Shake It Up, Baby! Web Services and the User-centric Digital Content Remix

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Think "on demand" means pulling down last night's Letterman monologue at your leisure, or "RSS-ing" the theater reviews into MyYahoo!? Think again. Squads of military personnel walk into a Baghdad crossroads. From their cell phones, PDAs, or laptops, they plug into fresh reports on this location from the last passing squad, enemy sightings, or even instructions for clearing their weapons of sand—live, contextually relevant, constantly updated data pouring into any device from a simple XML "Warrior Knowledge" base. Now that's on-demand.

In markedly less bullet-strewn university classrooms, O'Reilly Media's Safari U lets instructors craft online syllabi without requiring students to buy a single book. "Educators have access to a whole library, [and] can mix and match content and create their own custom print books" to form a vast array of book chapters and articles, according to C.J. Rayhill, CTO. Students subscribe to the syllabus, which links only to the information they need, without weighty, expensive tomes of chapters they never use. Instructors and students can even annotate the virtual syllabus with notes and commentary. Plug and play? This is plug, play, and remix.

Welcome to an on-demand nation, an emerging Web where users don't just demand content, they also define its value in unanticipated ways. "Think about your Web site as an application," says Kelly Abbot, technology director of Red Door Interactive, which manages publishers' "presence" on the Web. "Develop Web Services," he advises. Unleash that data from traditional site experiences. Let live information flow among partners, get pulled, parsed, re-mixed, and pushed to a range of devices and even into other applications.

Get ready to fragment yourselves, says Jupiter Media analyst Barry Parr. "Publishers need to look at their content at the story level and not at the site level. Each story needs to stand on its own and as a profit center if you want to go far." The perils are great; publishers lose absolute control of their data, maybe even the business models that supported it. But from the simplest of Web Services, RSS, to advanced database publishing and even APIs that let users drill into your content repository, the emerging service orientation model argues that users provide not only the demand for content but also provide its value.

RSS: A Real Simple Start
Many publishers still ignore the most basic Web Service of all, but "if you are not aggressively creating RSS feeds, you will be missing the audience that is consuming content," warns Chris Redlitz, president of aggregator Feedster. Beyond capturing millions of subscribers via readers and MyYahoo!, RSS represents a critical entry point to a plug-and-play future. RSS forces publishers to convert content to the basic open source language of most Web Services, XML, and moves publishers away from site-centricity to service orientation, thinking about content as bits and pieces to be dispersed elsewhere in malleable formats. "It is the atomized nature of content," says Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media. "RSS makes you break the content down to abstract summaries and bodies. We have to increasingly think about how to make it possible to get the gist in some short form." 

Beyond personalized Web pages and blog feeds, RSS will likely become a polished syndication system. This spring, AOL will literally pull highly customized aggregations of branded media from Feedster's RSS databases. "You can have a financial news feed from select sources and selected keywords like ‘commodities' or ‘large cap,'" says Redlitz. "The whole idea is to create a custom interface using APIs. AOL has a control panel to slice and dice our content as they want." Once the interface is more refined, consumers, too, will get this same ability to parse and remix your news stories into a fully personalized newspaper that is divorced not only from your site but from your branded feed. "The open source nature of everything allows you to access, layer, build, and morph content," he says. "I don't see any reason it won't happen sooner than later." 

More importantly, fragmentation adds, rather than diminishes, value, Parr reminds publishers worried about unbridled hyper-distribution. "People who are linking and tagging will give your content better indexing than many editors, and the value of that metadata is impossible to calculate." Because of the way search and RSS engines determine results rankings, via page links and accumulated tags, a finance story related to a tech company finds life on a gadget blog. An obscure reference to a Sacramento author in a Maine newspaper could make the article a fixture on California city guides. Often dubbed folksonomy or the semantic Web, the concept envisions every story holding masses of metadata generated by users, indexed in ways far beyond what any single editor can imagine, and opening it up for unanticipated uses. Ultimately, the RSS, and the blogosphere that depends on it, turns the Web into a platform where content is a service that others plug into their needs. "RSS is giving us a lesson," says Parr.  

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