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Aug 28, 2005 2:16am

freedom and discipline

Sorry for the recent interlude of radio silence, but many interesting developments in Stamenland have conspired to fill my time with meetings, phone calls, conversations and plans instead of the usual aimless hackery.

William Blaze just released an essay on Web 2.0, with a few choice observations on web-enabled API's and other hot topics. Some selected excerpts:

...the web is different now, but the big differences aren't necessarily found in those prosaic "information wants to be free" ideals, which actually stand as one of the biggest constants in web evolution.


What really separates the "Web 2.0" from the "web" is the professionalism, the striation between the insiders and the users. When the web first started any motivated individual with an internet connection could join in the building. HTML took an hour or two to learn, and anyone could build. In the Web 2.0 they don't talk about anyone building sites, they talk about anyone publishing content. What's left unsaid is that when doing so they'll probably be using someone else's software.

As a tool-builder, I'm somewhat biased towards the idea that good software leads to good publishing. In the beginning, it didn't really matter how you published content. Webzine '98 lists the minimal entry requirements: a computer with internet access, a text editor, and ftp program, and something to say.

This core is no less valid today than it was seven years ago, when I picked up the essay linked above on a printed flyer at 3am in a National Guard armory in Santa Rosa, CA (don't ask). What's changed is that a lot of people have gotten the message, and suddenly the phenomenal rate of growth in blogs has made every individual voice just a tiny bit quieter. Your options as an opinionated online-writing-guy are to accept that on the Internet, "everyone is famous for fifteen people", or to start paying attention to how you say what you need to say.

Enter RSS, XML, API's. William:

Any user of a public API runs the risk of entering a rather catch-22 position. The more useful the API is, the more dependent the user becomes on the APIs creator. In the case of Ebay sellers or Amazon affiliates this is often a mutually beneficial relationship, but also inherently unbalanced. The API user holds a position somewhat akin to a minor league baseball team or McDonald's franchisee, they are given the tools to run a successful operation, but are always beholden to the decisions of the parent organization. You can make a lot of money in one of those businesses, but you can't change the formula of the "beef" and you always run the risk of having your best prospects snatched away from you.


The real hook to the freedoms promised by the Web 2.0 disciples is that it requires nearly religious application of open standards (when of course it doesn't involve using a "public" API). The open standard is the control that enables the relinquishing of control. Data is not meant to circulate freely, its meant to circulate freely via the methods proscribed via an open standard.

In other words, there's a strong relationship between freedom and discipline. Freedom without discipline becomes the freedom to not reach our goals. Discipline is standards literacy. Literacy in the common culture and an ability to navigate it is a pre-requisite for effective communication, a point made by E.D. Hirsch in his work on Cultural Literacy. Hirsch's point about the communicative freedom gained by anticipating the cultural standards of your audience is directly applicable to the read/write web, where publishing your information under a technical format such as RSS and a legal format such as a Creative Commons license means that your work can fly faster, further, and affect a broader audience. This is a higher freedom afforded by self-discipline.

Blaze's paragraph on the risks of public API's can be understood as a criticism of cultural domination. In some cases, this domination is probably not something that can be overcome: Flickr's API grants access solely to data that users have chosen to host on Flickr. EBay's data is specific to the marketplace run by EBay. A more interesting example might come from information that is public domain, such as the Library of Congress' categorization of printed works, or the dense network of facts kept by Wikipedia. I can't speak for the former, but the latter information is made explicitly free under the GNU Free Documentation License. 3rd parties can and do duplicate the Wikipedia database for their own purposes, and Wikipedia ensures that this information is available in a coherent form (SQL database dumps) under a permissive license.

The benefits gained from a higher degree of web 2.0 professionalism are enormous, and they don't invalidate the easy-on promises of 1998.


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