The Progressive (Profitable) Web

April 2, 2013 | 2 comments

Ryan Holiday laments the loss of Google Reader and RSS in general in Our Regressive Web, arguing that if someone came up with them today, we’d think they were brilliant ideas:

Nothing better has risen up to replace them. The underlying needs of a fairly large user base (that these services meet) still exist.

We’re just regressing.

[...] RSS is impervious to blogging’s worst, but most profitable traits. [...] No wonder nobody ever pushed for widespread adoption. Of course it died a slow death—along with Google Alerts and Delicious. Their mission is antithetical to the ethos of our new media age. Where noise, chatter and pushing—not pulling—rule the day.

Our Regressive Web by Ryan Holiday, on Medium

He’s right. Aggregated content – content on the reader’s terms – has a huge potential userbase, but it wasn’t profitable for either the bloggers or the aggregators, so it languished. Sure, you could tack some Google Ads onto the end of each post in a feed, but control over the form that the content is presented in is granted fully to the user. Where’s the opportunity to upsell? Where are the branding opportunities or the baked-in communities, carefully designed to maximize ongoing engagement?

The irony is that blogs have actually downgraded their on-page advertising over time. If you visit TechCrunch today, you’ll only see two ads above the fold. Check out io9, and you’ll see none at all. The redesigned ReadWrite has a few more: a giant banner above the fold, and then four small squares with another ad in the stream of content itself.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have your cake and eat it, too? Allow the user to consume content on his or her terms, while also allowing the content producer to make money?

Here’s an idea I’ve been working on in my own time. It’s a little technical, but bear with me:

  1. Add a simple social layer to the web. I still like the idea of the HTTP header I described in httpID. Your site may connect to my site with a mechanism like OpenID Connect and get an authentication token automatically. Think of it like a one-way friend request. Of course, I can then reciprocate by connecting to your site to create a two-way relationship.
  2. Add authentication to feeds. Each feed has just one URL. An aggregator may sign the request for a feed with an OAuth-like signature. (We’re sidestepping HTTP digest auth for obvious reasons.) The software producing the feed may choose to acknowledge the signature, or not; by default, you get all the public posts you’d normally get when accessing a feed.
  3. Manage connections and restrict access to content. I see everyone who’s connected to me from a control panel, and can reciprocate from there. More importantly, I can add any of my connections to access groups. So if I add you to a group and publish a piece of content so that it is only accessible by that group, when your site requests my feed using a signed request, you’ll see that content.
  4. Optionally: sell access to premium content. Once you can selectively broadcast content to a finite group of people, you can sell access to that group. (And of course, you can have more than one paid-access group.) For example, I’m a subscriber to NSFW, a paid publication with an online presence. They could push all their articles to me as a subscriber, while making a handful of taster articles available to everyone. You could even include a pointer to a subscription URL within that social handshake from part 1. If you decentralize the financial transactions (and why not?), you could even give a small cut to the platform owner.

All of the above is complementary to feed standards like RSS and Activity Streams, as well as to federated social web protocols and methodologies like OStatus. It’s super simple to both use and implement – but could add a layer of commerce to the content web, while also decreasing our dependence on large content silos whose interests are not in line with their customers.

2011: happy new year

January 3, 2011 | 5 comments

sydney habour bridge & opera house fireworks new year eve 2008I’m a little late to the party for end-of-year wrapup / start-of-year prediction posts. Instead, I thought I’d write about some of the things I’m looking forward to playing with this year.

Vanquishing piracy through better business

First, though, I do have one prediction: this will be the year that traditional content producers finally get to grips with piracy. They won’t do it using restrictive DRM and other counter-productive tactics that have been shown not to work; instead, they’ll do it by allowing anyone to buy their content in a convenient way.

The BBC is already talking about broadcasting Doctor Who simultaneously in the US and the UK; they are also planning to release their iPlayer on-demand service internationally. Its US counterpart Hulu, meanwhile, is also planning an international release. All of this is a tacit acknowledgement that a great deal of piracy is the direct result of artificially enforced border restrictions, but it’s also a bigger, more general change: the realignment of incumbent media companies around the Internet, instead of treating it as just another conduit. Just in time to save their businesses – maybe.

The year of the tablet?

Last year, the iPad shook everyone up. It’s a great device, which somehow makes computing a more intimate, human experience – I bought one, and it gets far more use than any other computer I own. (This Christmas, it’s got at least a couple of hours every day from Celia playing Angry Birds.) It’s so good that everyone’s prediction posts for 2011 have been colored by it. Wired; Leonard Lin; Technorati; The Times of India; The New York Times; GigaOm; etc etc etc. I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas next week, and I fully expect tablets to dominate the talk of the town. (Most interesting tablet advice I’ve heard lately: buy a Nook Color and root it to turn it into a fully-featured Android tablet. Not bad for $250, if it works.)

After a rocky start with the operating system, I’m looking forward to developing Android apps. Although I’m still not sure what the platform’s developers were thinking in the early years, the 2.2 release was a major one, and the 3.x previews look pretty good. It’s got a very good chance of being as popular as Microsoft Windows for non-PC devices. Either way, the devices are now exciting enough for me to want to kick the tires and play with some new kinds of social interaction.

Here, my obsession with decentralized models continues. I believe that WikiLeaks represents the Internet beginning to fulfill its true potential, but the furor over it illustrates how dangerous building an information outlet or essential service around a single point of failure can be. The web is decentralized; social, content and information applications should follow the platform’s example.

The couch potato is dead; long live the couch potato

But it’s going to go beyond interaction. With the advent of consumer-friendly devices like the iPad, and living room web clients like Google TV, I think we’re going to see more web apps designed for the couch potato set: people who want to sit down and passively consume content after (for example) a hard day’s work. Right now, even products like the Roku require a fair amount of clicking around before you watch something. Nothing quite has the ease-of-use of television – but apps like Flipboard come close.

Just how do you filter the hundreds of millions of content streams the Internet has to offer so that I see just the right thing when I collapse into my armchair at the end of the day? Could channels, one day, be individually curated content streams, with the content itself sold directly from the producer to us? That would make companies like Apple the new Viacoms and Universals, and make our friends into our TV Guides, with the net result that we will have a much larger range of content available to us, and content producers will have a much easier route to market. I will certainly be playing with this in 2011, from a number of angles.

Getting paid

Ultimately, I think this is the year that analogue content producers – filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists, animators and so on – find a model that really pays for their work online. Once that’s happened, the decentralized, monetized web will be our mainstream source for all content. That means fewer gatekeepers, better content, and a much better information environment for consumers and democracy.

Photo by Hai Linh Truong, released under a Creative Commons license.