When it comes to content — personal or professional — Facebook is a classic double-edged sword: it has such incredible reach that you almost have to use it, and it can drive huge amounts of traffic to your content. But at the same time it is a classic walled garden, run by a black-box algorithm that uplifts or down-ranks content for reasons that are completely unknown to anyone outside of the company’s ranks of developers. So how do you work with it, and not give all the power over your content to a proprietary platform?
Blogging and RSS pioneer Dave Winer has one potential solution: work with Facebook, but make sure the blog or site you control remains primary. Winer’s latest blogging tool posts simultaneously to Facebook and a self-hosted blog — and unlike other tools that do this, any changes or updates to the blog version are automatically reflected in the Facebook version as well. That way bloggers and other content creators can take advantage of the strengths of Facebook while still maintaining ultimate control over their work and its distribution.
Especially for media companies, Winer said in an interview, trying to pretend that Facebook doesn’t exist doesn’t really make sense, and isn’t going to work anyway — so as he described in a post, better to figure out ways to use the platform to broaden your reach, but do so in ways that don’t trap your content. That way Facebook wins, but so do you. As he put it to me in our interview:
If you’d asked me whether I thought there should be a Facebook I would have said no, but now they have a billion users or whatever, and at some point you have to reset your thinking, you can’t just say I wish they weren’t there. Any software shipped now exists in a context where Facebook also exists, and to pretend that it doesn’t is to make your world very small.
Facebook wins, but so can you
What’s particularly interesting about the new tool for cross-posting and updating Facebook posts, Winer said, is that Facebook reached out to him rather than the other way around — a sign that the company is trying to become more open. The contact came from Doug Purdy, a senior manager in charge of Facebook’s API and developer relations who worked at Microsoft in the late 1990s, when Winer was collaborating closely with the software giant.
As it turned out, even Facebook wasn’t aware of how open its API actually was: Winer said that any writing and posting tool should be able to update in both places at once, and the Facebook API documentation specifically said that wasn’t possible — but when Purdy looked into it, it actually was possible, but the documentation hadn’t been updated yet to reflect that.
The way I see it, I’m sort of negotiating on behalf of the open web, asking them to make some concessions… and they are already more open than you think they are. That was the purpose of the tool I produced — it’s a demo, and the point was to show people this is not as limited as people think it is. And their API is incredible, it really is a thing of beauty.
Supporting the “indie web”
Winer isn’t the only web veteran who has been stressing the importance of maintaining control over one’s content and supporting the open web. Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson wrote recently about the power of having a personal blog — which writers like Curbed founder Lockhart Steele and Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers have returned to recently, and is something very different from using third-party proprietary platforms like Medium.
Online journalism veteran Dan Gillmor has also written about the importance of defending the open web, and the efforts of a group of developers and programmers focused on tools that help support what they call the “indie web.” These tools allow content creators to distribute their work everywhere and still maintain control — including one called Bridgy that pulls comments from social networks back into a user’s blog — and the philosophy is to “publish once and syndicate elsewhere.”
Why is this so important? Because as Gillmor put it in his post: “when we use centralized services like social media sites… we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.” And that’s not open at all.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Luis Santos