The web needs an open and universal follow button

When I started meshedsociety.com about two month ago, I stumbled upon a little issue: I wanted to tell my friends and online contacts about the site, and my intention was to make it as easy as possible for them to follow – you know, like you would do on Twitter, Medium, Facebook (with a “like”) or YouTube.

Well, unfortunately for those who host their own sites, this kind of fancy and convenient system with built-in traffic generator does not exist. Instead one has to rely on a mix of different isolated subscription solutions, all of which have some serious flaws.

RSS is perfect for those who use an RSS reader, but outside of tech circles, who does? And even within the industry the number of people rejecting the format is growing. Asking users to follow on Twitter or to “like” on Facebook works to some extent. But at Facebook the chance to have content actually showing up in users’ newsfeeds is small considering the tough competition and Facebook’s algorithm-based selection. Twitter is not ideal either if you want to make sure that your work is being seen. Furthermore, most Twitter users are too lazy or busy to click on links that appear in their timeline.

An email newsletter or a link distribution through WhatsApp are additional means to turn a random user into a regular follower, but both instruments come with their very own weaknesses. In fact I see a WhatsApp subscription feature currently as nothing more than a PR technique to make some people tweet about that your site is cutting-edge.

The universal follow button that everybody could embed

The sad reality is that today’s most obvious, most intuitive and most widespread solution to “subscribe” – the follow button – is not available for self-hosted websites. At least not in the universal, cross-platform style that would be needed to turn such a feature into a real success with mass-market user appeal.

But think about how cool this would be: Whenever you are stumbling upon a site whose future content you do not want to loose out of sight – no matter if it is a major news site or just an irregularly updated blog – you could press a centrally located “follow” button. Such a system should ideally be run by a nonprofit organization such as Mozilla or the Wikimedia Foundation. The company would develop the technological platform including the required user identity system, the follow button plugins as well as an open API. Third party developers and startups could use this API to create reading interfaces and apps – including the option to build business models on top of these services. Every time a user follows a site, this information would be added to the personal subscription database and made available through third party apps. Site owners would be able to choose in what way their content should be delivered over the API, e.g. whether just with short teasers or with full text, whether with ads or without, and whether free or paid for. Like RSS, but state of the art.

Resisting the temptation of major social platforms

Now why would publishers and content creators even want to support such a system? Apart from the practical issues for smaller sites described in the beginning, the main incentive is to create independency from today’s major social platforms. Among publishers and media companies there is increased fear that eventually, Facebook and other giants (or newcomers such as Snapchat) will take over not only the distribution of news content and journalist work, but will end up hosting it. As Mat Yurow from the New York Times put it some weeks ago: “This is the publishing industry’s iTunes moment ”. He is referring to the record label’s initial agreement to have their music distributed over iTunes at Apple’s rather unfavorable terms. Once this had gotten the default of digital music distribution, there was no way back.

If the online news industry wants to fight the leading social platforms with their fancy and convenient content delivery mechanisms, it has to offer readers something similar. The system I am proposing would fulfil that requirement, if implemented in a smart way.

They might not like that idea, but the top publishing companies are sitting in the same boat as everybody else who creates content on the web: User expectations are changing, user loyalty to specific brands is decreasing, and the fragmentation and isolation of the eco system prevents the full satisfaction of users’ demands for seamless, integrated and convenient access to media content.

With that in mind, forming and funding the organization that would develop such an open content distribution API should not be an issue. There is a common goal that unifies millions of different actors worldwide: Maintaining a certain level of independence and autonomy in a web that increasingly centers around a couple of powerful players. Players who do only care about user attention and eyeballs, not about quality content itself.

My point is: If all of today’s actors that publish content keep doing their own thing, hoping that they will belong to the selected survivors in a centralized, fully commercialized platform web, probably none of them will survive. Better to join forces before it is too late!

Update: It is not as sophisticated as the solution I describe, but thanks to SubToMe every site owner and publisher can add a follow button based on RSS to their site. I just added one to the right sidebar for testing purposes.

6 comments

  1. @martinweigert ok. Now I read the hole piece. Still sounds like RSS to me.

    This central hub you speak of: where would I read the content then? That would be something like an rss reader today.

    Do you know about the pod love project and their subscribe button?

    Maybe that’s what you want for website text content.

    • I did not know the pod love project and their subscribe button.

      But yes, for people who use RSS, the usability would be quite similar. But since what I describe is a whole technology platform, not just a XML format, the possibilities what to do with the subscribed content would be much broader (as I wrote, possibly even including a payment solution to charge for content that people subscribe to).

  2. Why not build some more user-friendly system on top of the existing RSS ecosystem instead of reinventing the wheel?! Are you aware of SubToMe? Look at https://www.subtome.com/, they are trying to build a button which allows the user to choose their preferred reader and always follow there when they see a button on a site.

    • I was not aware of it until the t3n editor added the link to Subtome to the German version of this article that I wrote. The idea is nice but it was launched 2 years ago. From my humble experience, projects like this that have not caught on 2 years after launch have zero chance to succeed. Of course it is possible that Subtome has already gotten quite huge and I am just completely misinformed and ignorant. But if that is not the case then I do not see any chance for this project to succeed.

      In order to succeed with what I propose, I believe a real big, loud bang is needed. Something that has heavy PR and many multiplicators behind. It is not enough to launch a little side project (like Superfeedr seems to have done here) and then to hope it will catch on.

      About RSS: I am a big big fan. But I think it is better to start something completely new. There is too much negative baggage attached to RSS by now.

      Edit: The overall idea of SubToMe is pretty nice, and very sipmle. I really like it. A shame it has not gotten big yet. I might try to add the WordPress plugin to meshedsociety.

      Edit 2: I have placed it in the right side bar. The button looks a bit unstylish though.

  3. This is a really good idea. I would love a universal follow button, and I can see Wikimedia not fucking it up catastrophically. Currently my solution is to either bookmark the website, as I do with The Billfold, or subscribe via email, which is my preference. Also, I had no idea that Meshed Society was so young! I really love this website so far and I hope that you keep it up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *