Syllabus onTrackBack: What Train? Wrong Track?

Just getting bounced around RSS-space is Phil Long’s Syllabus Feb 2004 column on TrackBack: Where Blogs Learn Their Places . Some are saying tat it explains Trackback well, but to be honest, you cannot really understand it until you use it. We are glad that Phil is giving TrackBack some limelight (waiting for those to chime in its open-ness to spam and ill-use).

However, his idea on using Tb as a content aggregator has me scratching my head, (emphasis added):

The approach taken was to suggest that someone might start a dedicated TrackBack blog on a particular topic. This special blog would not be used by the owner of the blog to wax poetic on topics of his or her choice, but become a repository dedicated to a single topic. For example, imagine a site, which collects Weblog posts about the Civil War. Anyone interested in reading about the Civil War could look at this site to keep updated on what other Webloggers were saying about the Civil War, see photographs from that period in magazines, etc. This is accomplished when those who do write on their individual blogs about the civil war initiate a TrackBack ping to the designated collector site.

This begs a few questions. Which “TrackBack blog” is the central authority om collecting these? What happens when there are 2, 5, 10? But more so, the mechanism is strange- how will all of those Civil War blog posters know to ping the correct address? It requires them to do so on a manual basis. The whole point of TB is that it is built into the blog publishing tools, so when I see Big Bad Bert’s post on the Civil War, I blog directly from his post, my blog writing tool automatically extracts the correct Trackback ping address, and sends the ping for me. Automatic (in theory). Beyond MovableType, I am not sure if other blogs automatically send TB pings.

And to be honest, one can already do this sort of aggregating via saving the URL of Feedster Searches, e.g. Civil War keyword searches (no, I have not exlpored the results):

Or one could do this setting up something at PubSub, a service that allows anyone to set up dynamic aggregated feeds (harvested from other feeds)

And there are certainly other sorts of blog aggregating tools out there, and Stephan Downes has already done the conference blog corralling as well as the topical ones in Edu-RSS.

The other part of the wrong track is Phil is thinking of Trackback only as far as blogs, a rather limiting view. As recently barked here a few days, something TrackBack like could, should (and has already been) be applied to collections of learning objects.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. If I understand correctly what he’s suggesting is something like the Internet Topic Exchange (http://topicexchange.com/), which provides a ping address for various topics and thus aggregates any articles that people post and ping that page.

    The problem I find with the Internet Topic Exchange is that it kind of defeats one of the main aspects of blogs, which is to attach posts to specific identities/blogs – I follow the ‘social software’ feed at the Internet Topic Exchange but honestly 4/5 of what comes through is, for me, cruft and not channels I would follow or am that interested in to begin with, though the idea of a topic exchange on social software seems appealing.

    Cheers, Scott.

  2. In fact, the trackback approach to content aggregation was one of the original use cases, according to its creator, Ben Trott:

    “Person A has written a post on a topic that a group of people are interested in. This is a form of content aggregation–by sending a TrackBack ping to a central server, visitors can read all posts about that topic. For example, imagine a site which collects weblog posts about Justin Timberlake. Anyone interested in reading about JT could look at this site to keep updated on what other webloggers were saying about his new album, a photo shoot in a magazine, etc.”

    From http://www.movabletype.org/trackback/beginners/

  3. Good points both Scott and Greg– however to me it still begs 2 questions:

    (1) Whoi is the central server authority on a topic or topics? The first one posted? It sets up problems of information discovery.

    (2) What is going to compel people writing new content to manually send the pings? They would have to know which central authority (#1) to send the ping and be dedicated enough to do so.

  4. Yeah, don’t get me wrong – I actually don’t think the scenario he lays out for aggregation is necessarily a great model, and I think the two points you raise are good objections. I was just commenting that it was already being used in this fashion, IMHO to not the greatest effect.

    For me the use that makes more sense and is more effective is the ‘automatic’ trackback pinging that occurs when an trackback enabled article (or learning object!!) is referenced elsewhere, leaving a trail of re-uses/re-contextualizations. In the LO world, you can see something similar in MERLOT in their notion of ‘personal collections’ and being able to see for each object which personal collections it shows up in. Cheers, Scott.

  5. I do like the concept of MERLOT collections, though I’ve not really looked at them to see how they are used- they could end up being as unorganized as browser bookmarks/favorites, and thus what you end up with are various sized piles of objects– it is not a re-contextualizing of objects– noire like the tools that let you know who’s RSS feeds include your blog.

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