Freely-Flowing Content & My Dream of a Piffwy Web
No, I don't talk funny. It's an idea I have--a dream, almost.
The web is broken.
Long live the web. But the promise has not been fulfilled.
Oh sure: we can get all kinds of content on all kinds of devices.
- We can watch movies and read books and news and blogs and listen to music.
- We can watch and read and listen on laptops and desktops and phones and tablets.
I'm not upset that streaming video companies need to make contracts with content providers and only let in paying customers. I'm fine with that.
But the back-and-forth is swinging in a bad direction--as pendulums will tend to do at least half the time, maybe more.
This pendulum I'm talking about is:
proprietary vs. open formats, closed vs. open systems.
They're not exactly the same, but they overlap.
And my interest is: publishing my own stuff. User-provided content. Self-publishing. What made the web explode in the first place.
My dream of the web's future is: the Piffwy Web.
"Piffwy" is short for PIFWII, meaning: Publish It From Where It Is.
My Wish List.
Here's what I want.
- I've got a file on my desktop.
- I've got some photos on Flickr or Picasaweb.
- I've got a video on Youtube or Vimeo.
- I've got some essays in the cloud.
And everything can be anwwhere I want it to be.
- I can have a site with all my content.
- The photos and videos show up in galleries.
- The documents get organized how I like--by date or folder.
- Maybe the documents show up like blog posts--the first few sentences, then click to read the reast.
- The files can be browsed this way or that--topic, tag, folder, date, type.
- The site with all my content might pull from all over.
- Maybe I want my videos on Vimeo and my documents in Google Docs.
- Maybe I want files in the cloud--on cloud.net or box.net.
- Further, if the viewer wants to pull some stuff into a package--an ebook, a zip file, a static document--she can. Schloop. As long as it's enabled.
This is not so weird.
- I can get a cheese sandwich: at the supermarket, at a deli, at a restaurant, from a speciality store.
- And I can eat it there or be done, or I can wrap it, box it, bag it, freeze it--as I like.
Why can't it be the same with web content? As long as the author and publisher agree.
Ontology is what media scholars talk about. "What the heck kind of thing is it? Is it a shadow, a mirror, or a picture?"
The most basic ontological distinction of media is: live vs. recorded.
It's the basic forking of media is-ness, the what-ness of what media is.
I want it both ways.
- I want live and recorded.
- I want an electrical outlet and a battery.
- I want flowing tap water and also some stored in a bottle.
- I want a remote video feed and also a tape.
Web 1.0: Linking and Freely-Flowing Content.
The early web was static content. But it came from servers and showed up in browser. And many of the file formats were open--widely readable.
Early web authors knew they could save those files from the browser and re-use them. Or they could just link to the original.
So in the beginning was linking, and it was good.
Also embedding. We're still there.
- A video on Youtube can be shared by link--or embedded in a blog.
Then came the API. Not files with data in little buckets. But sites whose data could be called by other sites, programs, apps.
- If a web site gave access to the way it spit out information, programmers could write applications which pulled selected stuff out and layed it out nicely.
- A whole Twitter feed or RSS feed can be embedded in the side of a blog via a widget.
- Photos from a flickr set could be pulled into an animated gallery wall.
Linking, embedding, feeds, API's and widgets unlocked content and sent it live to where you wanted it, could use it.
Shortly later came apps, which pulled data through feeds and API's and made it pretty and easy to sort through on the device of your choice.
So began the dream of FFC: freely-flowing content.
There was a dark side: the same data everywhere.
Freely-flowing content is also: the same crap everywhere. Voting. Mediocritzation.
The internet became: a Burger World and Sugary Coffee Outlet on every corner. Whereever you went on the internet, every page started to look the same--the same feeds, the same videos, the same content.
Oh Woe Is Us...
...for we have seen the rise of the content management system. Drupal, WordPress, whatnot. (Others have come and gone.)
The CMS is one of the many forces pushing against FFC (freely flowing content).
The content management system is misnamed. Today's CMS is not a system for managing content: it's a system for locking content inside a system, and customizing that content so it's locked in there for good.
The Content Management System is a prison, and your content has a life sentence. API's are mere windows to let in a bit of air. Visiting hours. You choose the metaphor.
There are new file formats--many proprietary. This is AOL all over again: the Walled Garden.
Books and magazines are the worst area. And here the bedfellows get really strange.
- Google will actually scan books--the better to lock them into a file format no one's software can open--except Google's.
- Amazon uses Google's Android operating system, but the Kindle uses its own proprietary format.
- I remember Amazon selling pdf's, but now it's Buy Our Hardware--or else.
- Oddly, Apple and Adobe, normally sworn enemies, collude so that magazine publishing exists in its own format, nearly inaccessible without an iPad.
- Clearly, consumers with a spare $600 for what's basically a toy are desirable customers for magazine publishers who otherwise deep-discount their increasingly irrelevant content.
- Adobe's software lets the same content be published to the web and to apps. But do magazines really do that? Why mouse-click when you can finger-swipe?
- Apple is the worst of the worst. "We'll give away free stuff--so people buy our expensive hardware."
- Free software to author iBooks in a proprietary format--sold by Apple alone, and no one else.
- Free hosting services on iTunesU--the better to push students into buying $600 tablets.
- A laptop can be had for $300.
- A tablet in the Android-Amazon or Android-Google ecosystem can be had for $200.
There Are Forces Pushing Against the Locked-Down Web.
But are they strong enough?
Ebooks: Content To Go.
- MediaWiki and WordPress both have plugins that export to EPUB--an open-source book format.
- Wikipedia lets me sign and and select items it will bind in a pdf or publish on paper (for a price).
- EPUB is open-source, but it seems to be losing out.
- Pdf's can be read on all platforms, but Adobe's clout is waning.
Easy Sharing & Permissioning.
- Embedding is still here. Youtube still rules video sharing.
- Twitter and link-shortening mean: sharing links is still vibrant.
- API's mean data can be shunted out to the still-exploding marketplace of low-cost apps made by hungry developers--some teenagers.
- Google+ made permissioning easy with Circles: put everyone you know in Circles, and share with one,
- Google also made nearly univerals the three-tier permission hierarchy:
- Published and searchable for all to see and find.
- Shared by link but not indexed, not findable: public but secret.
- Sign-in only. The strictest standard.
Most Tantalizing of All: The No-Database CMS.
Can't I just write some text files, stick them in a folder and call that my blog or web site? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Various folks are doing this.
- A CMS using only two short scripts.
- Create a folder in Dropbox.
- Set the right permissions.
- Drop a folder structure into it.
- Connect it to Droppages.
- Now your text files in Dropbox are a web site.
We need more services like Droppages.
- Forget html.
- Forget CMS's.
- Let content hosts for videos and images do what they do.
- Let me publish from my desktop or dropbox or some other cloud folder.
- Let me organize files in folders again--like the Web 1.0.
- But let me style and organize separately--with xml or some simple coding lingo.
- Let programmers build sites and apps that bring these together in beautiful interfaces, with few or many designs, little or lots of control.
I want to Publish It From Where It Is. Once. From the cloud. From Youtube. From Flickr. All my content: pdf's, .doc files, photo sets, structured data.
I want the Piffwy Web. I weawwy weawwy do. (Okay, maybe I do need to work on my diction.)
--Edward R. O'Neill