Recently I was involved in a brief discussion about Medium vs WordPress on a list devoted to publishing. One of the members brought forward the point that startups, like Medium, change focus and purpose while searching out a sustainable model. It’s the famous ability to ‘pivot,’ which means that a Tech Company will become whatever it needs to be and will, in time and as pressure increases to show a return, follow the money. That trail might lead in very unexpected directions – Facebook, famously, started as ‘facemash’ a rather appalling site to place 2 pictures next to each other and users could rate which person was ‘hotter’. Twitter started as a podcasting service. Youtube was a video dating site. Android started out as an Operating System for cameras. So, pivots happen often and can take the service in directions the users might not be able to guess at the time.
Which leaves the question about platforms in general, and in this case Medium in particular – what will their future (not present) services be? Further, what would this mean for your content? It is an open question. I’m not going to argue Medium will pivot, but I’m also not going to say it won’t. I just want to make the point that it is not uncommon for startups, driven by the bottom line, to pivot and (since you as a user have no say in this), go in a direction away from your needs. Then where will you be?
The other issue that came up regarding Medium vs WordPress was the popularity of content platforms. It is a common argument that you need to ‘go where the people are’ – house your content where you can generate the most hits. Firstly, hits are not everything – having run independent radio stations I know that points mean nothing and connecting to the people you want to is everything. In other words, it’s not how many people you are connecting with but who they are that counts. Secondly, what happens when the popularity of the content warehouse (in this case Medium) declines? Where are you then? LiveJournal was once very popular and seemed invincible. Where is it now? Know anyone still using it? When (not if) this happens to Medium, what will you do? Migrate all your content to the next cool thing? I would argue it is far better to own your own domain, the moldy ole ‘homepage’, and build your brand there. It is a longer game, that is for sure, but better for your future.
In general, these points made me think of the (apparently untrue) popular belief that goldfish have memories of 3 seconds. They can swim around forever and happily in a small bowl because every lap is completely new ground. Is that us? Are we really incapable of learning anything from what we have seen over 2-3 decades of living on the web? I think we should stop acting like goldfish swimming around the web and learn something from what we have experienced. Startups pivot, out of control of the users and in directions that may be antithetical to your needs. Further, popularity is a bang and, eventually, bust, game. If you house your content ‘where the people are,’ it is a bad metric and one that will decline when ‘the people are,’ inevitably, somewhere else.
Let’s get out of this game. Host our own sites. Build our brands on our own sites, and be in control of how we are on the net. Don’t be a goldfish.
Back in 2011, I wrote about Federated Publishing. It is probably time to revisit this topic, given some recent-ish developments in technology, most notably Dat.
When I first encountered Dat, there was some mumble in the air about ‘git for data’. A nice elevator pitch. I’m not sure where that meme came from. I know some of the Dat people (Max Ogden and Karissa McKelvey specifically) and I don’t think I remember them using this phrase. It is often this way with tech – an idea gets out there, no one knows what it means, and then, before you know it, it’s everywhere. I have never been at the center of this kind of viral excitement but I have seen it many times, and, as always, the meme reflects very little truth about what is actually going on with the tech or how it might be useful.
In the case of Dat, it took me some time to work out what it was. At first I understood it as breed of peer-to-peer technology specifically for the distribution of datasets. Indeed, that is what they say on their website
Sure… so it’s this sciencey thing that is intended for use by researchers for sharing data. It sounds like many of the things we have also been discussing at Coko, to do with the early sharing of research data. So Kristen Ratan and I approached Dat and started up conversations which are leading us towards some interesting collaborations – not yet around implementing Dat in Coko projects but around developing open source-open science communities (more on this later).
However, it wasn’t until I spent some time in the Maasai Mara that I understood what Dat was all about.
I traveled to Kenya to spend some time with Richard Smith-Unna who had just joined the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation. We spent some time together just outside of Nairobi and then traveled down to the Maasai Mara for a few days camping.
It was a pretty basic camp in beautiful surroundings. Its a wonderful thing to sleep deeply at night while hippos and buffalo walk around your campsite and, on one night, around your tent. During the days we went exploring and talked tech while watching cheetahs or lions, or termite mounds.
Richard had been the primary developer behind Science Fair which uses Dat libraries. Science Fair is supported, to a small degree, by eLife. eLife received 25 million pounds earlier this year to ‘do their thing,’ some of which includes spending small amounts of money on technology innovations built by people like Substance.io or Richard.
