Where is Your Digital Hub/Home?

I’ve been using WordPress to power my own website for a while now, and working with it in some way or another for even longer. Over the years, I’ve developed the belief that it’s a pretty perfect platform for people to build their own “digital home on the web”, considering the range of plugins and themes available, the flexibility of the publishing options it offers, and the fact that it’s completely open source, so you can do whatever you want with it.

That last bit is important in more ways than you might immediately think. Apart from just being able to write my own plugins or tweak my themes, this also means that I own my own data. I think in this MySpace/Facebook generation, people are all too loose with the data trails they create — giving up ownership of their digital self at the drop of a hat. In case you didn’t realize, when you use something like Facebook, it is not the product, you and your data are the product.

Don’t get me wrong, I use plenty of these other online services. In fact, despite working for a company focussed primarily on WordPress and blogging, I find myself producing an order of magnitude more content on other services than I do here on my own blog. A quick look at services I frequently create upon, or use to collect my own data reveals:

And that’s without counting a bunch of other more “passive” tracking services and systems that collect my information whether I like it or not. The more I think about it, the more I get the uneasy feeling that this equation is completely out of balance. While I get something out of using these services; ease of use, powerful tools, comprehensive social graph, more interaction with peers, etc, I am also losing out on a few big things. The biggest of those things, for me, are ownership (and therefore control) and customizability/flexibility. What happens when Delicious goes broke and closes down? I lose 2,000 bookmarks. What about when Yahoo! drops support for Flickr and it shutters its service? My carefully curated archive of almost 4,000 fully titled and tagged photos over almost a decade are lost. That doesn’t sound like a very good deal.

Guess what WordPress is great at? That’s right: ownership, control, flexibility and customizability.

So a few years ago, I started thinking about what it would look like if, instead of (or in addition to) having my content floating around in all of these different places, what if I housed it all on my own WordPress install. How would that work? What would my “work flow” look like? How on earth would I present all of these different data-types? Does that even make sense?

I quickly came to the realization that there are 2 quite different, perhaps directly conflicting, ways of looking at these issues. One way is to think of WordPress (or whatever platform you chose as your digital hub) as your exclusive publishing point/tool, and to figure out ways to publish different content types there, and then syndicate that content out to other networks/services as appropriate. The other way is to reverse that flow of information and actually publish on each of the other networks and then syndicate that content back to your WordPress install.

I’m by no means the first person to think along these lines. People have been thinking at least vaguely related things for years, and I’ve collaborated and crossed paths with many of them. One of the more popular names that’s popped up to describe this way of thinking is the “Indie Web”. Two prominent members of this movement are folks I greatly admire and respect: Tantek Çelik and Will Norris. It turns out they’ve been thinking along these very same lines recently and even came up with names for each approach: POSSE (Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and PESOS (Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate into Own Site). Those names will work nicely for this discussion.

So why choose POSSE over PESOS, or vice versa? Let’s take a look at each:

Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere

Under this model, you publish all of your content to your own site in the first instance, and then various (most likely automated) tools would be used to syndicate it out to other networks. So I might publish a photo, and then that photo would get copied out to my Flickr account. I publish a short text update and that gets syndicated to Twitter.

POSSE Pros

  • Complete control: I’m doing everything on my own platform, and the fact that it ends up somewhere can be seen almost as a side effect
  • Ultimate flexibility/customizability: I can configure my publishing environment to look however I want it to look. I can trick it out with helpers, strip things down to match exactly how I like to work, etc.
  • All in One: All of my publishing needs are met in a single location. I go to my WordPress (or whatever) and that’s where I can publish any type of content/data
  • No reliance upon 3rd parties: I don’t really need to care at all what happens on Delicious or Twitter or anywhere else. I publish my content locally and then if it makes it to other services, great. If not, no big deal.

POSSE Cons

  • Complexity: If I’m trying to publish all of these different types of data, I am going to end up with some pretty complex tools
  • Can’t keep up: With all these different data formats to publish, and new ideas/platforms popping up all of the time, it becomes hard to keep up with building the WordPress UI to handle them all.
  • Jack of all trades, Master of none: Spreading so thin across so many data formats leaves us in a position where we might be able to publish all sorts of content, but we’re not focussed or optimized on any of them, so the experience is probably sub-optimal on all of them.

Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate into Own Site

With PESOS, we do our publishing “anywhere”, and then pull that content back into our WordPress. I tweet on Twitter, I post photos on Flickr, I bookmark on Delicious. But everything gets copied back over to my own WordPress install and stored locally as a native post.

PESOS Pros

  • Leverage specialization: This is the big one. I don’t have to come up with publishing interfaces for all the different data formats. I can use all of the tools that these different services use their capital to build, then syndicate the results back into my storage backend. I can continue to use WordPress for what it’s really good at (long form publishing) and leverage all these other tools for what they’re good at.
  • More direct involvement in networks: Because I am going and publishing directly in these other networks, I’m more directly involved in the way they work, the conversations they spark, etc. This also allows me to be where my friends are — interacting on whatever network they choose to be on, without requiring them to come to me.
  • Immediate Adoption: In most cases, I can just start using a new platform when it comes along, and then syndicate back in time once I have a method of syndication in place, pulling down my personal archives to my WordPress.

PESOS Cons

  • Reliance upon 3rd Parties: Using PESOS, I am reliant upon these other networks in a few critical ways, simultaneously. First, I obviously need them to be online and accessible just so that I can publish something. I then also need them to have an open enough API (and accompanying data policy) that I can access my data and pull it back out to my own platform.

After going back and forth for a bit, I have opted for the PESOS approach, and have gone a fair way down that road. Probably the biggest reason for this choice is the specialization piece. I just feel like the tools available for each platform are so specialized, and are the singular focus of that platform, so they are most likely to continue to be the best. Trying to emulate that, or force it into a WordPress environment just seems like a losing battle. Upcoming posts will discuss my approach and some of the tools and techniques I’ve put together along the way. Follow along and maybe you’ll end up taking control of your data as well.

To be continued.