As my mind was drifting around the ether the other day, I was pondering on the meaning of creating online. As a web designer of many years now I can create things relatively easily, as I know how the building blocks of the web work and have powerful tools to help me construct (currently using Adobe CS5 Web Premium), but the average user isn’t so lucky. They often have very little knowledge of how to create, and are reliant on third parties to provide some means to create to do it. My mind wandered back to my childhood, and I started to think about how I used to create when I was younger. I realised that an awful lot of the creation I did was with Lego.
Lego is funny stuff really, so simple but so powerful at the same time, and as I thought more about its connection with the present and with ICT in general I started to think about the very root of what it is that makes Lego so powerful. The fact that just about any block of any type can plug in to another block of the same or different type, and, critically, vice versa. At it’s core every Lego block has both plugs and sockets, the plugs allowing it to feed into another block and the sockets allowing it to accept plugs from another block. Simple, but brilliant. So how does this compare with the web?
What I realised was that at the moment the web is a world of plugs, and very few sockets. The excitement about the semantic web is growing, about the possibilities of Linked Data, but what seems to be happening is that everyone is creating plug after plug, encoding their own data into semantic forms and saying “There you go, there’s my data”, but practically no one is offering any sockets to plug into. People are so busy trying to spread the word of what they do (and I’m as guilty as the next person in that respect) that there is very little in the way of ‘socket’ software.
That said it is a growing area. Sockets are emerging, often in form of widgets in familiar controlled spaces like Facebook, but in the main plugging someone else’s data into your web space is usually a complex business that requires complex knowledge. A lot of the more interesting plugs, such as YouTube and Google Maps, are only available as HTML embeds which can be pretty frightening to the casual web editor. Google are betting that the future is much more plug/socket friendly, and are investing heavily in an apps framework that works on the web, but that will take some years to come to fruition, and may not even be the way the web eventually goes. Though with Google’s experience, it’s hard to see them making a catastrophic blunder when it comes to the future of the web. They may not succeed completely at everything they do, but it’s very hard to find something they’ve done that you could confidently call a failure.
So how do we go about increasing the number of user friendly sockets we have at Exeter?
Well some of what we already have is socket enabled – the blogging service for example is based on WordPress, which is a mature product that already has much support for sockets. If you have a Twitter feed, for example, there’s a socket ready and waiting to take it. Other systems that we use to control content, i.e. content management systems like Terminal 4, may not be quite so socket friendly, but by working to improve that we’ll be able to enrich the average users ability to embed both internal and external data into their web content. RSS feeds, for example, are an excellent way of plugging real time data from one web space to another, but as feeds in themselves they only exist as a plug. You need a reader, aka a socket, in order to plug them in to. There are web tools out there, such as RRS Replay (a Dreamnweaver plugin, as it happens!), which can create a simple socket interface to receive a feed – just the sort of thing T4 could perhaps do with adding.
But perhaps the biggest thing we can do is raise awareness of the capability for plug and socket design, and it’s value. The web has evolved from traditional paper publishing of course, where sockets make no sense, so this new functionality still seems to elude most people. It’s web 2.0 at it’s best, but it’s not what most people expect – so I guess we need to spread the word!