Notes on Imagined Communities and the Open Web

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak at WordCamp for Publishers in Chicago.  WCPub is an industry-focused WordCamp, held in different locations each year, which makes it a bit unique. 

The “challenge” issued by the organizers for 2018 was the topic of “Taking Back the Open Web,” and they wrote that they wanted presentations “that touch on whether an open web actually ever truly existed, what state it’s in now, consequences of a closed web, and how publishers may protect and encourage an open web.”  So I took them up on that challenge. 

It ended being a fairly complex talk, as I tried to link together Benedict Anderson’s take on nationalism from Imagined Communities to a number of concepts about what might make an “Open Web.” 

Results can be seen in the video below from WordPress.tv (slides here: Taking Back What and From Whom?). Not sure I exactly nailed what I was trying to get across – feels like the Anderson bits are too long and not relevant enough – should have just taken the notion of “imagined communities” in one slide and gone on from there – but I hope folks find it interesting.

A few notes on things I did not get to, as I rushed for time. 

First, in talking about “Free as in Speech” versus “Free as in Beer” and gratis versus libre, I mentioned “free as in puppies” and that I would come back to it. The point I wanted to make is that people selling proprietary software love to use the “free as in puppies” meme to try to contrast their platform to open source, by implying you’ll need to spend more money and time taking care of an open source platform than you will with their proprietary / closed-source platform. 

That’s nonsense, especially when it comes to CMS’s. Web properties powered by CMS’s all need care and feeding. The joke of the CMS is that CMS platforms don’t actually manage content: people do. They just provide assistance to those people or provide a platform in which they can work. 

In other words, at risk of torturing the metaphor, free puppies do require care and feeding (and discipline, and vet visits) – but so do expensive purebred puppies. Just paying money for something does not mean it won’t require care. 

Second, and this is especially important at WordCamp for Publishers,  let’s not let the goal of having an “open web” that encourages freedom cause us to make a different gratis versus libre mistake and determine that all websites publishing content must be free-of-charge. A “free press” does not have to be free of cost, and publishers exploring various revenue generating options – including paywalls and subscriptions of various kinds – are not working against the open web but within it.  Content, especially real journalism, takes investment to make, and we need to build into our notions of the Open Web ways for people to get paid for their labor. 

There were a number of other good presentations at WordCamp for Publishers on paywalls and revenue models – you can see all of them at WordPress.tv

Third, in the context of including other Open Web efforts, I mentioned the IndieWeb movement and commented that the IndieWeb efforts were in an early stage and mostly appealed to fairly techie folks, who build their own CMS plugins and code. That got somewhat widely retweeted, as though it was some kind of critique of IndieWeb for not being diverse enough. 

It’s true that IndieWeb efforts right now are more focused on and appealing to people who can code, hack, or tinker with their own sites – but that’s not the end game, and it isn’t anything the IndieWeb folks aren’t aware of. Check out their Generations page for more on how they hope to scale over time to more kinds of users, and, as a community, they are very focused on plurality of approaches as well as diversity and inclusion. My intent wasn’t to single the IndieWeb community out for criticism but in fact to encourage people to check them out as an example of an intentional community trying to address many of the issues of concern to the Open Web. 

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