Isn't it time the internet was awesome?

The internet was supposed to bring about a revolution in “self-publishing," and enable everyone to be a creator. Of course, to some extent, this has happened. Anyone can write a blog, create a video or share their music online. But something about the way this all works seems significantly short of a “revolution."

To me it seems like where this all went wrong was with “the cloud." Perhaps it hasn’t precisely gone “wrong," but rather just not gotten to where it needs to be, to an actual revolution. I think the true revolution will be when people are able to share their creativity online, independent of services like Facebook, Google or Amazon.

I think the real revolution will be when we all control our content, and make it available to aggregating software agents. The real revolution will see content served up from anywhere in open formats, with open metadata, providing a semantic profile available to agents designed to filter and deliver content to a user based on metadata. Instead of being obliged to share videos on YouTube for maximum discoverability, videos or other content could be served from anywhere, on any number of platforms, and achieve ubiquitous visibility through their open formats and detailed metadata.

This still leaves open the question of how to separate the wheat from the chaff, of how to find the really great work without wading through gigabytes of crap. In the future, I think this role might be open to a new type of online “magazine" or “publisher," which would function primarily as a content curator, but based on a subscription model. Rather than subscribing to a magazine that has staff writers, and/or publishes manuscripts submitted by authors, the staff of the magazine would be experts in searching for great content that would be appreciated by their readership. People would subscribe to the magazine because it would deliver the highest quality content in its genre or subject area. It would still employ professionals to evaluate content – providing the peer-review-type process that many lament is absent from most internet content. And authors could be paid based on who picks up their work, possibly based on some kind of embedded code in the file that allows them to track where it has been posted, and a tag could identify if they wanted their work to be freely available, along the lines of Creative Commons licenses. Or, more radically, authors and publishers could agree on an open “standard" for remuneration. Presumably publications that published work outside this “standard" could be subject to some form of coordinated reputation-bashing.

In terms of buying books, momentum seems to be on the side of abandoning the local bookstore in favour of online retailers such as Amazon. But why? One significant reason is probably the massive recommendation database that Amazon has built up over time that allows visitors to their site to find, from among millions of books, just what they are looking for. Convenience and a virtually limitless inventory of books (and other stuff, of course) is probably another key factor. The question is what other ways are there to achieve convenience, limitless selection and a wealth of recommendations and ratings all in one place?

I, personally, like having a local bookstore, not just for the physical buying of books, but for the social and community activity it promotes. Winnipeg’s McNally Robinson is good for this, featuring plenty of opportunities to attend readings, or participate in discussions and even attend classes. But, of course, there is only so much room on the shelves, and their website doesn’t provide anywhere close to the information about titles featured on Amazon.

But what if recommendations and reviews were open, and available to be aggregated by any software agent? Couple this with emerging and ever-improving print-on-demand technologies, and I really should have the ability to walk into my local bookstore, browse the virtual shelves for just what I’m looking for, queue it up to be printed on site, and hang out with some authors and listen to some readings while my purchases are being prepared.

Of course at some point print-on-demand technology will be available in our homes. But it will never be available in everyone’s homes (or at least not for many, many generations). And there will always be value in human interaction. and benefit in being able to sit around and appreciate the written word (and have a nice cup of coffee). So why not encourage the value-added of community and community economic development, rather than abandoning what is most important to us to a virtual store in the cloud. Technology should be applied to give people more control over their lives, not to hand that control over to others.

At this point all of this is perhaps a bit far-fetched and infeasible. But my point is simply that, eventually, we have to raise our expectations for what we, as users, get out of what was supposed to be a democratizing and decentralizing technology. As it stands now companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are profiting by providing us content, but making us do the work of curating it, through “likes" and reviews and “shares." They provide the tools, to an extent, and make all the money, but we do all the work.

But why should recommendation tools and data be restricted to the confines of these platforms? The revolution – the REAL revolution – will come when these tools are widely available and operate in a peer-to-peer environment. I should be able to use a software agent to find your content, I can “like" or recommend it, but that recommendation doesn’t live on Facebook or Google, it lives on whatever services I use, even my own server, and is linked to whatever I liked. So, then, if someone else’s agent is searching the internet that recommendation forms a part of that content’s metadata, and can be used by other agents in evaluating it.

And why should the internet necessarily be destructive of community? We should be applying the connection and information-sharing enabled by the internet to enhance our physical communities, to bring the value of global interconnectivity to bear in strengthen and adding value to our physical places. After all, despite all the amazing “virtual" things available to us, we can’t escape our physicality – at least not in the foreseeable future – and neither, I don’t think, do most of us want to.

So maybe, rather than just incrementally adding mediocre functionality to centralized services that don’t really operate in the interests of the average internet user, we need to operate from a vision of what is possible, and start creating technology to achieve that vision. Rather than judging the success of the internet by the quantity of profits and IPOs and the proliferation of new cloud services, we need to start looking at how the internet actually works to make the world a better, more democratic place. Companies like Google and Facebook aggregating billions of dollars does not benefit anyone but the shareholders. It doesn’t foster innovation. It simply fosters optimization for profit accumulation which, in turn, only benefits shareholders. We need to release some of that wealth down to the level where true innovation happens, where great things are created that benefit individuals and communities.

This is why the Open Source movement is critical. And, despite the fact that I am powerfully drawn to the simplicity of the Apple ecosystem, I can’t escape the feeling that I am somehow failing as a citizen of the earth by not more fully embracing and supporting Open Source software, and the Open Source movement generally.

Perhaps that’s what this is all about. We should all be able to contribute to the best of our abilities and interests, whether it be in creating art, code, policy or anything else. And the more open that process is to new participants and ideas, the better it will be for everyone.