to find new content (although generally when I do find new blogs I like through Alltop I'd generally add them to my RSS feed reader).

It's a good starting point for anyone looking to do broad research about a topic, it's the reason why Yahoo circa 1998 was so popular. And I agree that the less web-savvy user would find Alltop a godsend - my mom loves it!

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