So Richard, mostly, put together Science Fair. In essence, it is a desktop browser with a very specific content focus – research articles – and a very specific distribution strategy – which is where Dat comes in.
Science Fair, an entirely JS application running on your desktop, leverages the Dat JS libs….but to do what?
Dat enables content to be stored – you throw stuff into it and get it back later. However Dat isn’t just a content store, otherwise it wouldn’t be very interesting, since that problem is well solved. Dat is a peer to peer store.
In the case of Science Fair, when you download something to read (which is stored with Dat) you become a peer in that content’s network. You become a server for that piece of content. When someone else requests that same article then you may be the one serving the content to them (if you are the closest peer to them).
In other words, Dat is a kind of open source Content Distribution Network (CDN) technology. One with a few interesting extra features to leverage ie. a peer to peer design.
You don’t have to use the peer-to-peer functionality. You can just use Dat as a single content store – without replicating the content to other nodes. That is quite useful in itself but there are many other technologies that can do this – a normal file system on a server somewhere, for example. You could also use Dat purely as a CDN – a network of content stores which replicate and deliver your content closer to where your users are. Once again there are open source technologies that can do this like jsDelivr. However, what Dat can also do, is turn your CDN into a peer-to-peer network where users become the content servers. When a user fetches some content, they then become another node in that content’s delivery network.
That is pretty interesting. It means Science Fair, while looking like a search-and-read interface for content, also is a peer-to-peer content delivery node for that same content.
The question is – is that interesting or useful? Well… it is a fantastic example of federated content and, possibly in time, federated publishing. As researchers and/or publishers seed content into this network, the boundaries and roles of Journals may start to become a little fuzzy.
For example, Open Access (OA) is interesting because it is a movement for making research materials available for free. Free as in no cost, and free through the application of liberal Creative Commons licenses. However, OA still follows many of the norms of the publishing world, in that there are (capital P) Publishers which curate and control the access, display, and ‘functionality’ (although article functionality is a rather impoverished idea in this sector) for content. If an OA Publisher classifies article A as belonging to category B due to their internal taxonomy then that is where article A will go. If a Publisher enables annotation for ‘their’ content then you have annotation. If a Publisher enables threaded comments for discussion around the article then you have one place where you can discuss the findings. But…while Science Fair might sound like this – a place to find content (just like a Publisher) – it is not this. Science Fair distributes the content into a Dat network and how that content is surfaced, tagged, commented on etc is entirely up to the type of interface you use to access that content. If you wanted to share user-specific tagging taxonomies, for example, you can build that into Science Fair or a Science Fair-like interface. No need to wait for the Publisher.
The researchers, then, could have complete control on how content is curated, displayed, discussed etc since in some sense the users start to become the publishers.
That is a pretty big step sideways.
I’m aware that distribution is not the only thing Publishers do. But it is why they exist in their current form. If Publishers were not the branded content portals they are then it is unlikely they would exist in the form we know them now, rather they would be service providers that do all, or part, of the other services they currently provide like quality control, technical checks, conflict of interest checking, validation and normalization, review management, format conversion etc. The point is that at the core of these services currently is the Publisher – the brand holding this all together, so to speak. But what happens when one of their primary offerings – sharing/distribution of content – starts to be diminished by other channels? What if researchers decided this is not how they want to access content. What becomes of the Publishing model when faced with an erosion of one of their primary offerings?
Federated publishing breaks down all the ways that we think of publishing, as a way to access content, today. It fundamentally remaps ideas of centralised publishing and opens up many many interesting de-centralised possibilities and questions. It is a fundamental shift of power from the center to the periphery.
I find this interesting because at the time I wrote the piece on federated publishing, I mentioned that earlier there had been quite a bit of chatter about federation. Diaspora, status.net (now pump.io), and Thimbl were three projects that looked to the centralised power dynamics of social networks and saw federation as a way out. Ward Cunningham also evolved the Federated Wiki around the same time. Everyone felt, for one reason or another, that distributed power worked best. None of these projects were successful in terms of adoption, nor were my attempts to start federated publishing using Booki/Booktype. However, that is possibly exactly what makes Dat and Science Fair interesting.
I have watched many great ideas developed into softwares over the years and witnessed the death of those same projects. This kind of cycle reflects the well-known Silicon Valley mantra
to be right too early is the same as being wrong
While Dat, IPFS, Science Fair etc might actually herald in an interesting new era of federation one thing for sure, the change will not occur overnight. It requires persistence, strategy, and working closely with researchers to encourage them to use the tools and to shape them so they find them useful. A slow displacement of existing tools and their inherent politic is the better strategy for radical change. Radical change at a slow persistent pace is far more likely of success than a gangbusters approach that will soon lose energy if change isn’t instantly catalyzed. Persistence is the key.
