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…
I went up the Eastern Sierras this week for a basic course in being cold.
I managed to choose the weekend of the polar vortex and it was freezing. It was incredibly beautiful but I found out that I’m not really into being so cold I can’t talk properly and have to pee into ziplock bags in my sleeping bag (too much information?) I think I’ll do another trip with a few more degrees of comfort (possibly earlier in the season). It was pretty though.
I have been thinking through the issues of how I want to exist online, at least as far as I can shape that. I am feeling my way to some form of ethical guidelines for myself as started in this post a few weeks ago.
The title ‘webgetarian’ above is something that my good friend Julia Hildebrand came up with when we talked through these issues. I like it… it outlines what I am trying to achieve for myself – some simple guidelines that make me feel ok about the way I am in the web.
One thing I know for sure, I don’t want to eat at the (proprietary) social media cafe anymore. It’s done. However, that brings up a quandary that I highlighted in part one of this series, but I’ll get to that.
For this moment, what I find really interesting since I started pondering this is that the old skool idea of a ‘homepage’ is really starting to be more appealing. By homepage I mean this site you are (probably) reading this on now – www.adamhyde.net
I like this idea of a homepage because its kinda somewhere I can determine my character online in the format I want to. I could, for example, make this entire site a photo diary if I wanted to. I could also make it a ‘microblog’, or just a thinky zone. Or I could do all of the above and more, which is what I think I will do. The point being, it is pretty much in my control. I don’t have to conform to the format of all those stink proprietary platforms. I can just do what I want…that is surprisingly enticing. So, in the words of the Laird McGillicuddy, it is time for a great leap backwards.
So.. back to the homepage and encapsulating this in a simple guideline and possibly my first, first principle of webgetarianism:
#1 Be your media
I hope that speaks for itself… however its kind of a simple idea, but also a pretty big idea. I need to think this through more and feel out what this really means in the larger picture for myself. For example, it has some interesting knock-on effects that I kinda like and am still pondering – if I really are my media then I can do cool things like advertise stuff I care about. That means I could put up ads in my site (I don’t want to be paid for them) that advertise things I find important. So, I will think about this and perhaps start sticking some of these in my posts. It is possibly an interesting inversion from ‘a word from our sponsor’ to ‘a word about some stuff I’m sponsoring’ (with free ads). Hmmm…I kind of like that.
So, my first principle is already taking shape in the real world ie. this site. My second, first principle is really about ‘other media’. Basically, if it is a closed source platform I don’t want anything to do with it… except, that there is a very real and bizarre possibility that an ugly troll might grab namespace real estate around the things I am involved with and contaminate the web with crap. I have recently been trolled and it gave me pause to think about such activities, and now this kind of behavior no longer feels as unlikely as it did even a few weeks ago.
So… as a move to reduce this kind of nonsense, there are a few things I can do which are consistent with my webgetarianism. First, is defensive – snap up namespaces in closed platforms The second is more positive – get better at SEO and broadcasting my voice. So the next principles (not in order (I will sort that out later) are:
#2 namespace grabs in proprietary platforms are a necessary evil
#3 be effective media
The last one is a little bit of a wide net to throw, I know. But it is a first cut attempt at trying to nail down some of these ethical guidelines for me. The above is really nicely wide in some ways – it can mean I need to drown out the troll voices, as well as taking up a kind of ‘kia kaha‘ positioning. I need to be a strong and broadly heard voice about myself. This also feels good to me as a personal ‘inner strength’ position. I like it.
As a point of clarity, I want to make a fourth first principle to ensure the defensive namespace grab principle (#3 above) has some rigid parameters and doesn’t become a slippery slope:
#4 proprietary namespaces cannot contain content
This means I have a guideline that keeps me on the right side of the ethical line. I don’t publish content to proprietary platforms. They just hold namespace for me defensively. That means I have to be creative with strategies to engage, for example, with discussions that are relevant to me that occur in closed source platforms. For example, I should write responses to things I see elsewhere (eg in medium) in my own site, then contact the creators (most likely via email) and point them at my response.
So, that means I have 4 starting principles:
be your media
namespace grabs in proprietary platforms are a necessary evil
be effective media
proprietary namespaces cannot contain content
That is my starting position. More pondering to come.
Recently, I have spoken with a number of people about projects whose model is to build something useful and open the code when someone pays them to do so.
It seems to me that this is a terrible model for ‘open source’ and I hope it doesn’t proliferate. The problem being that this sets the wrong incentive for projects. It is in effect encouraging them to hold the code ransom. When the right bidder comes along, the code then gets set free. I think funders and investors should refuse to put money into these projects and instead agree only to fund projects that are open source from the beginning. Otherwise we are incentivizing this ransom model which is bad for open source because:
start open : we don’t want new projects to decide to close the code, when they might otherwise start open, because there might be a chance they can ransom the code at a later date. We want projects to start open.
stay open : let’s face it, if a project is ransoming their code, then their heart and soul (and business processes) are not in open source – it is not fundamental to what they do and how they think. So how do you know they will stay open? We want projects to stay open.
be open : open source is not just a license. It is a way of committing to sharing and collaboration. Projects that start closed and ransom their code are not going to be good faith open source actors. They are likely to hold the code close, not share, and be awkward (at best) collaborators. We want projects to be open.
