Identity, content, audience and the (independent) web

My text on “fixing the internet” from two weeks ago triggered an inspiring online discussion with Michael Dlugosch, during which a draft hypothesis has started to emerge for me. In a first attempt to paraphrase:

The question of how to create/restore a more open web providing control over one’s own representation hovers around three core issues: identity, content, and audience. It needs to be considered how an independent identity is being established, how users control their content and how they can build and cater to an audience despite independent ownership of identities and full control over content.

Not quite coincidentally, the discussion has touch points with debates going on in many places. My personal focus has so far been on the Indieweb movement , though earlier this week I encountered a blog post by Felix Schwenzel (in German) presenting another group of people working on similar goals but with a different strategy.

Content!

The Indieweb movement is a growing global network of individuals working on means to enable independent ways of web interaction, much in the spirit of the early social web of the early 2000s. A lot of the work is done by building prototypes for personal use, which may mature into standards or protocols documented for further refinement.

The Indieweb promotes POSSE as a preferred approach: Post on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. True to the motto “Own your data”, it suggests that an individual creates all online content primarily on their own website and then syndicates it to the “silos” of third-party web services such as Twitter, Facebook etc. Thanks to the magic of open source software, there is already a bunch of implementations that tech-savvy users may adapt for their own use, e.g. on the WordPress platform.

The core argument is that this approach makes the personal website the original, taking a strong claim on ownership (in a conceptual, technical and even legal sense). Any cross-published pieces of content are just copies, and there are even emerging suggestions of microformat protocols to mark that relationship in the source code of a website (rel-syndication).

The reverse strategy is labelled by the Indieweb wiki as PESOS: Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate on your Own Site. They describe it as the less preferred approach, mainly for ownership reasons – by posting content first on a “silo site”, a dependence is created and it may even become subject to copyright restrictions – but also referring to the dependency on a third party in general (availability, quality etc.).

A group of people are working on an open-source project employing this strategy: “Reclaim social media” aka. reclaim.fm is an early-stage plugin for WordPress that allows to pull content together from various services (an impressive list, for a “pre-alpha” project) a user is publishing to and aggregates it conveniently.

Apart from the process and some differences in the data aggregated – Schwenzel presents this in more detail – the visible manifestation of either approaches outcome would likely be very similar.

Identity? Audience?

If content can obviously be copied either back or forth, both approaches provide a means to regain ownership. Thinking beyond is where the identity-content-audience hypothesis comes back into play. How about identity? In his reply to my earlier post, Michael creates a connection between identity and context:

And here is where the problem lies: all of these beautiful Social Networks with their ease of assembling bits and pieces of content to form an ever-lasting stream of stuff are only staging an identity of yours with relation to this particular context.

This triggers some thoughts: Does a centralized, self-hosted “master identity” solve the problem of scattered identities? And: is there a benefit in building an audience on a personal website and selectively syndicating relevant parts of it into social silos or does it make more sense to curate identity/identities spread out over the various services and merge it/them into one patchwork-like assembly of small identity bits? Is there even one “right” way to build identity or can the curation of an online identity be just as “indie” as its technical manifestation?

On the other hand, a post by Markus Spath (in German) expresses the concern that some of the content created in silos only has value within them – would a separate site with all the content an individual publishes just create an agglomeration of noise (“everything combined equals nothing”, as a commenter on that blog post puts it)?

If identity emerges from content within a specific context, the third piece from the hypothesis – audience – enters the stage: on the same blog post’s page, a discussion emerged around the question whether POSSE isn’t spam if the silos are only “abused” for cross-posting rather than for conversation. However, other comments (by Matthias Pfefferle) highlight that this is one of the major qualities of the approach: authors can selectively choose what audiences to syndicate to – and that using POSSE does not automatically mean that one couldn’t create less important pieces of content inside the silos without syndication.

Is there a “right” approach?

It would probably be very hard to make an absolute judgement on whether POSSE or PESOS is the right way of syndicating between the open and the “closed” web in order to not only claim content ownership but to establish identity and build audience. As the argumentations referenced illustrate, even choosing an individual approach between or in combination of the two is part of the independence anybody active in this field is striving for.

The three elements of the working hypothesis: content, audience and identity.
Image caption: The three elements of the working hypothesis: content, audience and identity.

As a working hypothesis for grounded design considerations, I consider the set of identity, content and audience to be a reasonable workhorse for now:

  • At the core, it needs to be considered how to build identity. Is there one main identity which can selectively be POSSE’d into more specific contexts, or are there many sub-identities that create a “big picture” when collectively aggregated via PESOS?
  • Is it the goal to channel any public web activity through the hub website, or is there a difference between generally relevant “identity-building” content and (conversational?) content that is only meaningful within a certain context, which may even be perceived as noise when syndicated?
  • Who are the audiences targeted and are they even interested in the bigger picture (e.g. many POSSE-users “tweet” long messages through their own sites, expecting Twitter users to follow a link on a truncated excerpt to read the full reply and thereby practically breaking a silo convention)? And how can audiences be built and maintained in an environment where the majority hangs out inside the silos?

It is refreshing to see so much experimentation around “reclaiming the web” and “owning your content”. The decentralization and homogeneity of the approaches allows to critical disseminate the pros and cons of each solution, and it is not unlikely that emerging standards will allow for various ways of use (as it is already the case with webmentions, for example).

  • Sami Pekkola on Twitter:

    @sebastiangreger Thanks!!

    2014-01-23

  • Michael Dlugosch:

    Thanks for the nod, Sebastian. I'll gladly drill into Felix' article and his references to see the POSSE and PESOS approaches at work (I like these names, really!).
    The tricky thing with the "spam" discussion ("Is an advertisement on Twitter for my own blog post considered spam by my fellow peers?") is the underlying channel- or audience-related question: Does this content have a potential relevance for the audience reached here? As "relevance" is a quality attributed by an observer, not by an originator of a message, we have to leave that answer to those who decide to act or not act upon the message. Me personally, I was glad I've found your Tweet about the blog article of yours, Sebastian.

    Formally spoken, the border between "importance", "potential relevance", and "spam" is blurry by nature. "Being considered important enough to directing interest" is what all communication aims at getting established. Any attempt to communicate is distracting by nature. Any communication effort is potential spam.

    It occasionally helps me to remind myself that "communication is unlikely", as Niklas Luhmann had put it already back in 1981. In essence, communication must be considered a reciprocal sequence of mutually stabilizing patterns. With that perspective, it inevitably gains a "temporal" aspect besides the "topical" and the "social" aspect.

    The beauty with sociological approaches that recognize the procedural character of their objects of investigation is that they can provide much more precise descriptions of the underlying mechanics, without having to recur to potentially unknown or intransparent entities beyond their realm.

    For our case at hand, I see the demand for conceptualizing the building blocks of "Identity", "Content" and "Audience" as forms with a largely temporal aspect.
    The term "form" in this connotation (opposed to the term "entity", as contained in "identity") is referring to George Spencer-Brown's thoughts collected in his book "Laws of form": characterized as a distinction with double reference: (1) to the inner state of a mark in an otherwise unmarked space (to gain a notion of stability), and (2) with a reference to a (yet) undetermined context (ensuring perpetual irritability). Changing between the sides of the distinction, and appending further distinctions is possible.

    For an application of this setup, I will go and re-read Dirk Baecker's "Studien zur nächsten Gesellschaft" over the weekend. That may help me understanding how such a structure can be conceptualized fruitfully for our topic.

    2014-01-24

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