Owning my content?

When I talked with Marius a few days ago, he told me that he wouldn’t trust any platform to host his writing. Because he could never be sure that they didn’t change their terms one day, affecting his work.

I definitely share this desire, which to me boils down to these points:

  • What I publish must be available indefinitely under the same URL.

  • Only I can ever update or remove my publications.

  • Nobody can (legally) take advantage of my work without my permission.

So what can I do to keep control over my content?

Marius addressed the problem by self-hosting his blog, using Wordpress. That’s a totally valid solution, but for me this wouldn’t be sufficient for several reasons.

First, I’d have to put some effort into keeping the software running. I’d need to update Wordpress from time to time, as there may be security problems or display issues that need fixing. And what happens if I am away for some longer time?

Second, my blog would be kind of an island from the start. It can only be reached if people find links to it elsewhere on the internet or Google decides to rank it high on some keywords.

Third, it will be hard for readers to respond to my publication. Sure, I could activate a comment system using Wordpress, but then every new reader needs to sign up to leave a comment. They’ll hardly be able to keep track of all conversations they have on different Wordpress and non-Wordpress sites. On the other hand, a 3rd-party comment system like Disqus would feel like a foreign object on my blog with bad usability. As a side note, Disqus was sold to a marketing technology company. So I wouldn’t bet on them to faithfully respect content ownership.

Is there an alternative?

I’ve been very critical about centralised platforms in the past, but over time I also had to admit they are very elegant and efficient. They’re cheaper to develop and maintain, and usually much easier to use. Only platforms can offer a complete end-to-end user experience. I want a place where I can write, read and discuss experiences, just as as easy as I can write, read and discuss Tweets on Twitter. Once I have an account on the platform, I can keep track of all my interactions, in a single place. And so can all the other people, who choose to connect with me in one way or another.

What’s really bad about platforms isn’t that they are centralized. It’s that they often have (from my perspective) questionable values and are largely intransparent. When a lot of shareholder money is involved it makes them corruptible for interests other than their main mission.

Anyways, I don’t intend to come to a conclusion whether content platforms are ultimately good or bad. I have a more productive question:

How would a platform need to be like for Marius and I to trust it with our content?

Here’s a few key pillars, that when met and enforced would solve the content-ownership problem for me.

  • No algorithms: I need the platform to be fully transparent. It must be completely predictable why a publication shows up in a certain place.

  • User-moderation: I must be sure the platform doesn’t act as a gatekeeper. As an author I can 100% control what content shows up on my profile page. The platform won’t take anything down, unless they can document that a criminal investigation forces them to.

  • Autonomous communities: Every user can start a community around a specific topic. The initiator, together with elected moderators, control which publications get in. All communities must be listed equally (e.g. by most recent activity), the platform has no right to cherry-pick information and feature it on their homepage.

  • No ads: The platform’s business-model must be directly derived from the intrinsic value of the content. Paying for individual articles is reasonable, and so is paying to become a member of an exclusive expert community. However, no media or promotion deals are allowed, as those would be a conflict of interest with the platform’s mission “to provide an unbiased medium for knowledge exchange”.

  • Opt-out: At any time I can export all my content including publications and conversations to a web archive, so I can easily host it on my own web server, if I choose to leave the platform.

  • Contract: I’m no legal expert, but I’m sure if there’s willingness, a platform could guarantee these above pillars as some sort of long-term service level agreement.

But that’s just what I think. I’m curious about your thoughts about this topic. How do you stay in control of your content while keeping your extra efforts manageable? You can contact me using the “Message” button below, and I will incorporate your feedback into this text.

Published by Michael Aufreiter on Jun 28, 2022
Revised on Jan 18, 2023
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