guest post by Christopher Lee
In my last post, I outlined four aspects of walled gardens that make them very resistant to escape:
• walled gardens make individual choice irrelevant, by transferring control to the owner, and tying your one remaining option (to leave the container) to being locked out of your professional ecosystem;
• all competition is walled garden;
• walled garden competition is winner-take-all;
• even if the “good guys” win (build the biggest walled garden), they become “bad guys” (masters of the walled garden, whose interests become diametrically opposed to that of the people stuck in their walled garden).
To state the obvious: even if someone launched a new site with the perfect interface and features for an alternative system of peer review, it would probably starve to death both for lack of users and lack of impact. Even for the rare user who found the site and switched all his activity to it, he would have little or no impact because almost no one would see his reviews or papers. Indeed, even if the Open Science community launched dozens of sites exploring various useful new approaches for scientific communication, that might make Open Science’s prospects worse rather than better. Since each of these sites would in effect be a little walled garden (for reasons I outlined last time), their number and diversity would mainly serve to fragment the community (i.e. the membership and activity on each such site might be ten times less than it would have been if there were only a few such sites). When your strengths (diversity; lots of new ideas) act as weaknesses, you need a new strategy.
SelectedPapers.net is an attempt to an offer such a new strategy. It represents only about two weeks of development work by one person (me), and has only been up for about a month, so it can hardly be considered the last word in the manifold possibilities of this new strategy. However, this bare bones prototype demonstrates how we can solve the four ‘walled garden dilemmas':
• Enable walled-garden users to ‘levitate’—be ‘in’ the walled garden but ‘above’ it at the same time. There’s nothing mystical about this. Think about it: that’s what search engines do all the time—a search engine pulls material out of all the worlds’ walled gardens, and gives it a new life by unifying it based on what it’s about. All selectedpapers.net does is act as a search engine that indexes content by what paper and what topics it’s about, and who wrote it.
This enables isolated posts by different people to come together in a unified conversation about a specific paper (or topic), independent of what walled gardens they came from—while simultaneously carrying on their full, normal life in their original walled garden.
Concretely, rather than telling Google+ users (for example) they should stop posting on Google+ and post only on selectedpapers.net instead (which would make their initial audience plunge to near zero), we tell them to add a few tags to their Google+ post so selectedpapers.net can easily index it. They retain their full Google+ audience, but they acquire a whole new set of potential interactions and audience (trivial example: if they post on a given paper, selectedpapers.net will display their post next to other people’s posts on the same paper, resulting in all sorts of possible crosstalk).
Some people have expressed concern that selectedpapers.net indexes Google+, rightly pointing out that Google+ is yet another walled garden. Doesn’t that undercut our strategy to escape from walled gardens? No. Our strategy is not to try to find a container that is not a walled garden; our strategy is to ‘levitate’ content from walled gardens. Google+ may be a walled garden in some respects, but it allows us to index users’ content, which is all we need.
It should be equally obvious that selectedpapers.net should not limit itself to Google+. Indeed, why should a search engine restrict itself to anything less than the whole world? Of course, there’s a spectrum of different levels of technical challenges for doing this. And this tends to produce an 80-20 rule, where 80% of the value can be attained by only 20% of the work. Social networks like Google+, Twitter etc. provide a large portion of the value (potential users), for very little effort—they provide open APIs that let us search their indexes, very easily. Blogs represent another valuable category for indexing.
More to the point, far more important than technology is building a culture where users expect their content to ‘fly’ unrestricted by walled-garden boundaries, and adopt shared practices that make that happen easily and naturally. Tagging is a simple example of that. By putting the key metadata (paper ID, topic ID) into the user’s public content, in a simple, standard way (as opposed to hidden in the walled garden’s proprietary database), tagging makes it easy for anyone and everyone to index it. And the more users get accustomed to the freedom and benefits this provides, the less willing they’ll be to accept walled gardens’ trying to take ownership (ie. control) of the users’ own content.
• Don’t compete; cooperate: if we admit that it will be extremely difficult for a small new site (like selectedpapers.net) to compete with the big walled gardens that surround it, you might rightly ask, what options are left? Obviously, not to compete. But concretely, what would that mean?
☆ enable users in a walled garden to liberate their own content by tagging and indexing it;
☆ add value for those users (e.g. for mathematicians, give them LaTeX equation support);
☆ use the walled garden’s public channel as your network transport—i.e. build your community within and through the walled garden’s community.
This strategy treats the walled garden not as a competitor (to kill or be killed by) but instead as a partner (that provides value to you, and that you in turn add value to). Morever, since this cooperation is designed to be open and universal rather than an exclusive partnership (concretely, anyone could index selectedpapers.net posts, because they are public), we can best describe this as public data federation.
