Towards a Personal Publishing Platform

The Internet Dashboard

One of the posts on this site that continues to pull in traffic is “It’s 2010. Where’s my Internet Dashboard?” The gist of it is this:

Why isn’t there a single, web based dashboard for all my internet- based communication? It should act both as an aggregator and as a messaging centre– a singular launch-point from which I can see the latest news and quickly compose messages that can be sent to any of my connected platforms

I also suggested some requirements for what it needed to be, because we were already seeing some faux dashboards out there (there’s a burgeoning industry now of closed systems that suck up and spit out your data while mining it for themselves).

This dashboard of mine should live on a mini server on my computer, synchronizing with the cloud whenever changes happen. My data needs to be portable, it needs to be accessible anywhere, and I need to be able to own it.

There’s more, and you can go back and read it, if you want more background. The comments helped to shape my thinking further.

Blogging, Social Media and Silos.

Another post that continues to get traffic is about the Facebook Problem. I identified it long before their IPO, and there has been a lot of coverage confirming my comment since. Just today, The Ad Contrarian has an excellent post up more or less confirming that my prediction is coming to pass. Social Media as we know it has had its day. Blogging continues to drive the web, but social media has taught us new lessons and we’ve discovered an increasing problem around structuring our content and maintaining vibrant online communities. Blogging as it has traditionally been done doesn’t work for everyone or for every type of online communication, and the social media silos have become increasingly myopic and controlling.

Building Communities

What we really want is a way of building communities that can scale. It needs to be open, accessible and simple to use. It also needs to hook in with the Internet Dashboard mentioned above. Twitter shouldn’t control it. Facebook shouldn’t control it. Apple or Google shouldn’t control it. It needs to be to social media what WordPress was to Geocities. I’m not just being idealistic, either. I actually happen to think that this is good for business. It’s also important to remember that while it’s easy for advertisers to sell you a quick solution to community building, it’s actually a lot of hard work, and it takes much more than a merely digital solution. It takes some degree of authentic, human experience.

The World Outline

Dave Winer is on the cusp of this evolution. Just like he was with blogging. Over the past while, he has been actively and quite prolifically developing his World Outline Software, and it has finally gotten to a place where I am having some fun playing around with it. It also meets a lot of my wish list for an Internet Dashboard, and the direction Winer is taking it in suggests that will eventually fit it perfectly.

It’s not quite ready for everyone yet, but if you like to dig under the hood of things a bit, the system is what every “public beta” promises to be but isn’t. There’s an active community of people using it, testing it and gaining access to new features as they’re ready. People who help each other out. It’s nice.

Structured Thought

One issue with the sprawling web is organising it. Even with blogs, it is becoming a real problem. Of course it makes sense that blogs are presented reverse-chronologically: show me what’s new first! The problem is organising all that content afterwards. And then there’s all that other content that isn’t really the same thing as a post.

Like its name suggests, the core concept of the World Outline is that everything is an outline. If you’ve done any writing or planning ever in your life, you know the power and simplicity of an outline to structure your thoughts. In the World Outline, this is the basis for everything.

All the writing, all the templates, all the preferences are outlines in OPML format. It’s an open standard.

It’s the simplicity of this structure that helps you organise your thoughts, and its this basic building block that’s at play in what I see as the most promising personal publishing platform since WordPress.

Conceptually, things get a bit richer yet. Each outline can be assigned a node type, whether it’s a thread or a post or a presentation. These help structure what kind of communication you have created. A node type is to an outline what CSS is to HTML. You might think about WordPress’s post-types but one level up. Where post-types define what kind of post something is, a node type defines what kind of thought something is. It’s one level higher, taking in discussions, posts, how-tos and more (even index pages, directories and domains). This provides all kinds of flexibility, since each outline is then rendered as HTML and has CSS applied. All open. All configurable.

This even extends to community structure, with each member having their own top-level set of outlines.

Limitations of the World Outline Today.

It really is a great new way to tie together the genuine innovations in the Web 2.0 phase that is now reaching its zenith. It also solves a lot of its problems.

That said, the software really is in its early days and under active development. Which means there are still some things that Winer is working out, features that he’s adding, plumbing that he’s hooking up. Refreshingly though, he’s doing it all out in the open.

