The future of content, Part 4

I’ve talked about redesigning the web into a collection of interconnected pieces of content, and I’ve discussed monetizing such a paradigm. Now I’d like to go further into the value this reconstruction would bring to content creators, sharers, and users.

The way the web works right now, content creators and sharers typically must either have their own website or use third-party services in order to build an audience and make money. Under this paradigm, the websites (or their content streams) are the main point of interest, and the onus is on the site owners and managers to “keep the content fresh”. In the case of businesses, this includes finding and hiring/contracting creators and negotiating licensing agreements with third-party content providers. The now-now-now pace puts pressure on creators to write something, anything, in order to keep people coming back to the site. This has resulted in a glut of content that is posted for the sake of having new content posted. SEO marketing has exacerbated the issue with content posted for the sake of higher search engine rankings. People are wasting more and more time reading navel-gazing content that adds little value to the human community.

With a web that is truly content-driven, the focus would shift from trying to keep thousands of disparate sites and streams “fresh” to trying to produce and share content that is meaningful, impactful, and important. With IP issues handled through robust tagging, content would be available for anyone to share. Licensing would be streamlined, and creators would be directly paid for their work. Media houses could more confidently keep creators on staff; sharing would provide an obvious metric of a creator’s value. Creators could focus on more long-form pieces, knowing that their existing work would continue to be shared and monetized. There would be less pressure to post something, anything, every day.

The web has suffered from the adoption of the “always on” mindset. If there is nothing new to report, there is no need to invent something to report. Someone, somewhere, is always producing content; it’s a big world. Rather than polluting millions of streams with junk, media companies, news organizations, marketers, and individuals should shift their focus to finding and sharing value. Simply aggregating RSS feeds or repurposing content the way we’ve been doing it so far is not enough; it does not meet the needs of the user and it does not ensure that content creators are paid for their work. We need to rebuild the system from the ground up.

The future of content, Part 2

(This is the second in a series of posts about the future of content creation and sharing online. Part 1 contains my original discussion, while Part 3 considers monetization.)

Yesterday I imagined a web architecture that depends on individual pieces of highly tagged content, rather than streams of content. Today I’d like to expand on that.

Right now when a creator posts something to the web, they must take all their cues from the environment in which they are posting. YouTube has a certain category and tag structure. Different blogging software handles post tagging differently. News organizations and other media companies have their own specialized CMSes, either built by third parties, built in-house, or built by third parties and then customized. This ultimately leads to content that is typically only shareable through linking, copy-and-paste, or embedding via a content provider or CMS’s proprietary solution.

None of this is standardized. Different organizations adhere to different editorial guidelines, and these likely either include different rules for content tagging or neglect to discuss content tagging at all. And of course, content posted by individuals is going to be tagged or not tagged depending on the person’s time and interest in semantic content.

The upshot is, there is no way, other than through a search engine, to find all content (not just content from one specific creator) that relates to a certain keyword or phrase. And since content is tagged inconsistently across creators, and spammers flood the web with useless content, search engines are a problematic solution to content discovery.

In my idealized web, creators would adhere to a certain set of standards when posting content. The content posting interface would automatically give each section of content its own unique identifier, and the creator would be able to adjust these for accuracy–for example, marking an article as an article, marking the title as the title, and making sure each paragraph was denoted as a paragraph. If this sounds like HTML5, well, that’s intentional. I believe that in the interest of an accessible, contextualized web of information, we need all content posting interfaces to conform to web standards (and we need web standards to continue to evolve to meet the needs of content).

Further, I think such systems should tag each unit of content such that the context and sharing and linking history of that unit of content can be logged. This would provide extraordinarily rich information for data analysts, a field that is already growing and would explode upon adoption of this model.

In my vision, content would not be dependent on an individual or an organization to host it on a website at a particular IP address. Instead, there would be independent but interconnected content repositories around the world where all content would reside. “Permalinks” would go straight to the content itself.

Browsers would become content interpreters, bringing up individual pieces of content in a human-comprehensible way. Users could have their own browser settings for the display of different kinds of content. Theming would be big. And a user’s browser history could allow that browser to suggest content, if the user opted in.

But websites would still exist; content interpretation would not be the sole domain of browsers. Rather than places where content is stored and then presented, websites would be contextualized areas of related content, curated by people or by processes or both. Perhaps a site owner would always be able to post and remix their own content, but would need to acquire a license to post or remix someone else’s. Perhaps different remix sites would pop up, sites with in-browser video and image editing, that would allow users to become creators. All remixes would become bona fide content, stored in the repository; anyone could simply view the remix from their browser, but community sites could also share streams of related remixes.

With properly-tagged content that is not tied to millions of different websites, content streams would be easy for anyone to produce. Perhaps browsers would facilitate this; perhaps websites would do so; perhaps both. The web would shift from being about finding the right outlets for content to finding the right content interpreter to pull in the content the user wants, regardless of source.