Any number of sites could cooperate in this way, simply by:
☆ sharing a common culture of standard tagging conventions;
☆ treating public data (i.e. viewable by anybody on the web) as public (i.e. indexable by anybody);
☆ drawing on the shared index of global content (i.e. when the index has content that’s relevant to your site’s users, let them see and interact with it).
To anyone used to the traditional challenges of software interoperability, this might seem like a tall order—it might take years of software development to build such a data federation. But consider: by using Google+’s open API, selectedpapers.net has de facto established such a data federation with Google+, one of the biggest players in the business. Following the checklist:
☆ selectedpapers.net offers a very simple tagging standard, and more and more Google+ users are trying it;
☆ Google+ provides the API that enables public posts to be searched and indexed. Selectedpapers.net in turn assures that posts made on selectedpapers.net are visible to Google+ by simply posting them on Google+;
☆ Selectedpapers.net users can see posts from (and have discussions with) Google+ users who have never logged into (or even heard of) selectedpapers.net, and vice versa.
Now consider: what if someone set up their own site based on the open source selectedpapers.net code (or even wrote their own implementation of our protocol from scratch). What would they need to do to ensure 100% interoperability (i.e. our three federation requirements above) with selectedpapers.net? Nothing. That federation interoperability is built into the protocol design itself. And since this is federation, that also means they’d have 100% interoperation with Google+ as well. We can easily do so also with Twitter, WordPress, and other public networks.
There are lots of relevant websites in this space. Which of them can we actually federate with in this way? This divides into two classes: those that have open APIs vs. those that don’t. If a walled garden has an API, you can typically federate with it simply by writing some code to use their API, and encouraging its users to start tagging. Everybody wins: the users gain new capabilities for free, and you’ve added value to that walled garden’s platform. For sites that lack such an API (typically smaller sites), you need more active cooperation to establish a data exchange protocol. For example, we are just starting discussions with arXiv and MathOverflow about such ‘federation’ data exchange.
To my mind, the most crucial aspect of this is sincerity: we truly wish to cooperate with (add value to) all these walled garden sites, not to compete with them (harm them). This isn’t some insidious commie plot to infiltrate and somehow destroy them. The bottom line is that websites will only join a federation if it benefits them, by making their site more useful and more attractive to users. Re-connecting with the rest of the world (in other walled gardens) accomplishes that in a very fundamental way. The only scenario I see where this would not seem advantageous, would be for a site that truly believes that it is going to achieve market dominance across this whole space (‘one walled garden to rule them all’). Looking over the landscape of players (big players like Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, vs. little players focused on this space like Mendeley, ResearchGate, etc.), I don’t think any of the latter can claim this is a realistic plan—especially when you consider that any success in that direction will just make all other players federate together in self-defense.
• Level the playing field: these considerations lead naturally to our third concern about walled gardens: walled garden competition strongly penalizes new, small players, and makes bigger players assume a winner-takes-all outcome. Concretely, selectedpapers.net (or any other new site) is puny compared with, say, Mendeley. However, the federation strategy allows us to turn that on its head. Mendeley is puny compared with Google+, and selectedpapers.net operates in de facto federation with Google+. How likely is it that Mendeley is going to crush Google+ as a social network where people discuss science? If a selectedpapers.net user could only post to other selectedpapers.net members (a small audience), then Mendeley wins by default. But that’s not how it works: a selectedpapers.net user has all of Google+ as his potential audience. In a federation strategy, the question isn’t how big you are, but rather how big your federation is. And in this day of open APIs, it is really easy to extend that de facto federation across a big fraction of the world’s social networks. And that is level playing field.
• Provide no point of control: our last concern about walled gardens was that they inevitably create a divergence of interests for the winning garden’s owner vs. the users trapped inside. Hence the best of intentions (great ideas for building a wonderful community) can truly become the road to hell—an even better walled garden. After all, that’s how the current walled garden system evolved (from the reasonable and beneficial idea of establishing journals). If any one site ‘wins’, our troubles will just start all over again. Is there any alternative?
Yes: don’t let any one site win; only build a successful federation. Since user data can flow freely throughout the federation, users can move freely within the federation, without losing their content, accumulated contacts and reputation, in short, their professional ecosystem. If a successful site starts making policies that are detrimental to users, they can easily vote with their feet. The data federation re-establishes the basis for a free market, namely unconstrained individual freedom of choice.
