On Content

One of the privileges of being invited to speak at the 2014 CFObjective conference was access to the private speaker Google Group. Here new speakers could ask questions from wily vets, the organizers could give updates, and everyone could collaborate on how to make everyone's experience better.

One of the first orders of business was gathering together people's bios and head-shots for promotional materials. Almost instantly, the replies came in (who doesn't like talking about themselves?). While the rest of us were lobbing email with various attachments, Ryan Anklam dazzled the subscribed rabble with his Github speaker repo.

Numerous people quickly emulated Ryan, throwing down their descriptive markdown. The day that I saw Ryan's update, I also happened to watch one of the recorded sessions from the API Strategy Conference on Hypermedia APIs. One presentation by Irakli Nadareishvili got my attention. Before joining Layer 7, the API company, he enabled NPR's "write once, publish anywhere" content strategy. So would he be a fan of using Github for distributing things other than source code? Not quite:

"Web content management systems are all broken. How do I know they're broken? … A very vivid example of how broken content management systems are is how many people are using Github these days to launch their websites. … It's not just a fad that some geeks do. … When people are choosing code version management systems, very technical systems to publish their content I think it's safe to say that Houston, we have a problem."

The current state of the Internet has been described as "a web of silos". Where once web practitioners created their own sites, services, and aesthetics they've now abdicated that work to providers. Rather than having their own website, a local business relies on a Facebook page. Rather than creating their own experience, people cede incredibly insightful stuff to Medium. And rather than share the hard-won coding knowledge with others with their own voice, some developers use Gists, much to their dismay.

"People were relying on my software to share code from an entirely separate service. A service that nobody has any real control over."

Despite promises to absolve people from having to think about services, these places go down (and down, and down again). Your online persona is now tightly coupled to a corporate interest that is not your own. Terms of service may change. Monetary strategies may change. Maybe someone at corporate decides blogs aren't a thing anymore. Or the company might be bought and shut down, taking "your" data with it. As Dave Winer mentioned while talking about blogging silos:

"We'll do much better if there are a million personal blogging silos instead of one or two huge corporate blogging silos. … In the case of Twitter, the freedom-loving founders will eventually leave, and the new management will likely care more about return on investment than All The News That's Fit To Tweet. … My message is this -- it will be way too late to undo the damage once Twitter and Facebook have it locked up."

The same could be said for email providers. Or image hosts. Or source code repos. I'm not new to this. I saw the personal blogger hype train leave the station, only to derail on time constraints and lack of talent. The intended destination remains a worthy one, even if the mode of transportation is a work-in-progress.

The Oude Church, Amsterdam

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

In 1999 Eric S. Raymond wrote a technology cornerstone, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In his musing on open source technology, Eric laid out a powerful metaphor for illustrating the difference between the rollicking, sometimes chaotic nature of the web and these siloed services we've come to rely on.

Centralization is attractive is because it is orderly. With order comes efficiencies like scaling, reach, and borrowed historical interface indoctrination. But in order to maintain that order, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Medium, or even GitHub assert control over the experience. People can contribute their individual bricks, but it is to build a building conforming to another's design.

Bazaars are messy. They grow haphazardly. They are not uniform. There's duplication of effort and can be confusing to new people.

But, unlike Cathedrals, Bazaars best serve the needs of an individual. There is no central authority saying how your site or project should be configured. There are no limits on what you do with the little corner. You don't have to ask for permission and, with a few important exceptions, you can publish anything you want without fear of running afoul of some other business model's terms of service. The bricks are your own to arrange as you see fit. These individual stalls in the Bazaar, haphazard though they may be, gives the entire ecosystem a resiliency that the Cathedral lacks.

This is what motivates the POSSE (Publish [on your] Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) movement. It's not a polarizing edict that "everybody must blog on their own website". There's very viable reasons why siloed sites exist. It is about publishing to one's one presence first to ensure you own your content and then syndicating elsewhere (a recent episode of the In Beta podcast with Amber Case goes into POSSE with much more depth).

I've attempted to take back my own online presence. If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed use of my own personal shortcode: vpop.in. These shortcodes link to special aggregate pages where I can collect cross-silo conversations, post pictures, or save interesting, evolving tangential information. If those conversation pages include a reference to my own blog posts, those are highlighted at the top. Likewise, the posts are aware of these ongoing, additional conversations and gently usher the reader to these pages at the bottom. I maintain control of my content, I can re-combine conversations held across multiple endpoints for a broader view, and I can wallow in my own confirmation bias to my heart's content. I maintain control of my centralized identity, which then spiders outward to those other sites.

It's not a POSSE system, yet. My site updates aren't automatically doled out to other networks. However, it does qualify for another acronym: PESOS (Post Everywhere, Syndicate [on your] Own Site). I haven't sanded off all the rough edges. Frankly, this method of hand curated conversations wouldn't scale if I was one of the digerati who's bathroom duckface earns quadrupal-digit likes. But in the rush to convenience publishers on the web lost some of their independence. This is my small way of figuring out how to take control back.

Ryan's Github speaker project made me confront my misgivings with where web content is going. Rather than create a Github project, I spent the extra time creating a speaker page on my own site. Having done it, I realize that is where it probably should have existed all along. I'm committed to my place in the bazaar. It may not have the soaring buttresses or vast audience assembled, in harmony, in the same place. But it is mine.