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TIMO ZIMMERMANN

balancing software engineering & infosec

Content ownership and micro blogging

posted on Wednesday 30th of October 2019 in ,

Earlier this year I made a drastic change to my online presence, stopped using my static site generator and migrated all my content to WordPress. Back in 2011 I was more than convinced that WordPress is basically dead and should never be used for anything. It is funny how times and opinions change. But I also set out with a very specific goal of publishing more content and owning more of the content I produce. Back then my idea was still a bit vague of how I want to run my online presence, but with some time and a few people complaining about and/or praising micro.blog I started to get a pretty good idea on how to move forward.

The idea of micro.blog (and micro blogging in general) brings back fond memories. A long, long time ago when I started blogging, before it was even called a blog, before RSS 0.9 was published, I published things to the Internet. Often they only consisted of a few sentences, sometimes an image, in rare occasions some long form writing. Back then you rented some webspace or signed up for Geocities, put some visitor counter on the page and searched for some gif that acted as an eye catcher to make the site appear interesting. And you started publishing things.

As time changed so did expectations. Random short form ramblings moved on to Twitter. Facebook and other centralised platforms and blogs felt reserved for meaningful, in depth content. And slowly but surely most content was produced on platforms which focus on generating money for their investors. “1/x” was born. Because 34 tweets is the preferred way to convey information over a simple blog post.

This felt like a natural progression. Hosting content and publishing content to a platform on which you actually own the content is hard. Signing up for Twitter is not. Growing an audience on your own little piece of the Internet is really hard. Being sarcastic in 140 characters and finding people to retweet your ramblings is not. Platforms like Twitter provide an experience tailored to people who want to publish content and get immediate feedback and have an actual chance of growing their audience. The experience is frictionless, this is why it became popular and won so many users in such a short time.

Micro.blog is a solution that brings all of that together. It is mostly frictionless, – adding your own domain still takes a few more clicks, but more on that in a moment – allows you to own your content, you can grow your audience and it allows all the (nearly) real time interactions that make you feel good. Who does not like random Internet points in the form of likes or retweets?!

Yet there is a lively discussion about content ownership going on. Do you own your content when it is reachable via a domain you own? Or do you have to own the publishing platform to actually own the content? (Spoiler: This will be a vim vs emacs discussion – there will be no winner and a few people will take it personally.)

In my opinion it is critical that you can bring your own domain. And have a backup of your content. Sure, micro.blog could go out of business tomorrow and you will have some down time, maybe lose a post or two. But you can always put your content somewhere else, update your DNS, maybe rewrite some URLs and you are good again. This obviously requires some technical knowledge, which means it will not be a viable solution for most people who joined Twitter for the frictionless experience.

Having to self host a platform for true content ownership just opens up so many problems, including discoverability and growing your audience that it will not be a feasible option for most. Mastodon is a good example for this. Federation build into the product, yet most interactions seem to happen on the instance you sign up for until a boosted toot from another instance accidentally shows up in your local or private timeline. But overall discoverability is still bad and you are forced to rely on the instance owner.

In my opinion micro.blog strikes the right balance between content ownership, interactions, discoverability and usability for the standard user. There is nearly no friction and it is accessible enough to allow mass adoption. One thing we should not forget is that not everyone cares about content ownership. There are people who are happy to just post random things and sometimes interact with others. Which is also totally fine, we should not project our values on them, and micro.blog is doing the right thing: sign up, start using it, no third step required.

Personally I prefer ownership of my content in the sense that I only have to rely on my hosting provider and worst case simply move to another one. And I honestly have more faith in my provider than a niche company to keep my site online for years. If it would be possible to self host micro.blog I would seriously consider it, the apps and the way replies and interactions are handled are really nice. But since this is not an option it means back to the drawing board.

One thing became pretty clear to me throughout this year: I want a place to post short form content – like micro.blog… but not micro.blog.

Once I understood what I want, it was time to figure out how to achieve it. I was actually entertaining the idea of setting up micro.blog on a subdomain and while I did not completely discard this idea, it would be $5 a month for something my main site can already do and it would even be consistent with my design.

Another thought was making everything part of the main page, but I could see that two or three posts in the RSS feed for a random photo, a link and maybe a long form article talking about securing a production environment on AWS might not go well together.

Some form of mixed solution would be a separate category rendered as timeline which is excluded from the main feed and index page.

Solving this problem is not hard, I just have to figure out which will work best, which means some educated guess work based on unreliable data and unproven assumptions. Very scientific, I know, but hey, this is not my job and not production critical.

One thing I would like to set up is cross posting content to other networks. There are plugins for WordPress itself and there are the often preferred solutions like IFTTT. Micro.blog actually makes it stupidly simple to cross post, you just have to enter your feed URL. Twitter and Instagram are a bit more tricky from what I can tell, but it should be doable. For Instagram the other way around might make more sense – post to Instagram and pull the content into the blog.

Considering all of this, there are two things that would be missing: some form of reactions and a better way to post content. The latter is especially important to me for short form content. If there is too much friction I will most likely lose interest pretty fast. And with WordPress‘ recent changes the editing experience already took a big hit.

Both requirements could be solved with plugins. The Micropub plugin allows me to use a few really well built clients from what I can tell. To replace tracebacks – they obviously need to be replaced, right? – there is the Webmention plugin and Semantic Linkbacks. A long time ago I removed the comment section on this blog and I still believe this was a good idea. And I think webmentions will fall victim to the same spam practices and abusive behaviour as most free form comment fields on the Internet. But I like the fact that there are standards and a way if I ever change my mind and that people who like comments and mentions have a way to get them on their own site.

In the end it does not really matter where you land on the content ownership discussion. There is a way to own your content in a way that allows you to still reap the benefits of centralised platforms without being too dependent on them. Those platforms will always have some form of control over the content and your presence on them. Your account might get locked, your content might get deleted, but since it would only be a mirror or an excerpt with a link, your actual content will stay online. (A whole other topic I do not even want to scratch are ethics and longevity of those platforms, this deserves a separate post.) I would prefer to see a more decentralised web again, but large platforms like Twitter and Facebook are here to stay for the above mentioned reasons. What we can do to mitigate their impact slightly is treating them as a commodity to distribute content hosted elsewhere. In the short term such a hybrid model is likely the only promising way to regain ownership of our content without major impact in audience, reach and interactions.