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Dave Winer’s ability to peer into the future is uncanny. He was talking about a river of news long before the current activity streams became popular. He was evangelizing RSS long before there were blogs. I could go on and on about his prescient observations, but it’s his warnings that are especially prophetic.
For as long as I can remember, he’s been warning that users of new social web technologies need to be in control of their own destiny. He sounded the alarm about Feedburner and how it was hijacking an open standard, RSS, and inserting itself between content creators and consumers. And he’s long cited the need for open social communication platforms, often voicing his displeasure with newer services such as Twitter.
People have ignored Winer at their own peril, as two events over the last week have made clear. First was the shutdown drama around a little-known URL-shortening service called Tr.im. While it’s since been resurrected, the incident showed me how by championing these URL-shortening services, we’re essentially putting the entire link economy in the hands of companies that are skating on thin ice during the peak of summer.
Second was FriendFeed becoming a Mark Zuckerberg Production thanks to a $50 million buyout by Facebook. The likelihood of Zuckerberg & Co. shutting down the upstart social aggregation service has brought into the spotlight the misalignment between the needs of online communities and the companies that provide them.
The cynical me believes that it’s foolish for any of us to expect that Web 2.0 companies be in the business of providing services for charity. They are, after all, for-profit entities and when opportunity arises, everyone looks out for themselves. That’s just the way of the world. But somewhere between my cynicism and people’s Utopian desires lies a happy place. It’s called the blog.
Blogging: The Evolution
Late last year, following the Bombay terrorist attacks, I wrote about Twitter’s growing influence as a source of breaking news and how, in order to make sense of it all, we need more context. The best place to provide that context is now in blogs. To be sure, most people view Twitter as a microblogging service, but I’ve always seen it as micromessaging service — and the more I used it, the more I realized what a disjointed conversation it can produce.
As Twitter has become increasingly ingrained in our everyday lives, its value as as source of information tidbits has become clear. Think of it like that plate of chips and salsa you get before the entree arrives: tasty — spicy, even — but not entirely satisfying. Meanwhile, blogging has become the main course — the source of context. And the evolution into that role has injected new life into the blogosphere.
Earlier this week, while at dinner with Matt Mullenweg (Disclosure: Matt, a close friend of mine, started Automattic, whose WordPress platform powers our network. Both Automattic and the GigaOM Network are backed by True Ventures, where I am also a venture partner.), we talked about how many amazing blog posts we’ve read in just the past month alone, such as:
- Anil Dash’s post about the Pushbutton web.
- John Gruber’s piece about the censoring of the iPhone app, Ninja Words, by Apple.
- Danah Boyd’s post about Twitter and teens.
- John Borthwick’s essay about the real-time web and new distribution networks.
- Robert Scoble’s post about the shortcomings of the Twitter platform.
And these are just the ones that I hastily jotted down on the back of the dinner receipt. Now it would be easy for “blogging” to be satisfied with this information-sharing role. But that won’t be enough. Blogs need to evolve even further.
Why? Because the nature of content sharing (call it publishing) and content consumption is changing.
Blogging needs to be social. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one — in my mind — is the changing nature of content. “We will all be streaming life moments as more and more bandwidth is available both at home and on the go,” I wrote two years ago. It’s already happening. Today most of us walk around with newfangled smartphones that are nothing short of multitasking computers, essentially content creation points. And they’re networked, which means creating and sharing content is becoming absurdly simple to do. With the increased number of content creation points –- phones, camera, Flip video cameras, Twitter -– we are publishing more and more content.
Most of this content is disjointed, like random atoms. In the past, I (and others) have referred to this as the atomization of content. These atoms need to be brought together in order to make sense. But while many have argued that self-hosted Facebook- or FriendFeed-styled services could fill this role, I disagree. As I’ve said in the past, “We have two choices in order to consolidate these — either opt for all-purpose services such as Facebook (as tens of millions have done) or use our blogs as the aggregation point or hub for all these various services.”
The Next Step
Millions of Facebook users will have no reason to use any other service for the foreseeable future. And even when they decide to leave, they’ll realize they can’t, for they’ll have stored their photos and videos into the service, which has no visible way of exporting such data. It’s the ultimate lock-in: control consumers’ data and you control everything.
For others — whom I would loosely define as “power users” — today’s blogging software and services are the best option for becoming a repository of our digital creations, because they are more open, more extensible and at the end of the day, give us more control. Chris Messina, a technology evangelist, has been promoting this vision for nearly two and a half years, including starting a project dedicated to it called DiSo.
What Facebook and FriendFeed have shown is that people want to consume and publish content in a more dynamic fashion — more in real time, so to speak.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will quote from a previous post. “As a society, we are entering an increasingly narcissistic phase, enabled by web technologies…The evolution of blogging platforms needs to match these societal and demographic changes.” What I meant was that blogging platforms need to evolve from the hierarchical content-management systems of today to more fluid, free-flowing, more socially relevant and real-time lifestreaming systems.
Two services — Posterous and Tumblr — are taking a shot at this. WordPress, with its P2 theme, has showed that it’s thinking along these lines as well; we tried it out with the GigaOM Daily plugin. But these are not enough. There needs to be more real-time collaboration built into these systems. They need to become socially relevant. They need to take into account that today, consumption and creation happen not just on traditional computing systems like a laptop, but also on highly mobile devices. Imagine the volume of information we’re going to create and consume when we have broadband speeds on our on-the-go devices.
The next generation of blogging systems needs to account for the fact that information — and most importantly, conversations — flow via email, Twitter, instant messages and other formats. In order to do that, the innards of blogging systems need to be rethought. Perhaps the older, relational database models will need to be replaced by more nimble data stores. We may see XMPP become the layer that facilitates collaboration and real-time communications. But these are complex topics for my more esteemed colleagues to tackle, the ones who are builders and creators. I am merely a thinker, who is firm in his belief that this real-time social collaboration is a powerful force, and blogging, if it wants to move further forward, needs to embrace it.