I met with a friend a few days ago to talk through one of my next projects. This one is directly related to me – how do I raise my presence via the net without using social media. Being a social media consultant she was a little puzzled.
So we talked it through and I was able to refine my position a little. I’m trying to get out of any web and mobile platforms out there that are closed source. I’m tired of being the product for silicon valley business models and I’m also tired of being a neat little secondary product for all the governmental surveillance agencies out there – NZ and the US being two of the worst in the ‘free’ world. Of course, data security is a bigger story than just having accounts on sites like LinkedIn and I am going to take more care of this side of things also. I feel a little sheepish about this as I know how to keep myself secure-ish but I have fallen into some lazy patterns. Too trusting and complacent it seems.
I’ve done a lot of the personal data lockdown already. It doesn’t take a lot to tighten things up. I moved to a VPN provider (after a brief research to find one outside the US that doesn’t log any data), got a password manager and replaced all my frivolous passwords with stronger ones, and will do a few other things to lock things down a little.
But the main issue is that I want to be back in a web I can respect. It is kind of an ethical issue for me, similar to what fuels my vegetarianism. I do actually see it very much like I am becoming a web vegetarian. I want to get out of all these platforms and put myself onto another dietary path and make it work for me.
First up, I have some apparently easy targets but, interestingly, like all ethical journeys, every small step brings about small paradoxes that I am motivated to resolve – ethical harmony being a given as a navigational device.
For example… Medium… yes, yes, such an interesting… err… Medium. So very tempting. it offers the classic ‘go where the people are’ quandary. So I thought about this a little… where is my ethical line? What if I just wrote blogs at my home site (I am also warming more and more to the crusty old idea of ‘home site’, more on this later) and then cross-posted to Medium…wouldn’t that be ok? Would that be ok? What if I put a big banner on my replica Medium posts that pointed back to my home site? What if I just put an excerpt in Medium and pointed back to the full article so people had to come ‘here’ to read it? Well… hmmmm….
I let it sit for a bit and then I wondered what others thought about this. So I duckduckgo‘ed around a little in my newly installed Chromium browser, to look for the obviously well-discussed topic of how to maintain an ethically viable presence on Medium if you cared about privacy and open source and ran your own WordPress site. Surprisingly I couldn’t find anyone offering a way forward. But what I did find was a whole lot of banter about Medium vs WordPress as platforms. ‘Which one should you use?’ sort of thing… and this was very helpful. It made me realise that there is a turf war going on out there between one of the most successful open source platforms -Wordpress – and one of the most successful recent closed source blogging platforms – Medium. I just hadn’t been thinking about this space for a long time so it never occurred to me that this was going on. Of course it is makes total sense (I have almost perfect hindsight at times).
In fact, if you visit the Medium for Publishers page, it is spelled out quite clearly in their “not saying its Wordpress but it’s Wordpress” speak. The comparisons of Medium vs some ‘other’ are clearly targeted at WordPress. That in itself is fine, I don’t take offence to how people want to do business with things like this. However, it did wake me up to the fact that every moment of your attention, every post, every comment that Medium has is one less moment, one less post, one less comment that WordPress doesn’t have. And that’s not ok by me. Using Medium means, to whatever degree you use it, not using WordPress; and that means that the direction of the flow is going the wrong way, it is going away from open source and towards closed source systems.
So that actually, and surprisingly, solved it for me. I’m getting out of Medium. Not that I actually used it. I had one post that I deleted already and I have a few comments on one of Nadia Eghbals‘ posts about open source and I’ll leave those up for now as I ponder where I am with legacy contributions I have made in closed systems. Step, think, step.
Next, I must think through LinkedIn. I initially thought that would be simple. Just kill my account. However, what about identity ‘theft’? Where am I with regard to malicious persons out there that may wish to contaminate the web with ‘therealAdamHyde’ rahrah. It is a good question and one I am going to have to think through. Needless to say, it is a very strange place we have come to with the net when proprietary platforms are contributing to your identity online even if you aren’t in them. That is a pretty quizzical paradox. How, how, how, did we let this happen? Sigh.
So, LinkedIn. I will at first delete all the profile information and then think on it a little. It is a very ponderous question.
One good thing, as a final point in this first part of this evolving story, is that making an effort to get out of these closed social media platforms has made me realise that I’m just removing a crutch. I am not totally sure they did much for me anyway. So it kind of forces me to think about the effort I am putting into other, possibly more effective, vehicles and upping that part of my profile-raising mission. Which is why I have started a newsletter which you can join over there on the right ————> (oops…unless you are ready this on mobile), why I am feeling more ‘at home’ with my home site, and why you are possibly reading this…