Owning Your Words: Personal Clouds Build Professional Reputations

When the blogosphere booted up at the turn of the century, I'd already been publishing online for years. So personal publishing wasn't a revelation to me, though I knew it would be for many who hadn't experienced it yet. But as bloggers came online, and as blogs began to intertwingle, the ensuing network effects did surprise and delight me. I was experiencing for the first time, with other bloggers, the sort of decentralized collaboration that Tim Berners-Lee had imagined from the start. Two key principles made it work: the publish-and-subscribe communication pattern, and ownership of data.

I knew how pub/sub could knit together software systems made of "loosely-coupled" parts. Now I saw that it would also enable people to interact with those systems, and with one another, in the same loosely-coupled way.

When Twitter came along years later there was much fanfare about a supposedly newfangled pattern called asymmetric follow. But there was nothing new about it. Twitter implemented the same pub/sub mechanism we'd known since the dawn of the blogosphere. I could subscribe to your blog, and/or you could subscribe to mine. Same with Twitter feeds, but now the data packets were smaller and faster so the activation threshold was lower. It was that, not the advent of a fundamentally new communication pattern, that triggered the phase change.

My first blogging platform was Dave Winer's Radio UserLand. One of Dave's mantras was: "Own your words." As the blogosophere became a conversational medium, I saw what that could mean. Radio UserLand did not, at first, support comments. That turned out to be a constraint well worth embracing. When conversation emerged, as it inevitably will in any system of communication, it was a cross-blog affair. I'd quote something from your blog on mine, and discuss it. You'd notice, and perhaps write something on your blog referring back to mine.

This cross-blog conversational mode had an interesting property: you owned your words. Everything you wrote went into your own online space, was bound to your identity, became part of your permanent record. As a result, discourse tended to be more civil than what often transpired in Usenet newsgroups or web forums. In those kinds of online spaces, your sense of identity is attenuated. You may or may not be pseudonymous, but either way the things you say don't stick to you in the same way they do if you say them in your own permanent online space.

The problem with cross-blog conversation was that it was too loosely coupled. So now blogs do have forum-style comments which concentrate discussion but recreate the original problems: attenuation of identity, loss of ownership of data.

Could we have the best of both worlds? Here's how it might work. I want to participate in a comment thread on your blog. So I write my comment, post it to my personal cloud, capture its URL, and post the URL to your comment thread. Your blog's comment system syndicates the text of my comment into the thread, identifying my personal cloud as the source.

Admittedly there would be challenges. How will your system decide whether to trust mine? What if my personal cloud doesn't respond when the comment system invokes my URL? How can the comment system instantly gather comments from many sources? How will it know when I've made an edit that it should transclude? But we have technologies -- OAuth, caching, notification -- to meet these challenges.

There are also huge opportunities. Consider, for example, the as yet unconsummated marriage between blogs and scientific discourse. There are plenty of science blogs, including ones written by working scientists. But few scientist-bloggers can consider writing on their own blogs, or participating in blog discourse, to be the sorts of professional activities that count for reputation, advancement, and tenure. Which is tragic because the smaller/faster packets of data that flow in blog discourse ought to powerfully augment the more stately flow of ideas through the network of peer-reviewed journals.

One notable exception to the rule is Tim Gowers, a mathematician whose stature (he's a Fields medalist) confers a level of autonomy that's rare in the academy. Gowers suspected it might be possible to use the blog medium to harness the collective intelligence of a large group of mathematicians, and use that group mind to solve hard problems. Thus was born the Polymath project, chronicled by Michael Nielsen on his blog and in his important new book, Reinventing Discovery. Thanks in part to a little-known feature of WordPress -- its composition and rendering engines support LaTeX, the popular mathematical notation -- Gowers' intuition proved correct. Some hard problems did yield to intense and equation-rich discussion in comment threads on the Polymath blog.

In theory the contributions made by each participating mathematician are part of that person's personal cloud and permanent record. In practice, because we don't really own the words we post as comments to other people's blogs, they're not. But imagine if things did work that way. Each contribution would exist as a web resource named by an URL bound to the identity of the contributor. References to each contribution, whether from within the comment thread, from elsewhere on the web, or even from a journal not openly available on the web, would point to its canonical URL. Citation is the lifeblood of academic reputation. When citations are links to personal clouds, the influence of those clouds can be discovered and measured.

The web, like many technologies, evolves cyclically. We forget that Amaya, the first web browser, was a tool for writing as well as reading. When blogs introduced the notion of a "two-way web" it seemed new but wasn't. The seed was there all along. Likewise when we can own all our words, while engaging in a pub/sub discourse that flows among our personal clouds and others, it'll seem new but won't be. The blogosphere planted important seeds, some of which haven't yet grown and fruited. They will.