Such a system would have “social media” aspects, in that a user could set their browser or favorite content interpretation website to find certain kinds of content that are shared or linked by their friends, colleagues, and people of interest to them. This information, of course, would be stored with each piece of content in the repository, accessible to everyone. But users would also be able to opt out of such a system, should they wish to be able to share and remix but not have their name attached. The rest of the trail would still be there, linking from the remix to the original pieces, such that the content could be judged on its worth regardless of whether the creator was “anonymous user” or a celebrity or a politician or a mommy blogger.

Under this sort of system, content creators could be as nit-picky about the presentation of their content as they wanted. They could be completely hands-off, submitting content to the repository without even creating a website or stream to promote or contextualize it. Or they could dig in deep and build websites with curated areas of related content. Media companies that produce a lot of content could provide content interpretation pages and content streams that take the onus of wading through long options lists away from the user and instead present a few options the creator thinks users might want to customize. The point is, users would be able to customize as much as they wanted if they dug into the nitty-gritty themselves, but content creators would still be able to frame their content and present it to casual users in a contextualized way. They could also use this framework, along with licensing agreements, to provide content from other creators.

Comments would be attached to content items, but also tagged with the environment in which they were made–so if they were made on a company’s website, that information would be known, but anyone could also see the comment on the original piece of content. Content streams made solely of comments would be a possibility (something like Branch).

This system would be extremely complex, especially given the logging involved, but it would also cut down on a lot of duplication and IP theft. If sharing is made simple, just a few clicks, and all content lives in the same place, there’s no reason for someone to save someone else’s picture, edit out the watermark, and post it elsewhere. Since all content would be tagged by author, there would actually be no reason for watermarks to exist. The content creator gets credit for the original creation, and the person who shares gets credit for the share. This would theoretically lead to users following certain sharers, and perhaps media companies could watch this sort of thing and hire people who tend to share content that gets people talking.

Obviously such a paradigm shift would mean a completely different approach to content creation, content sharing, commenting, and advertising…a whole new web. I haven’t even gotten into what advertising might be like in such a system. It would certainly be heavily dependent on tagging. I’ll think more about the advertising side and perhaps address it in a Part 3.

Web presence, branding, and managing perceptions

Facebook users are now, as of 12:01 this morning, able to pick usernames, thus creating easy-to-remember links to their Profiles. (More information here.)

For some, picking a username was easy. I was not one of those people. I went back and forth up to the last minute between my real name and the online nick I’ve had since I first joined AOL in the early 90s.

Here’s why the choice wasn’t obvious.

Differences Among Social Networks

A lot of people treat all their online profiles the same way. They put the same information in every profile and link all their profiles to each other. In this post I’m dealing with social networking sites, but many people do this for all sites they frequent, whether there are communities built around them or not.

I have always viewed my online interactions on a community basis. The people I interact with on one site are not necessarily the people I interact with on another. I don’t see the point in having the same people on every single online application. Joining people in an online world is akin to being in a club–we’re all there because we share a certain interest, and we’ve chosen these means to explore that interest. A web application’s features ultimately determine what community it’s best for, through social evolution. Similarly, the content I publish is geared towards the community where I’m posting it.

Twitter, for example, is a microblog and conversation and news source and directory and more. It’s a way to track what’s interesting to people in the fields I’m interested in, and it’s also a way for me to drive my own creativity by getting random thoughts out of my head and into the world. I don’t simply follow everyone I know, because not everyone I know uses Twitter the way I use it. Similarly, I will follow and interact with people I don’t know if they are using Twitter the way I use it.

Some people have their Twitter and Facebook accounts linked, and post the same things to both. I tried that at first, but it seemed awkward and foreign, because ultimately I use Facebook and Twitter differently. The things I want my Twitter followers to see are not the same things I want my close friends and family to see–and those are the people I want to have on Facebook.

I don’t use Facebook for networking. I don’t friend everyone who wants to friend me, and I don’t advertise my page. I keep my professional life separate as well; I do not friend employers, past or present.

Facebook, to me, has always been about organizing people I am or have been close to. It’s been a lifesaver, a way to keep track of real life friends who I don’t interact with in other ways on the web. I have old friends from school, distant family members, and work friends there. I also have old online friends there, friends from my IRC or AMRN days who I don’t see often anymore.

The way I behave on Facebook is different from the way I behave elsewhere online. I censor certain things. I keep it fairly clean, and I don’t get deep into issues like politics and religion. On Facebook, I’m managing the perceptions of people who haven’t necessarily followed my blog for years, or who don’t see me every day, or who otherwise aren’t at the forefront of my life–but who are still very important to me.