For one thing, you’ll either need to set up your own World Outline Server or join someone else’s. Neither is completely trivial. In order to do anything with it, you also need to be running the OPML editor on your local machine (especially if you’re not running your own server). This may be a price to pay for the flexibility, but I’d love to be able to create outlines on the fly from my tablet, phone or someone else’s computer—a web-based outliner.

I’d personally also like to see it interoperate with WordPress–which should be possible, since everything on both platforms is working with open standards and protocols. There are some things that WordPress are just fantastic with, and I’d love them to be tightly integrated in some way.

It’s not for everyone yet. But if you’re an early adopter who doesn’t mind rolling up your sleeves a bit, this is a great time to get in on it and help define its development.

The Next Big Thing?

Will the World Outline be the next big thing? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ve been pretty good with my predictions about the evolution of the web, and I’m willing to say that whatever the next big thing is, it will look a lot like this.

Invitation to my World Outline

If you want to give it a shot, without setting up your own server, let me know and I’ll set you up on mine. I’ll have to limit this to a very small number of people and I’ll also have to be clear that I will not be offering much, if any, support–I simply don’t have the time–but there is an active community where you can ask questions and a good amount of helpful documentation available (though it’s not as linear as you might like, and takes some trial and error).

If you’ve played with it at all, please let me know if I’m thinking about this the right way. I’m thinking through it as I play along.

Building a web of your own

I’ve written before about how the basic building block of the web is the hyperlink. And that in turn is the beginning of its interactive nature. It’s the element that supercharges our reading and writing. The written word with a twist.

I’ve also discussed the trouble with Facebook (though anytime you see me use the word Facebook, please use it as a “fill in the blank” for all the silos that have emerged on the web in recent years). These silos are attempts at reigning things in, as though hyperlinks exist only in some manner they dictate. They call it “user experience,” but really it is an attempt to hold us in as long as possible and sell our eyeballs. As though we were eyeballs. As though the web were television.

The web sprawls because it’s open, and that makes it difficult for traditional advertising models. They don’t apply. These silos won’t last in the long term—not without adapting themselves. The trouble is that now there’s a lot of money on the line and big media is betting it all on them.

I’ve always advocated for looking at marketing in the interactive age as being best when it creates the conditions for serendipity. Instead of fighting the web from the old media lens, you should embrace it and communicate through it.

The funny thing about these silos is that they really are just blogging platforms with a few bells and whistles and with clipped wings. In some ways the only improvement is the simplicity of connecting with others that they provide. But in the end, by hemming everything in, they will eventually be usurped. It’s happened before and just because they are even bigger now, does not mean it won’t happen again.

If you care about communicating effectively with your friends or customers or community in the interactive age, don’t be fooled by the glossy tricks. Don’t trap yourself in the walled silos of 20th century thinking on top of 21st century media. Instead, think through who you are, who your network is and how you are going to create the perfect conditions for serendipity. If you do it right, you’ll build a web of your own that just keeps growing—with opportunities for serendipity multiplying over time.

I’m toying with some new software that’s being built by Dave Winer, the proto-blogger, inventor of RSS. I think it is the beginning of a true evolution of the web that will help structure thoughts and build communities. I’ll have more to write about that tomorrow, but if you want to take a peek, you can find my early experimentation here.

UPDATE: here’s my post about Dave Winer’s new software.

Why an open web is better for business

There are plenty of people around who will talk about all the moral reasons why we need to keep the web open. It’s democratic. It allows for free speech. It makes information accessible to everyone.

One thing that’s neglected in these conversations is this: an open web isn’t simply good for hippies and the furthering of peace, love and understanding—it’s good for business.

On an open web, you are free to carve out your own space and connect with potential customers on your own terms. You are not restricted by what the gate-keepers decide you can and can’t do in their space. The bar to entry is wonderfully low, and you can express all the brilliant originality of your business in ways that suit you and your customers. You get to be a personality, and that is a great way to create the conditions for serendipity.

I’ve written a fair bit about why blogging should be your first instinct (and I’ll probably write more) but for now, I’ll leave you with this analogy:

Social media platforms are like massive hotels where you can check in but never check out. A Blog is a bed and breakfast you own, where you entertain your guests in your own way and point them to other bed and breakfasts they’ll enjoy.