We need to get back to basics

Symbol for RSSThe issue is RSS, really simple syndication, a Web protocol that is EXTREMELY efficient for moving content from place to place along the byways of the Web. It’s an XML protocol, which means it passes content separate from formatting, to be reconstructed at the other end. It frustrates media companies, because it removes “their” content from the infrastructure within which they make their money.

I’ve been a student of all things new media for over 14 years, and the current spinning & whirling hodgepodge of everything from this to that has caused me to take a big step back for a bit. When this happens, I start looking at fundamentals and those “big” trends that I’ve talked about often. Maybe it’s the pending Facebook IPO, but I sense forces building for some form of cosmic explosion that will force everyone back to basics. Let me explain.

In earlier days of The Pomo Blog and in my earlier essays, I wrote of the revolution in what I called “unbundled media.” People were sharing individual cuts from albums and newspaper articles and TV clips among other things, all separated from their infrastructures. Today, it seems the successful ventures (can you say “Instagram?”) are trying to do the opposite: putting media into infrastructures like, well, Facebook. This is why I think we all need to be very careful today, because in big money’s attempt to inject artificial equilibrium into the chaos of the Web, things are moving in opposite directions. There will be a day of reckoning.

Back in the early days, I wrote of unbundling news stories and of building newsrooms that would function in such an environment. I even wrote about a revenue play with unbundled content, in some cases, created by the people formerly known as the advertisers. None of it has materialized yet to the extent that I saw, and I’ve always wondered why. I mean, I knew that media companies would struggle with the concept of making money apart from their infrastructures, but I felt (still do) that the right people with money could force this on unwilling industries and that media would eventually see and seize the new value.

There were others on this particular vibe back then, people I had already grown to respect. Umair Haque wrote of the difference between a blockbuster and a snowball rolling downhill, the latter of which is a part of a networked world. He also wrote of unbundled media and the value of quality content over marketing. Dave Winer was putting forth a concept called “rivers of news” based on the simple process of RSS — which he actually invented — and I felt I was joined at the hip with Dave. RSS was and is the perfect distribution vehicle for unbundled bits of media, but it, too, has not yet reached anything near its potential. Dave blames an almost conspiratorial effort by leaders in tech media. RSS, after all, is free and unencumbered. How does Silicon Valley make its fortune from that? Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, Jay Rosen and others were also on the vibe, and if anyone claims provenance for the whole thing, I think I’d have a problem with that. It doesn’t matter who got there first; the point is that a handful of people (much smarter than me) were all exploring this obvious (to us) development at about the same time, but it has seemingly sat there unattended.

Dave Winer never gave up. Heck, I don’t think any of us gave up, but he’s the one who has kept trying to move the rock while the rest of us have been basically cheering him on. Now this week, he’s posted “River of News — FTW!” and it bears a fresh jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.

Dave Winer is a very interesting fellow. A lot of people misinterpret his genius for self absorption or worse, and I think the tech industry is the real loser for it. The more I read Dave, the more I get to know him, and the more I get to know him, the more convinced I become that he’s right.

Doc Searls followed Dave’s piece this week with “Take us to The Rivers.” Doc admonishes his readers to take up arms with Dave, encouraged by this piece by Jason Pontin of Technology Review.”

The bigger and older the industry, the harder it is to make fundamental reforms, or to embrace disruption. Publishing, including newspapers, had been working the same way for many generations, so it has taken awhile for the obvious to sink in…

Last fall, we moved all the editorial in our apps, including the magazine, into a simple RSS feed in a river of news. We dumped the digital replica. Now we’re redesigning Technologyreview.com, which we made entirely free for use, and we’ll follow the Financial Times in using HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we’ll kill our apps, too.

Now back to Dave… Please, this time, listen to the man. While you still can.

My sword is with this group to any extent possible, but I have some advice. Unless and until we set our minds to resolving the revenue problem for media, we’re going to have a hard time (with people who really count) being taken seriously. That’s not intended as a swipe at anybody; it’s a simple fact. How does a media company put ads into its river without insulting people? Is that something we cannot tolerate at all, or would it be best for us to create the rules and protocols? And what about using RSS as a commerce mechanism? The people putting out the content that really matters today are those who used to be advertisers. What’s so wrong with using this technology to resolve their problems. Again, if we could influence the rules, wouldn’t that be worth the effort? And besides, content from advertisers is news in many ways.

I wrote about this back in the day in “The Economy of Unbundled Advertising,” and while the ideas expressed there were perhaps ahead of their time, I believe fundamentally in their hand shake with the Web, and that’s via RSS.

I owe my blogging history to Dave Winer, for he helped me get started. He’s right as rain on this, but the anti-capitalist nature of an open, seemingly chaotic architecture is what’s causing so much grief for those institutions and industries who exist in the old-fashioned, top-down world of modernity. This is the pragmatic postmodernism about which I write and preach. It’s also why, I suspect, I’m so drawn to the minds of people like Dave, Doc, Umair, David Weinberger, Kevin Kelly, and many others. None are opposed to making money; they simply all see the limits of doing it the top-down way.

Like I said, it’s time for all of us to get back to the fundamentals.

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