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.

Community ownership and social networks as markets

March 24, 2012 | 2 comments

Johannes Ernst just put me to shame by writing this blog post while sitting next to me at Elgg Camp San Francisco:

[...] But there’s a stronger undertone from speaker after speaker talking about their projects. It’s about how the community wants and needs to own and control their social network (instead of just merely having a little section inside a worldwide social network). And how the community wouldn’t be as strong if they couldn’t. About the community needing to evolve the communication tools in parallel to how the community evolves. About how it is almost impossible to “work together” with others on a general-purpose site like Facebook, and how even high school students automatically switch to their school social network when attempting to get something done.

You can read the whole post here.

I spoke a little about ensuring the longevity of communities, which is something I’ve begun to think about in a general context: if you’ve established a community site and attracted a solid social network of people, how do you ensure that the community remains vibrant in six months, or three years, or a decade from now? How do you make sure, to put it bluntly, that maintaining a community remains worth your time?

In the same way that a community site augments the social experience for a network of people, I’m interested in explicit market features that augment the online social experience. For example, open source communities like the Elgg community itself: what if the Elgg ecosystem could crowdfund features and plugins?

This also speaks to community ownership. Why monetize a community using AdSense – content piped in from third parties outside the community, which may or may not be relevant but certainly are less passionate about the community’s topic – when you could empower the community to do this for itself? Why not allow online communities to be truly self-sustainable?

It’s been an interesting day, and I’m looking forward to talking to people afterwards. I’ve set up a collaborative latakoo How I Fly site here, for participants to collaboratively share video footage of the event.

Patronism and monetizing the social web

July 19, 2011 | Leave a comment

This post is adapted from something I wrote on Google+. There are more comments over there; also see Evan Promodou’s riff on the same idea.

Google+’s combination of streams and circles works. So here’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while:

I really like Patronism‘s central idea. Rather than buying an album, you subscribe to an artist’s feed, and get access to songs, photos etc as they’re produced. That makes a lot more sense to me as a 21st century model for music.

I also follow a lot of writers that I admire, mostly over on Twitter. They don’t post their work there, of course, because there’s no revenue stream for it. But I do get to see what William Gibson, Margaret Atwood et al are thinking on a daily basis. Awesome.

What if I could pay a subscription to the writers & artists I admired, and see their latest content as part of my stream? Short stories to peruse offline, songs to pull to my iPod, and so on. Not to mention academic articles from journals, mini-games from indie developers and so on.

This works best on a decentralized web of nodes. The artist has their home base, eg at artistname.com. They then push out their content, and people can subscribe on Google+, Facebook, in their RSS reader, in a specialized app, from their WordPress dashboard, and so on.

And suddenly you have a monetized decentralized social web. Paid licenses are just one of many kinds of access controls on stream content; circles and access control groups are certainly another. And of course, content can be made available publicly too.

Social networking: beyond the silo

June 8, 2009 | 1 comment

  1. The rise of social networking
  2. Monetization vs. collaboration
  3. The open web
  4. Fluid collaboration

The rise of social networking

Social forces have been the driving force behind application innovation on the web. Whereas previously we might have looked to advances in computer science for new directions, now some of the most dramatically impactful applications are lightweight, simple, and technologically unimpressive. The best new web applications have centered around collaboration, sharing and discovery with other people.

Correspondingly, enterprises have been relatively quick to pick up on this trend, and software vendors have been quick to grab the market. In an Intranet Journal article earlier this year, Kara Pernice, managing director at the Nielsen Normal Group, had this to say about the rise of social technology on the intranet:

"In the 9 years [the Intranet Design Annual, which highlights the ten best-designed intranets of the year] has been coming out (since 2001), I’ve never seen a change quite as great as this one."

On the Internet at large, social network use is growing at ten times the rate of other activities and now accounts for 10% of all online time, according to Nielsen Online in this March 2009 report (PDF), and is now more popular than email. Jerimiah Owyang has a list of more relevant statistics over on this digest blog post. Executive summary: social networks are big, transformative in terms of how we communicate and share information, and growing at an enormous rate.

Monetization vs. collaboration

Wikipedia defines a “walled garden”, in software terms, as being:

[..] A closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system).

In other words, a walled garden is a system where the data can not easily be imported or exported. These are often also called data silos, after the solid buildings used for secure storage.

Facebook, the #1 social networking site in most western countries, has over 200 million users, including over 30 million who update their profiles at least once a day. The network is free to use, yet their revenue for 2008 has been estimated at around $265 million, despite a decidedly “in progress” revenue strategy.

This has traditionally required a walled garden strategy: the content that users put into Facebook has not been easily removed for export or viewing in other interfaces, in order to preserve revenue from advertising (and – although this is a hunch – revenue from statistical analysis of users’ data). It’s only been in the light of some extremely negative publicity (for example this February 2008 New York Times article) that they have begun to relax this policy and embrace the open direction that much of the rest of the web is heading in.

Speaking personally, I get more enquiries from people wanting to build something “Facebook-like” than anything else, presumably because of its phenomenal popularity. However, this kind of walled garden approach is not conducive to true collaboration; generally people who ask for this are lacking a full understanding of the processes involved in social networking.

According to Nielsen, there are almost 1.6 billion people online. While Facebook’s 200 million sounds like a lot, it’s actually a drop in the digital ocean – so what happens if I want to share a Facebook conversation with someone who hasn’t signed up? The only way is currently to email them a link and force them to register for the service. Facebook would love me to do this, of course, because they get more eyeballs to view their ads and more people to fill in profiles. But what’s the point of even being on the web if you can’t make use of the decentralized communication features that form its backbone?

