Small Websites, Loosely Joined

Saturday night I saw a software demo that, I think, offers an easy way to assemble content, created by disassociated individuals, into a whole greater than the sum of the parts. The software is called Outline Processor Markup Language or OPML, and the demo was presented by computer guru and gadfly Dave Winer. Among the 100 or so folks who saw the demo at the Hillside Club in Berkeley were Microsoft chief technology officer Ray Ozzie and the company’s uber blogger Robert Scoble.

I said I think OPML will allow content creators to assemble pages on the fly because that’s what I gleaned from the 90 minute or so demo where Winer, mustering all his patience, tried to bridge the gap in understanding between the likes of Ozzie (who launched Lotus Notes), and reluctant technologists like cybersalon hostess Sylvia Paull, who spoke for me when she opened the session with this remark: “I’m not into computers, I’m into people. The only reason I use computers is because they help me communicate with people.”

So given the limitations of my understanding let me tell you what I think I heard. Let’s say a whole bunch of people on the Web decide to download, further develop and implement the OPML code, which is available under open source license. Assume that over time they make a wide variety of Web content available though OPML (I don’t understand the spins and feeds, but conceptually I envisage OPML as some sort of hook that allows stuff to be grabbed and reintegrated into some other Web construct).

Now let’s take it a step further and assume that you’re a Web publisher. Your passion is fresh fruit and produce and you have created a pretty good site around those topics. Now you aspire to put together a food page. But you don’t know about meat, fish, the grains, macrobiotics, and etcetera. So you visit the OPML search engine ( backed by Jim Moore, a VC with the new $100 million RSS fund) and find sites that plug the gaps in your knowledge. You grab the OPML hooks in those pages and somehow weave them into your site (does code need to be built here?) and now you have the page: All You Wanted To Know About Food But Couldn’t Have Assembled Before OPML.

Although Winer answered many question (I asked more than my share considering there were 99 other people in the room) he begged off trying to predict where OPML would go. “I’m out of that business,” he said at one point. He seems to be trying to escape the rap that he is difficult to work with on projects like RSS, another of his brainchildren. (One incident during the demo exemplified Winer’s personality and makeover. The demo was projected on a large screen at the front of the room, but the people in back complained the type was too small to read. They badgered Winer to enlarge it. This he was initially reluctant to do because he was showing the demo on a small screen laptop and enlarging the type made it harder for him to see what he was doing. After a minute or so he relented, made the type bigger and sent a titter through the room with this quip: “Never let it be said that I’m not cooperative.”)

In any event, I think OPML is one of the tools we need to create citizen media, the movement heralded by newspaper reporter turned blogger Dan Gillmor. (Dan’s brother, tech columnist Steve Gillmor, attended Winer’s Staurday night demo and, in advance of it, has written of Microsoft’s interest in OPML.) The title of this post is an homage Small Pieces Loosely Joined, the book that suggests the revolution implicit in the Web is the ability of formerly disconnected, individually weak units to coalesce into a more powerful wholes.

Winer himself invoked the R-word at Saturday night’s presentation in Berkeley which, he observed, drew a larger audience than all three prior presentations in Boston, New York and Toronto, “I want it to start revolutions,” Winer said at one point. “It sounds kind of grandiose but that’s what I want it to do.”

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media