The key is that there is no central point of control. No one ‘owns’ (i.e. controls) the data. It will be stored in many places. No one can decide to start denying it to someone else. Anyone can access the public data under the rules of the federation. Even if multiple major players conspired together, anyone else could set up an alternative site and appeal to users: vote with your feet! As we know from history, the problem with senates and other central control mechanisms is that given enough time and resources, they can be corrupted and captured by both elites and dictators. Only a federation system with no central point of control has a basic defense: regardless of what happens at ‘the top’, all individuals in the system have freedom of choice between many alternatives, and anybody can start a new alternative at any time. Indeed, the key red flag in any such system is when the powers-that-be start pushing all sorts of new rules that hinder people from starting new alternatives, or freely migrating to alternatives.
Note that implicit in this is an assertion that a healthy ecosystem should contain many diverse alternative sites that serve different subcommunities, united in a public data federation. I am not advocating that selectedpapers.net should become the ‘one paper index to rule them all’. Instead, I’m saying we need one successful exemplar of a federated system, that can help people see how to move their content beyond the walled garden and start ‘voting with their feet’.
So: how do we get there? In my view, we need to use selectedpapers.net to prove the viability of the federation model in two ways:
☆ we need to develop the selectedpapers.net interface to be a genuinely good way to discuss scientific papers, and subscribe to others’ recommendations. It goes without saying that the current interface needs lots of improvements, e.g. to work past some of Google+’s shortcomings. Given that the current interface took only a couple of weeks of hacking by just one developer (yours truly), this is eminently doable.
☆ we need to show that selectedpapers.net is not just a prisoner of Google+, but actually an open federation system, by adding other systems to the federation, such as Twitter and independent blogs. Again, this is straightforward.
To Be or Not To Be?
All of which brings us to the real question that will determine our fates. Are you for a public data federation, or not? In my
view, if you seriously want reform of the current walled garden
system, federation is the only path forward that is actually a path forward (instead of to just another walled garden). It is the only strategy that allows the community to retain control over its own content. That is fundamental.
And if you do want a public data federation, are you willing to
work for that outcome? If not, then I think you don’t really want it—because you can contribute very easily. Even just adding #spnetwork tags to your posts—wherever you write them—is a very valuable contribution that enormously increases the value of the federation ecosystem.
One more key question: who will join me in developing the
selectedpapers.net platform (both the software, and federation alliances)? As long as selectedpapers.net is a one-man effort, it must fail. We don’t need a big team, but it’s time to turn the project into a real team. The project has solid foundations that will enable rapid development of new federation partnerships—e.g. exciting, open APIs like REST — and of seamless, intuitive user interfaces — such as the MongoDB noSQL database, and AJAX methods. A small, collaborative team will be able to push this system forward quickly in exciting, useful ways. If you jump in now, you can be one of the very first people on the team.
I want to make one more appeal. Whatever you think about
selectedpapers.net as it exists today, forget about it.
Why? Because it’s irrelevant to the decision we need to make today: public data federation, yes or no? First, because the many flaws of the current selectedpapers.net have almost no bearing on that critical question (they mainly reflect the limitations of a version 0.1 alpha product). Second, because the whole point of federation is to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’— to enable a diverse ecology of different tools and interfaces, made viable because they work together as a federation, rather than starving to death as separate, warring, walled gardens.
Of course, to get to that diverse, federated ecosystem, we first
have to prove that one federated system can succeed—and
liberate a bunch of minds in the process, starting with our own. We have to assemble a nucleus of users who are committed to making this idea succeed by using it, and a team of developers who are driven to build it. Remember, talking about the federation ideal will not by itself accomplish anything. We have to act, now; specifically, we have to quickly build a system that lets more and more people see the direct benefits of public data federation. If and when that is clearly successful, and growing sustainably, we can consider branching out, but not before.
For better or worse, in a world of walled gardens, selectedpapers.net is the one effort (in my limited knowledge) to do exactly that. It may be ugly, and annoying, and alpha, but it offers people a new and different kind of social contract than the walled gardens. (If someone can point me to an equivalent effort to implement the same public data federation strategy, we will of course be delighted to work with them! That’s what federation means).
The question now for the development of public data federation is whether we are working together to make it happen, or on the contrary whether we are fragmenting and diffusing our effort. I believe that public data federation is the Manhattan Project of the war for Open Science. It really could change the world in a fundamental and enduring way. Right now the world may seem headed the opposite direction (higher and higher walls), but it does not have to be that way. I believe that all of the required ingredients are demonstrably available and ready to go. The only remaining requirement is that we rise as a community and do it.
I am speaking to you, as one person to another. You as an individual do not even have the figleaf of saying “Well, if I do this, what’s the point? One person can’t have any impact.” You as an individual can change this project. You as an individual can change the world around you through what you do on this project.