Drawn & Quartered

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of barbarism, the “quartered” part of drawn & quartered was a punishment consisiting of four horses attached to four ropes attached to the four limbs of the punishee. You can imagine the rest.

Go ahead, call me melodramatic, but I feel quartered by the proliferation of web apps flying around these days.

Taken individually, they’re all wonderful tools and toys, no question. But as a reasonably active early adopter, at some point my online life started to feel like a handful of scraps, spread on the wind. Here’s a summary of where you can find me in the net:

  • There’s this blog.
  • There’s also a photoblog, and I’m working on another one.
  • Lots of photos end up on Flickr, along with many others.
  • The polaroids from my photoblog go to Polanoid, too.
  • Ma.gnolia keeps track of my bookmarks for me.
  • There are reminders on Backpack.
  • I read feeds on netvibes.
  • Daily news at newsvine.
  • I’ve written some reviews at Qype.
  • Of course there’s googlemail as well.
  • last.fm lets me spew my music-ego out to the whole world (over there on the left).
  • And OpenBC for networking and keeping track of contacts.

There are probably a few I’ve forgotten, but that’s a pretty good summary of where I’m at in the web. I’m not the most agressive early adopter in the world, so there are surely a few folks out there who could double my list.

What’s the Problem?

Having so many different activities, many of which are rather important to me, in so many different “places” leaves me feeling a little fragmented. The problem revolves primarily around the word “places”. When I open Photoshop, Apple Mail or any other app on my laptop, I am “here”, at home, on my own machine. When I go to Backpack or Flickr or OpenBC, suddenly I’m “there”, somewhere out on the net. Judging by the way I’ve heard many people speaking about web sites, it seems I’m not the only one that experiences the web as “out there”, and each site as a different “place”. It’s only a feeling, but it’s a feeling that makes me feel spread thin.

Every time I hear about a new and interesting web app, my first thought is “cool, I’ll try that out!” But once I get to the registration page, I always end up with a feeling of “uhhhh, another login to remember, another interface to learn, another newsletter, another bookmarklet, and yet another place to visit and keep track of.” Some sites even encourage users to create their own secondary content, e.g. blogs on newsvine, which allow each user to write about the news that interests them. Nice idea, but why would I want to write on newsvine when I already write on my own blog(s)?

It’s like making new friends, but each new friend lives outside the city, doesn’t know any of your other friends, gives you complicated directions how to get to his place, and has different rituals of friendship you need to remember if you want to get along with him.

Consumption = A+, Production = D-

However you define that nebulus term “Web 2.0”, you’d have to agree it has in some way to do with that buzzword “user generated content”. From a consumer’s point of view, the whole thing’s actually pretty streamlined. If I’m only interested in sucking up content from blogs, Flickr, wherever, I’ve got a good friend in RSS. Any site worthy of the “Web 2.0” label now has at least one RSS feed, but most have a feed for almost every page, and every type of content (e.g. one blog feed for articles, another or comments, perhaps another for photos, etc.). If it’s got a feed, I can suck it into my own custom-built “here” with the help of sites such as Bloglines, Netvibes, Google Personalised Homepage on the web, and also numerous feed reader apps on the desktop.

Looks good for the consumers in the web, but production is another matter. If I’m writing, making photos and videos, whatever, and I want other people to see what I’ve done, I quickly need bookmarks for a handful of sites just to distribute my work. In other words, I spend all day driving around town, doing the secret handshakes, and passing out pamphlets.

And the Solution?

To be honest, I can’t imagine a solution that would realistically work. My dream, as unrealistic as it may seem, would be a site, or even better an app, “here” on my machine, which would allow me to post anything to anywhere. For now let’s call it “Home”. With Home I could write in my blog, post images to Flickr, makes lists at Backpack, etc., all through one integrated, consistent interface. And all of my content could be repurposed at the click of a button, e.g. a photo I just posted to Flickr could be re-routed to also appear on my photoblog, or an article from this blog could be sent to the comments on someone else’s blog. The best part of it would be a feeling that I’m not eveywhere anymore, I’m simply “here” – my content is here, all my stuff is here, I stay here and send it all out there. But when I make my content, I make it all here.

How could this work? Well there are a number of little add-on tools which make it partially possible: Flickr has a number of uploading tools which allow you to send your photos from “here” to “there”, there’s a large variety of blog posting apps which run locally but post to your blog “there”, and bookmark sites like Ma.gnolia and del.icio.us have boookmarklets which allow you to add your bookmarks from anywhere (not really “here”) to “there”. If there was one app which would run on my machine and do all of that for me, that’d be a good start.

The biggest problem would be that many of the sites hosting your content can’t afford for you to circumvent them. They need you to see, and more importantly, click their Google, Amazon, iTunes and other ads. Although I often wonder how the hell most of them are earning money, if they have any income at all it’s got to be from ads. And if I ever get “Home”, my one app for content production and distribution, my desire to visit their sites quickly approaches zero, which is unlikely to pelase the content hosters. And who couldn’t understand that? If I was making my living by hosting user generated content as a pretext for showing those same users advertising, but those same users stopped visiting bevcause they were making such good use of my API, I’d be pretty tempted to turn said API off. Of course paid services like Flickr Pro and Backpack shouldn’t really care about you using Home.

In the end it’s probably just a dream, but technically Home should be achievable, shouldn’t it? One interface which would bundle the available API functionality of various sites. Sounds simple when put like that, doesn’t it?