Technology Cannot Make a Platform, But It Does Help

The web literally exists to share content. The first web browser was also a web editor. And ever since then, programmers have been working on ways to make publishing easier and better. As such, there’s no shortage of existing technologies that a new platform can build off of.

A brief aside about the nature of technology and its place as a part of a whole

It’s easy to think that the right technology will change everything. That somehow, the right code will make all the problems with Old Blue go away and we will live happily ever after in our new paradise.

It’s easy to forget that Posterous existed around the time of Old Blue’s ascendency. It was blessed with better technology, including a dedicated URL shortener and the ability to post via email. Old Blue arguably had inferior technology. But it won. The right technology came together with the right design and the right people at the right time, and the lightning in a bottle struck.

It takes more than good technology to change things. It takes good design, good timing, and a good understanding of the problems being solved. But the right technology can enable change. And as we talk about the technologies that can enable a new platform, it’s important to remember this.

The Interface Is Hot

So, for this essay, let’s look at some interfaces. These are also called “protocols” or “standards.” The general idea here is a group of people have written down, in technical language, how a thing should be accomplished. The most obvious of these would be the HTTP standard that governs how web browsers and servers talk to each other.

We’re not talking about code yet, just the ways we can use it.

oEmbed

This is what turns https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ into the embed code that makes all your friends hate you. It involves a few steps:

  1. Blog gets URL from user.
  2. Blog looks up oEmbed endpoint for the URL, either
    • Matching the URL to a list of known endpoints, or
    • Looking for a particular link tag in the page’s head.
  3. Blog hits the oEmbed endpoint and gets back the code required to embed the content from the URL into a page.

While this was likely originally intended for video websites, it has since grown to encompass all manner of sites, including Old Blue herself. The maintainers of the standard have a (non-comprehensive) list of sites using oEmbed on their website.

The takeaway: Reblogs worked on Old Blue because everything was still happening within the platform. Old Blue was able to enforce attribution and keep social information flowing back to the original poster of the content, no matter how far from the original it traveled. On the open internet, however, the distinction between “reblogging” and simple plagiarism can be hard to see. The ability to embed posts from other blogs, however, can re-create the idea of reblogging while maintaining attribution and social information.

RSS / JSON Feed

RSS has been used for nearly 20 years to allow other sites and programs to read updates from blogs and other regularly-updated websites. It’s evolved slowly, but its simplicity has allowed it to remain relevant even as most internet users don’t realize they’re using it.

Today, though Google Reader has shut down, RSS readers can still be found in services like Feedly and Feed Wrangler. It’s also used to populate stories in the Apple News app. Most prevalently, though, it’s used to deliver every podcast episode to their many listeners.

JSON Feed takes the same principle as RSS but uses the more JSON instead of XML as its primary syntax. This makes the format easier to understand at a glance, and it helps make the format more resilient in some edge cases.

The takeaway: Old Blue’s dashboard allowed you to follow other blogs on the platform. A decentralized platform would need a standard way to follow other blogs, and it already exists in this.

oAuth

This is the authentication flow that allows external, third-party apps to tie back into a platform. By now, it’s hard to exist on the internet without using this to connect one app or website to another. Whether it’s signing into a mobile game with Facebook, or connecting Old Blue to Twitter, everyone’s familiar with “An app would like permission to connect.”

The takeaway: No social network can exist in a vacuum, at least not anymore. Any new platform is going to need to exploit connections to other networks, even if only for cross-publishing posts.

Webmention

Webmention is a new standard that allows posts that are responses to others to link to each other automatically. It is patterned after the similar functionality found on social networks.

The takeaway: Once again, getting the same social information normally found on a monolithic platform would be key for making a decentralized platform feel like a “normal” social network. This is a relatively new standard, and care would have to be taken to make sure that spam and harassment wouldn’t overwhelm they system.

When a Plan Comes Together

None of these technologies alone will make a new platform successful. Even all of them together doesn’t guarantee success; in fact, if the different parts are not integrated well, the end result will be worse. Much worse.

Many of these technologies are in use by the IndieWeb, and all of them have open-source code that can be used by any platform. There is work being done to make these technologies more accessible and usable. And I am particularly impressed by the Micro.blog platform that has taken many of these technologies and others and made them into a plausible alternative to Twitter.

A new platform has to be aware of how these technologies interact. As I mentioned earlier, Old Blue won not on the strength of its technology but in how it used that technology to meet the goals of its users. Any potential replacement for Old Blue will need to take the same path: choosing the right technology and presenting it in the best way to allow people to understand it and use it effectively.

Design is a hard problem.

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