These people are not interested in what I had for lunch, unless I had lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant in another country. These people don’t want to hear me bitch and moan. These people could care less about the minutiae of my day. I keep those things out of my Facebook and on my Twitter and blog where they belong. Instead, I let people know occasionally what’s going on with me, and I read what’s going on with them and comment or Like their updates. It’s a simple interaction, a way to say “Hey, I’m thinking about you” without getting in too deep. The memes, quizzes, and applications like Free Gifts and Flair that get passed around are the same–simple ways to reach out to people I care about and don’t see often, hopefully without overwhelming them.

There’s also a certain level of trust involved with Facebook. I have private contact information there for the use of people I know in real life, and I don’t really care to make my interactions with everyone I know public. Facebook is like a walled garden where I can mingle and observe without worrying too much about the outside world.

A Personal Brand

Since I use Facebook mostly for people I know offline, my real name makes the most sense as a Facebook username. And indeed, this is the reasoning behind my choice. However, there is another factor that weighed on me: branding.

I have not yet decided on a personal brand–a way to market myself once I get going on all the ideas currently stewing on the back burner. I have many options: my real name, the name of my website, any of my online personas, or something completely new.

Using my real name for my Facebook Profile’s username could mean I’ve removed it from the running for a brand. Why? Because, as stated above, I do not use Facebook for networking. I do not necessarily want potential clients, business partners, etc. looking up my profile there–not because they’d be able to see anything (I have strict privacy settings) but because I wouldn’t want to offend any of them by declining their friend requests.

If I had already chosen to use my name as my brand, and I had created a Facebook Page for that purpose, then I could have given that Page my real name. Now I don’t have that option.

It’s Better Than Nothing

Given my consternation over choosing a username, I could have opted to wait, or not to register a username at all. Facebook usernames are permanent, after all. I can never change it. The only way I could get a new username would be to create a completely different account.

It’s a sobering fact, and one that sparked the unwelcome thought “What if I make my username heathermeadows and then we get divorced?” (A younger me would never have even entertained this notion, because obviously Sean and I are going to be together forever. But being married to Sean has gradually instilled in me not only a rather wicked sense of humor, but also a kind of cold objectivity that comes out when it’s time to make big decisions.) For that reason I briefly pondered getting my maiden name instead–and really, that might have made it easier for old friends to find me.

Regardless, I knew that the longer I waited, the less chance there’d be of getting an optimal username. Plenty of people stayed up late specifically to snag their names. My name is not uncommon, either. If I wanted my typical online name I could probably have waited, since it’s unique to me…but if I wanted my real name I had to act immediately.

In the end, I decided to just go with my gut. I sat at and waited for the countdown to finish. At magic time, a blue Continue button appeared. I hit it, reflexively tagged the radio button next to Facebook’s suggestion of my real name, then hit Confirm.

It was over, just like that.

Moving Forward

The web and our use of it are always evolving. It’s possible that in the future I will want to use Facebook differently than I do today. I’ve already made exceptions to my standard rules by friending a couple of local people who I’ve never actually met.

It’s also possible that Facebook will disappear and all of this will be moot.

But no matter what happens online, my name will always be my name. So despite the above concerns, I think it’s safe to say I made the correct long-term choice.


Did I ever tell you I hate web design?

It’s probably obvious to those of you who’ve noticed I never change my blog template. Most designers change their templates all the time, trying new things. I’ve mentioned several times that I want to make some changes, but for the most part I’ve left it alone…not because I think it’s perfect like it is, but because I dread going into the code. It’s horribly out of date–it uses tables, for goodness’ sake–and if I ever get into a serious redesign, I know I’m going to want to start over from scratch.

I’m not the type of person who can just use a WYSIWYG editor and be content. I have to mess with the underpinnings, make them the best that I know they can be.

That perfectionism makes me despise web design, because nothing is ever perfect. What works in one browser doesn’t work in another. I can’t always do what I want, either because I lack the coding ability, because it’s unsupported by major browsers, or because it’s simply impossible with the tools we currently have. To get certain effects I have to cheat and then be annoyed that the site doesn’t live up to standards. I use JavaScript to do certain things, for example, and I just have to hope that the majority of site visitors won’t have it disabled. There are so many factors to take into account, when all I really want to do is make a nice, pretty design.

Despite all this, for some inexplicable reason I keep taking on web design projects. What’s wrong with me?

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The new Geoshitties

MySpace doesn’t like its profile pages to be legible, so it does everything it possibly can to ensure that they’re not.

Right now I’m trying to use the new editor to add a nifty Live Free or Die Hard theme to my profile, but the theme isn’t set up right. It puts black text on top of a black background! And when I try to use the editor to fix it, it destroys other parts of the code.

I keep going around and around with it and it’s driving me crazy! I’m way too much of a perfectionist for MySpace ;P

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