While Dat is not restricted to the sharing of datasets as they imply, it is interesting to see how this idea has been realised in part by Science Fair as an interface for browsing and reading articles. The question for me is not ‘is this a good idea’ (it is) but rather, could the timing and execution be right this time? If it is, then could applications like Science Fair evolve more utility than publishers can provide? Could this, in turn, lead to these applications being widely used by researchers? Could this, in time, lead to a huge ‘unbound’ peer-to-peer content store of research data? Do the Science Fair and Dat teams have the patience to strategise and set their collective minds on a persistent, slow, change that will enable the radical reshaping of the power dynamics they are addressing? And if so, what happens then?
Coda: Dat is capable of more than what I have described above. Its has other very interesting features such the ability to cryptographically sign content and its ability to update content by updating only the difference between versions (as opposed to the entire file). The above post is not an audit of Dat and its total utility but rather a sense making piece reflecting on some features of Dat and what it could mean in this use case as exposed by Science Fair.
I mentioned Julia Hildebrand in an earlier post about my attempts to work out how to be raise my profile online without using proprietary platforms. Julia is a friend and has been helping me think through this, she has now a great post about her initial thoughts on the project here:
I was excited when Diaspora came out, offering an alternative to Facebook, because I loved the way they were promising to give me control over my own database, as a user. I created an identi.ca account, wondering where that would go and hoping those platforms would attract enough users to be able to compete so that I could make the switch to the good side.
Now I’m sitting here, my three Apple devices in front of me, Facebook and Twitter open in the browser all day, publishing this post on Medium.
Why? Because I know where success happens on the internet. Where you promote your ideas and products. I know that this is how we stay part of the club of the internet connoisseurs, how we keep up with the Silicon Valley mentality of constant growth, may it be our personal or our organisation’s growth, right? This is how the internet works. This is what the internet is now: Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Medium, closed platforms. This is the internet we built and wanted.
Her position reminds me of the dismay Lee de Forest expressed after the FCC commercialized radio:
What have you done with my child? You have sent him out on the street in rags of ragtime to collect money from all and sundry. You have made of him a laughingstock of intelligence, surely a stench in the nostrils of the gods of the ionosphere.
Lee de Forest was a self-proclaimed ‘father’ of radio, holding a place in some people’s minds perhaps not too dissimilar to how people now see Tim Berners-Lee. Lee (de Forest) felt that the FCC move to allow the sales of advertisements on radio would spell the end of the communication medium he loved. He was right. I worked in radio for many years in the 80s and 90s and the only places you weren’t driven by ratings and the messaging of your sponsors was in small independent stations (like those I managed). The rest of the scene was ugly.
It is lamentable that the World Wide Web has followed the same path to become the commercialised platform that it is today. I remember Dutch theorist and friend Geert Lovink once telling me in the late 90s that the internet we knew then would be reduced to a ghetto. The implication being that we would eke out an existence in the corners of the net, and the ‘super highway’ would be reserved for the carrying of commercial traffic. I thought that position was wrong at the time. It seemed unfathomable that this newly found freedom could be taken away. I had just left radio for this new free media. The sense of freedom could make one feel giddy. At the time I remember, for example, the open wireless movement in London -consume.net – started by another buddy, James Stevens.
Wifi was taking off, and by default, the routers were sold and installed open. It was taking off and I couldn’t imagine a day when even some of the open wifi routers in my apartment building in London would be closed…it didn’t take too long to soon realise that media freedom could be taken away by regulation and commercialisation, and the green open pastures could be closed and zoned for commercial use only.
So, I agree with Julia. We have come the wrong way. It was foreseeable, although I didn’t see it coming until too late, and it is regrettable. Now I feel the need to eke out my part of the ghetto and make it somewhere I want to be.
The Shuttleworth Foundation, of which I am a proud fellow, has a rather beautiful but under-known program they call ‘Flash Grants’. Twice a year they give each fellow (current and alumni) $5,000 USD to give to someone they think is doing good in the world. It is a great program.
My first Flash Grant I gave to Seth Vincent and the second to Zara Rahman. I have known Zara for a long time but I don’t know Seth and only followed his work remotely. He recently wrote up a report about what he did with the 5k and here it is. Seems like a pretty productive use of the money if you ask me. Awesome…