If I want to collaborate effectively online centering around a resource (which could be a file, a discussion or a pointer to something external), I need to be able to:

  • Share that resource with the people who need to see it
  • Grant access for them to edit it if required
  • Notify them that it’s been shared with them
  • Restrict access from everyone else

Furthermore, I need to do this with the lowest possible barrier to entry. My aim is to collaborate, not to get people to use a particular piece of software. By restricting this process, the Facebook model hinders collaboration.

The open web

The web was designed to be an open system, and adheres to principles (notably “every object addressable”, ensuring that every resource on the web has a unique reference address) set out by Doug Engelbart for open hypertext systems generally. Because web pages are interoperable, and all use the same basic standards, any page on the web is allowed to link to any other page on the web, no matter who wrote it or where it is hosted. In many ways that’s the key to why the platform is successful: despite being fragmented across millions of computers throughout the world, it navigates like a cohesive whole and can be viewed using a single piece of browsing software. (The downside to this is that the whole platform lives or dies depending on the capabilities of the browser you use: the sad fact is that Internet Explorer users, who often don’t have a choice because of policy decisions in their working environment, are at a disadvantage.)

While the original web was content-based, the social web is collaborative and centered around live data. However, because web applications are each developed separately using different sets of back-end infrastructure, their data does not adhere to the principle of interoperability – their user interfaces all use the same basic standards and can be viewed in a browser, but the underlying applications and data models tend to not work with each other. When social networks emerged, for example, there was no way to get Livejournal and Friendster, two of the pioneers in the space, to speak the same language; you still can’t add someone as a friend on one social network from another. More recently, this has become apparent in the walled garden approaches of Facebook and others.

Not only does this situation create a bottleneck for application design, and run contrary to the underlying principles that made the web a success, but it’s also a bottleneck to better collaboration. As Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, put it recently in this essential TED talk, data needs to be linked and interoperable in the same way pages are now. Beyond that, because walled garden services are making money out of the private information we’re loading onto them, there’s a human issue regarding the overall control of that data. Marc Canter, Joseph Smarr and others codified this into a Bill of Rights for users of the social web back in 2007. Though the issue has moved on since then, the underlying principles set out there are essential for open, collaborative, social tools on the web.

While the World Wide Web Consortium works on academically-developed standards for linked data in the form of the semantic web, developers have been getting their game on trying to solve the problems of interoperability between their applications and user control over their data. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) – published sets of instructions for programmatically querying and extending web applications – have become popular, but in a very walled garden kind of way. Arguably the most successful has been Twitter’s API, which has led to a number of high profile third-party applications like TweetDeck and Tweetie that collectively eclipse Twitter’s own website interface in volume of usage. But these APIs are their own form of walled garden: an application written for Twitter will only work with Twitter, for example. The APIs are not generalized between applications, and as such are not truly open; in many ways they’re a way for services to get more functionality and reach for free.

One of the first attempts to publicize the benefits of truly open data was Marc Canter’s Data Sharing Summit, which I wrote about at the time for ZDNet. Chris Saad’s DataPortability.org attempted (largely successfully) to brand it, and latterly the Open Web Foundation has attracted some of the web’s leading lights in order to create a single organization to handle the creation of a set of open web application standards. Many of these comprise the Open Stack, which I’ve written about before; more generally, Chris Messina has written a very thoughtful overview on the topic.

Fluid collaboration

It used to be that to use the web, you would need to sit down at your computer and log on. Those days are over; the web is becoming more and more ubiquitous, thanks to devices like the iPhone. It’s also being integrated into software that wasn’t previously connected – it’s as easy, for example, to paste the URL of an image into the ‘Insert Image’ dialog box in most word processors as it is to pick an image from your own hard disk. The open, generalized API standards being created by groups like the Open Web Foundation bring us closer to enjoying that level of integration with collaborative social technologies.

The Internet is people, not technology: tools on the web (or anywhere else) facilitate social networks, but are not the network themselves. Currently they consist of destination sites, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter – places that you explicitly have to visit in order to collaborate or share. This is the currently-fashionable model, but it’s a necessarily limited view of how collaboration can take place: all of these sites thrive on the walled garden model and are designed around keeping participation within their walls.

Not everything on the Internet works this way. Email, and increasingly Instant Messaging, are two technologies that generally do not: messages on email, Jabber and to a much lesser extent Skype are peer-to-peer and do not go through a central service:

  1. You select the people you wish to collaborate (in this case, email or chat) with. Nobody but the listed recipients will be able to see the content you share with them, and it doesn’t matter if they’re using the same service as you; you don’t have to invite them to join email in the same way you have to invite people to join Facebook.
  2. You write your content.
  3. You send it.
  4. They (hopefully) send content back.
  5. The collaborative exchange lasts only as long as it’s useful, and then disappears (but is archived for reference).

Recently, Google announced Wave, a decentralized pairing of protocol and open source web application that took email and IM as its inspirations to redefine how collaborative social technologies could work. Questions have been raised about how a decentralized tool like this can work with corporate data policies present in most large enterprises and public sector organizations, but in some ways they miss the point: Google Wave is best thought of as a proof of concept for how decentralized, transient communities can work in a standard way on the web. In short, websites are a kind of walled garden in themselves: what we will return to is the idea of the web as an open patchwork of people, data and information that links together to form a whole, much stronger than the sum of its parts.

Predicting the future of social networking on the web is hard. However, I believe that as general open social technologies develop and become more commonplace, the “social networking site” will shrink in importance – instead, social network facilitators will become more and more ingrained in all the software you use. This will dramatically increase the types of content and communication that can be used, and present opportunities for much wider, more fluid and – most importantly – more productive collaboration as a whole.