What’s In A Name?
If you care at all about issues of syndicating content across the Net, you are probably familiar with the Pie/Echo/Atom project. It’s an attempt to define an open syndication format to supplant the reigning king of syndication, RSS. RSS is great technology — I do more than half my browsing these days inside an RSS newsreader, and more and more people are doing the same — but unfortunately its history has been riven with political conflicts between developers with conflicting visions of where it should go next. The result has been a soup of formats, all using the acronym “RSS” but which do not have a clean, consistent path from one version to the next. Pie/Echo/Atom is trying to escape this problem by starting from scratch and defining a new format that nobody owns, so nobody can set themselves up as the benevolent dictator of the format.
Unsurprisingly, the technical work on the format has progressed very rapidly, and there are already working syndication feeds out there using it. Also unsurprisingly, on the non-technical front — the marketing front, essentially, though nobody wants to call it that — it’s chaos on roller skates. The reason it’s called “Pie/Echo/Atom” in the first place is because those were the first proposed names for the project; the last two were actually proposed, enthusiastically adopted, and then dropped when it was discovered that they conflicted with trademarks held by someone else. (“Pie” was the early working name for the project, and the one to which everyone grumpily returns whenever a new name is shot down in flames.)
I’m a supporter of the ideals of the project, but I just don’t have the kind of guru-level XML expertise to be able to contribute much to the design of the format. I did want to give something back, though, so I thought hard and made a proposal for what to call the darn thing. My suggestion is that it be named “GoBright” (full proposal document is on the official Pie wiki).
Why GoBright? I chose the name to honor an early pioneer in American journalism, Lawrence A. Gobright. Gobright was the first Washington correspondent for what became the Associated Press, the first “wire service” to syndicate news by telegraph to newspapers across the country.
Though his career spanned more than 30 years, Gobright was known primarily for two events that happened near the start of his career, during the American Civil War. Early in that conflict, Gobright came to the attention of Congress because he was consistently able to get big stories from the front to the public, even as military censors tried to clamp down hard on even the least consequential news. He was called to testify to Congress, and in his testimony he made a statement that became one of the most well-known descriptions of the work of an objective journalist:
My business is merely to communicate facts. My instructions do not allow me to make any comments upon the facts which I communicate. My despatches are sent to papers of all manner of politics, and the editors say that they are able to make their own comments about the facts which are sent to them. I therefore confine myself to what I consider legitimate news. I do not act as a politician belonging to any school, but try to be truthful and impartial. I do not act as a politician belonging to any school, but try to be truthful and impartial. My despatches are merely dry matters of fact and detail.
Of course, the primary providers of online syndication feeds today are bloggers, whose opinionated journalism would have startled the “just the facts” Gobright. But the nascent network that Gobright belonged to, the Associated Press, really provided the spiritual ancestor of the current syndication concept — the AP was the first to provide, to any newspaper that cared to subscribe to the wire service, a steady flow of “microcontent” that local papers could then use either as filler or as a starting point for their own reports. The parallels to the way ideas percolate through the blogosphere, picking up steam as authors take them up, tweak them, and then syndicate them out again, are striking.
Gobright’s second brush with history was more dramatic than providing testimony to a Congressional committee — he was actually the first reporter to break the story of President Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Gobright’s wire report, leading off with “The President was shot in a theater to-night, and is perhaps mortally wounded,” is still cited as an example of how to tell a gripping story in a few well-chosen words.
(A tangential note: after the end of the war, Gobright pioneered another form of writing that is today quite commonplace but was then quite novel: the journalistic memoir. His 1869 reminiscence Recollection of Men and Things at Washington, During the Third of a Century can be read in its entirety online, thanks to the rapidly disappearing glory of the public domain.)
So, when people talk about syndicated news, they have to talk about Lawrence Gobright — which seems to me like reason enough to have our new syndication format pay tribute to his memory. There are other good reasons for this name as well, however:
- “GoBright” sounds like the answer to a question — “Want to syndicate smart? GoBright!”
- The use of “bright” gives the name a sunny, pleasant feeling, as opposed to the kind of techie eye-glazing that three-letter acronyms can provoke.
- People searching for information on the GoBright format would find it easily, since few other products or services use the name. A Google search for “Gobright” brings up almost exclusively information about the man, and details of a GoBright format would be unlikely to be confused with his biographical information.
So, I urge you to go to the official GoBright proposal page on the Pie/Atom/Echo wiki and leave your thoughts, either on the name “GoBright” or on any of the other suggested names proposed by others. Together, we can come up with a great name and put this Pie/Atom/Echo jumble behind us once and for all; and I’d like to think that, in doing so, we can give a nod back to the history of publishing, even as we define its next great leap into the future.