Media companies should embrace the generative nature of the web

Generativity, the ability to remix different pieces of the web or deploy new code without gatekeepers (so that anyone can repurpose, remix or reuse the original content or service for a different purpose) is going to be at the heart of successful media companies.

Depth of field (Per Foreby)

As Jonathan Zittrain points out in The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it) the web’s success is largely because it is a generative platform.

The Internet is also a generative system to its very core as is each and every layer built upon this core. This means that anyone can build upon the work of those that went before them – this is why the Internet architecture, to this day, is still delivering decentralized innovation.

This is true at a technological level, for example, XMPP, OAuth and OpenID are all technologies that have been invented because the technology layers upon which they are built are open, adaptable and easy for others to reuse and master. It is also true at the content level – Wikipedia is only possible because it is built as a true web citizen, likewise blogging platforms and services such as MusicBrainz – these services allow anyone to create or modify content without the need for strict rules and controls.

But what has this got to do with the success or otherwise of any media company or any content publisher? After all just because the underlying technology stack is generative doesn’t mean that what you build must be generative. There are, after all, plenty of successful walled gardens and tethered appliances out there. The answer, in part, depends on what you believe the future of the Web will look like.

Tim Berners-Lee presents a pretty compelling view in his article on The Giant Global Graph. In it he explains how the evolution of the Internet has seen a move from a network of computers, through the Internet, to a  web of documents and we are now seeing a migration to a ‘web of concepts’.

[The Internet] made life simpler and more powerful. It made it simpler because of having to navigate phone lines from one computer to the next, you could write programs as though the net were just one big cloud, where messages went in at your computer and came out at the destination one. The realization was, “It isn’t the cables, it is the computers which are interesting”. The Net was designed to allow the computers to be seen without having
to see the cables. [...]

The WWW increases the power we have as users again. The realization was “It isn’t the computers, but the documents which are interesting”. Now you could browse around a sea of documents without having to worry about which computer they were stored on. Simpler, more powerful. Obvious, really. [...]

Now, people are making another mental move. There is realization now, “It’s not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important”. Obvious, really.

If you believe this, if you believe that there is a move from a web of documents to concepts, then you can start to see why media companies will need to start to publish data the right way. Publishing it so that they, and others, can help people find the things they are interested in. How does this happen then? For starters we need a mechanism by which we can identify things and identify the relationship between them – at a level above that of the document. And that’s just what the semantic web technologies are for – they allow different organisations a common way of describing the relationship between things. For example, the Programmes Ontology allows any media company to describe the nature of a programme; the music ontology any artist, release or label.

This implies a couple of different, but related things, firstly it highlights the importance of links. Links are an expression of a person’s interests. I choose what to link to from this blog – which words, which subjects to link from and where to – my choice of links provide you with a view onto how I view the subject beyond what I write here. The links give you insight into who I trust and what I read. And of course it allows others to aggregate my content around those subjects.

It also implies that we need a common way of doing things. A way of doing things that allows others to build with, on top of, the original publishers content. This isn’t about giving up your rights over your content, rather it is about letting it be connected to content from peer sites. It is about joining contextually relevant information from other sites, other applications. As Tim Berners-Lee points out this is similar to the transition we had to make in going from interconnected computers to the Web.

People running Internet systems had to let their computer be used for forwarding other people’s packets, and connecting new applications they had no control over. People making web sites sometimes tried to legally prevent others from linking into the site, as they wanted complete control of the user experience, and they would not link out as they did not want people to escape. Until after a few months they realized how the web works. And the re-use kicked in. And the payoff started blowing people’s minds.

Because the Internet is a generative system it means it has a different philosophy from most other data discovery systems and APIs (including some that are built with Internet technologies), as Ed Summers explains:

…which all differ in their implementation details and require you to digest their API documentation before you can do anything useful. Contrast this with the Web of Data which uses the ubiquitous technologies of URIs and HTTP plus the secret sauce of the RDF triple.

They also often require the owner of the service or API to give permission for third parties to use those services, often mediated via API keys. This is bad, had the Web or the Internet before that adopted a similar approach, rather than the generative approach it did take, we would not have seen the level of innovation we have; and as a result we would not have had the financial, social and political benefits we have derived from it.

Of course there are plenty of examples of where people have been able to work with the web of documents – everything from 800lb gorilla’s like Google through to sites like After Our Time and Speechification – both provide users with a new and distinctive service while also helping to drive traffic and raise brand awareness to the BBC. Just think what would also be possible if transcripts, permanent audio, and research notes where also made available not only as HTML but also as RDF joining content inside and outside the BBC to create a system which, in Zittrain words, provides “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”

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