Connections

Planned Obsolescence 2018-08-02

One of the instigating factors in my recent migration from my original plannedobsolescence.net domain to kfitz.info, and in my attempts to collect and reinvigorate my online presence here, was a talk by Herbert van de Sompel at last December’s CNI meeting. In this talk, Van de Sompel explored a somewhat mind-blowing vision for a decentralized, distributed, but heavily interconnected future for scholarly communication. In this model, individual scholars maintain and publish on their own domains but are able to respond to and discuss with one another via a robust set of protocols for cross-domain communication.

Van de Sompel pointed to the work being done at MIT by Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid group, and this is where I started to get excited. As I understand it, the vision behind Solid — from “social linked data” — involves interoperable but modular applications, allowing both for private, individual data ownership and for interconnections across applications and domains, including rich notifications and conversations.

This vision, if it could be realized, seemed to me to present an exciting solution to a perennial complaint of mine: the degree to which the vibrant network of academic blogs of the early- to mid-aughts got derailed by the rise of social media, and particularly by Facebook and Twitter. Before these networks emerged into dominance, individual authors (and sometimes groups of authors) owned and controlled their own platforms and connected to one another through comments and links. We had our own spaces, and we used them to publish not just our own ideas but also our responses to one another.

Social media networks provided immediate solutions to a few problems with those early blogging networks: they relieved the moderately heavy lift in getting started and they created the possibility of connections that were immediate, dense, and growing. But as those networks expanded, they both pulled authors away from their own domains — so much quicker to tweet than to blog, and with a much speedier potential response — and they privatized and scattered conversations. An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

I’ve hoped for years for a means of recapturing that early blogging energy, of returning to a distributed network of folks thinking in their own spaces and yet connecting across them. And van de Sompel’s talk pushed me to think about ways I might start.

Of course, I was trying to finish a book at the time, so it took a while to take the plunge. But I eventually started the migration to kfitz.info and began looking for ways to consolidate my network activity here. And it’s that desire to consolidate that immediately drew me to micro.blog, which allows me to create very short posts here that can be republished on various social media channels.

But the essential problem of dispersion remained: I might capture all the content I create here, but responses on social media stayed on those channels. The connections remained incomplete — at least until Chris Aldrich pointed me toward Webmentions and Semantic Linkbacks. Chris published a great article exploring Webmentions yesterday at A List Apart, but the upshot is that this relatively new web standard allows for round-tripped connections among discrete domains, enabling the conversation about an individual post to be represented on that post, wherever it might actually take place.

There are still some wrinkles to be ironed out in getting the various platforms we use today to play well with Webmentions, but it’s a real step toward the goal of that decentralized, distributed, interconnected future for scholarly communication.