On Federation

In my post on Open ID I said that I'd continue that train of thought with a post about federation, so here we are. This post starts, however, a bit before that one ends, somewhere a little different. Stick with me though:

The greatest thing about Unix-like operating systems (at least conceptually, to me) is the concept of the pipe. This isn't new of course, but the pipe is the tool by which the output of the small widget like unix programs can be "piped" into another application. The pipe works on anything in a plain text format (basically) and takes what would otherwise be a really fragmented computing enviroment and turns it into something where the data, the text, the product of your computing output, is the central focus of your computing activities. As it should be.

Fast forward 30 years, and we have the internet. Where data doesn't flow through pipes (unless you're Ted Stevens), but mostly stays in whatever silo it gets entered in. This isn't strictly true, there are ways to import and export data when they're stored in a database somewhere in the cloud. but on the whole once you commit to storing your data in one place/way the relative price [1] of moving from one system to another is quite high.

The concept of federation solves the problem of data interchange for the internet in the same way that the pipe solved a very similar problem for UNIX. Or at least it tries to. Unsurprisingly the problem for UNIX developers was a conceptual and engineering problem, for the developers and participants in the internet the problem is one of community norms, but the need for interoperability and openly accessible data is the same.

In UNIX the solution to this problem grew out of an understanding that software worked best when it only did one thing, and that it was easier to develop/use/maintain a lot of different pieces of distinct software well than it was to write single pieces of software that did a lot of different things well.

This is unequivocally true. And I think it's also true of the Internet. It's easier to maintain and develop smaller websites with less traffic and less data and a smaller staff, and a smaller community, than it is to maintain and cope with huge websites with massive amounts of traffic. The problem is that websites don't have pipes--really--and if they do, it has to be hacked (in sense of computing by trial and error, rather than intrusion) by specialists. And to be fair, RSS and some other XML formats are becoming de facto standards which allow some limited piping, and OpenID is a good first step towards interoperability, but there is a great deal of work left to be done.

It seems to me, that data doesn't flow on the internet because success of a website, seems to be measured in a very strictly quantitative basis. The more users, the more visits, the more hits you have, theoretically the more successful you are; and if this is the case then website producers and web-software developers would seem to have a vested interest in keeping users using a site, even if this potentially holding users' data hostage. But what if websites didn't need to be huge? What if rather than marketing a website in terms of number of features and size, websites said "give us your time and money, and we'll give you full access to your data, the ability to connect your data to the data on other similar sites, and allow you to participate in our very specific community?" It would be a different world, indeed.

The thing is that, all of these more-focused websites probably would be a lot smaller than most of the big websites today. I'm fine with that, but it means rethinking the economics and business model for the web. The question isn't "can we figure out a way to get push-based, interoperable technology running on a large scale, but rather, is there a way for the vast majority of websites to be run by (and support the salary of) very small teams of, 5-10 (+/-) people? Not just "until it gets bigger, or bought by google/yahoo" but, forever?

I look forward to playing with numbers and theorizing systems with people in the comments, but most of all I'm interested in what you all think.

[1]Not necessarily in terms of monetary cost, but in terms of time, energy, and programing knowhow.
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