Orbital Content

Originally published on A List Apart in April 2011.

We are on the cusp of a complete overhaul of the way in which we interact with online content, and I think you should be a hell of a lot more excited than you currently are. Bookmarklet apps like Instapaper, Svpply, and Readability are pointing us toward a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users. This transformation of our relationship with content will force us to rethink existing reputation, distribution, and monetization models—and all for the better.

Content today

Most online content today is stuck. It has roots firmly planted in one of the many sites and applications around the web. Because content is rooted, we are forced to spend precious time recording its location in the hopes of navigating back. We bookmark websites. We favorite tweets. We create lists in text files.

In this system, the sites are the gravitational center and we, the users, orbit them, reaching out for a connection whenever we want to interact with the content. This is a fine system, but as users spend more time on consumption-oriented devices like iPads and mobile phones, new demands are being put on content.

Websites have responded quickly to these new demands. Media queries and the responsive design movement have enabled designers to tailor the experience of a site to whichever device a user happens to be using. Flexibility at this macro level of the site is important, but the real breakthroughs will come when we enable the same flexibility at the micro level with individual pieces of content.

Publishers have had the ability to make their content flexible for over a decade. RSS makes it easy to share content feeds with subscribers, saving them the trouble of constantly checking back in. Recently, a series of bookmarklet apps have been slowly transferring the responsibility of making content flexible from the publisher to the user. Leading the charge of this transfer is Instapaper, which has garnered a great deal of praise for doing something called “content shifting.”

Content shifting

…I am certain people want to shift content from discovery oriented devices (laptop, satellite radio, etc.) to consumption oriented devices (tablet, sonos, etc.), and I am certain that we will see this get easier and easier in the coming years.

Fred Wilson

Content shifting allows a user to take a piece of content that they’ve identified in one context and make it available in another. Perhaps the most popular content shifter is Instapaper, which allows users to easily shift interesting articles they find on the web. With one click of the “Read Later” bookmarklet, the desired article is shifted from a user’s web browser to their mobile device.

Calling Instapaper a content shifter tells only half the story. It puts too much attention on the shifting and not enough on what needs to happen before a piece of content can be shifted. Before content can be shifted, it must be correctly identified, uprooted from its source, and tied to a user. This process, which I call “content liberation” is the common ground between Instapaper, Svpply, Readability, Zootool, and other bookmarklet apps. Content shifting, as powerful as it is, is just the beginning of what’s possible when content is liberated.

Content liberation

Content liberation is a two-part process that results in a piece of content uprooted from its original context and tied to a user. It works like this:

  1. Distillation: First, the content is stripped down to its raw essence. That essence could be an article, a tweet, a recipe, even a full webpage. What matters is that you end up with all wheat and no chaff. Distilled content is not, however, without attribution. The content never forgets where it is from and neither do you.
  2. Association: After distillation, the raw content is free-floating and in need of a new home. This is done by tying that content to a user. The typical approach is to have a user account or a desktop folder where the content can reside.

The result of this process is a carbon copy of the purest form of the original content. This liberated copy is tied to a user and its fate is in their hands. If the original site takes the content down or changes it, the liberated copy is unaffected. As users build up collections of this liberated content, they are laying the foundation upon which apps can build their communities and implement their features.

Content collections

Content collections are becoming an increasingly essential data type. They open the door for developers to build apps that are custom-tailored to users’ specific needs. Svpply, for example, enables users to build collections of products they love. Now when I go window-shopping, the windows are all curated by my friends and the taste-makers that I respect.

There are many types of data on the web, but only a few of them have apps designed to help us collect them. I expect this to quickly change. New apps will surface to unlock the potential of recipes, guitar tabs, fonts, travel tips, and more, by enabling users to organize them into collections. Building these content collections is going to be a big deal in the very near future. Consider yourself warned.

Content control

There are two looming issues for liberated content collections—who should control the collections, and who really owns the content inside them? I’m going to tackle the issue of control now, but fear not, I will address ownership soon.

In our discussion of control, let’s examine Instapaper. Do you control that collection of articles? Not really. If another application comes along and offers to print your collection and bind those articles into a book, you have to ask Instapaper for permission to do so. Instapaper helped you build your collection so it becomes a middleman between you and anyone else who can make the collection useful. If Instapaper’s API is lacking in some way (or absent as it was until recently) there’s nothing you can do about it—which is disappointing when you consider all of the effort you put in to building the collection.

Even with a great API in place, this is a fundamentally indirect and inefficient way to deal with content. It’s like you’re surrounding yourself with an entourage of apps and anyone wanting to approach you has to go through them first. Instead of surrounding yourself with applications, why not surround yourself with content?

Orbital content

Our transformed relationship with content is one in which individual users are the gravitational center and content floats in orbit around them. This “orbital content,” built up by the user, has the following two characteristics:

  1. Liberated: The content was either created by you or has been distilled and associated with you so it is both pure and personal.
  2. Open: You collected it so you control it. There are no middlemen apps in the way. When an application wants to offer you some cool service, it now requests access to the API of you instead of the various APIs of your entourage. This is what makes it so useful. It can be shared with countless apps and flow seamlessly between contexts.

The result is a user-controlled collection of content that is free (as in speech), distilled, open, personal, and—most importantly—useful. You do the work to assemble a collection of content from disparate sources, and apps do the work to make those collections useful. These orbital collections will push users to be more self-reliant and applications to be more innovative.

The API of you

In the traditional business model, consumers vote with their dollars. If they like something, they buy it. If not, they don’t. In the orbital content model, users vote with their content. If an app offers something interesting, they’ll share their content with it. If not, they won’t. Because the content is in orbit around the users, they directly determine who has access to it. Applications will no longer ask for our credentials to other services; instead, they will ask you directly to lend them the content they want to make useful.

This puts an exciting burden on applications to continue to innovate and meet your changing user needs. If an app starts slacking, you can share your content with another app that offers to do something more. For example, I have a tremendous amount of music data built up on Last.fm, but instead of motivating them to innovate, controlling my data allows them to comfortably stagnate. If I could share my Last.fm data with Pandora, or Rdio, or Grooveshark, Last.fm would need to innovate to keep my attention; if they didn’t, those other apps could rise to the occasion by creating new and exciting functionality. Either way, users win.

Content ownership

At this point, I imagine there are quite a few disgruntled readers out there who aren’t happy with the fact that I’ve yet to address the copyright issues associated with orbital content. When content created by others is liberated, some tricky ownership issues come into play.

Many publishers will ask—and it is a fair and familiar question—why should users have the right to carbon copy my content and share it in other contexts? It is a question that belies a concern about something slightly different: compensation. If publishers were compensated $10 every time content was shared and $1 every time it was read on their site, they would do everything in their power to get their content shared. Copying is not the problem—compensation is. Today’s web environment makes it nothing less than a struggle to support content creators. We have unlimited tools for sharing and virtually none for payment.

Let’s look at the movement toward orbital content as an opportunity to rethink compensation. There is a great deal we can do to shape it into something that enriches the web for content creators and content consumers. A major key to this joint enrichment is attribution.

Content attribution and monetization

Attribution is authorship metadata that is bound to content. No matter how far and wide a piece of content spreads, it never forgets who created it and where it’s from. Despite its importance, web attribution is already in shambles. A quick review of Tumblr blogs or the image stream at FFFFound! will show just how difficult it is to find the original sources for most content. This lack of attribution means that content creators receive neither financial nor reputational gains when others spread their work. As good citizens of the web, we have to be vigilant in retaining authorship as we liberate and share content.

If we can keep attribution firmly in place, content collections and orbital content offer publishers new opportunities for both financial and reputational gain. Traditionally, site owners monetize their content by generating traffic to get as many “eyeballs” in front of their advertisements as possible. Strict content attribution allows us to take an interesting twist on this model. We can push the notion of eyeballs to include anyone who sees your content in any context so long as it is clear that you are its creator. If attribution can travel with content, why not monetization? RSS feeds have set some precedent for ads following content into other contexts. We can push this model further by enabling ads to travel alongside individual pieces of content and enabling content creators to be compensated whether that content is viewed on their site or somewhere else on the web.

Attributed orbital content can be a conduit for communication between the content creator and various content consumers. At my company, Fictive Kin, we are obsessed with “Haters Gonna Hate,” an animated gif created by These Are Things. That gif quickly became a bona fide internet meme and was seen by millions of people, many of whom saved and reblogged it. Later, These are Things released haters gonna hate t-shirts and letterpress prints to capitalize on the success of their creation. With orbital content and strict attribution, it would be easy to give them the ability to advertise the prints and shirts to anyone who had collected their original gif and let them know there were new ways to show off their love.

Content applications

The things that we like define us as much as the people we know. Content liberation, orbital content, and attribution are enabling a new class of applications that are built on top of our content and our interests instead of our social graphs. We can look to Instapaper, Svpply, and other bookmarklet apps for the beginnings of this movement.

These initial apps hint at some possible paths, but we should remember orbital content is still a wide open frontier and we are free to shape it as we please. If we get a good jump on it, we can create a web in which content creators are rewarded fairly, content consumers are given unprecedented power, and web applications are pushed to constantly innovate and improve themselves. Not too shabby.