Press This: The Future of WordPress and the Open Web

Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Each episode features guests from around the community and discussions of the largest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording. Powered by RedCircle Doc Pop : You’re listening to Press This, a WordPress community podcast on WMR. Each week, we spotlight members of the WordPress community. I’m your host, Doc Pop, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine and my contributions on Torquemag.io. You can subscribe to Press This on RedCircle, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you find your favorite podcasting apps. I love Overcast. You can also download the episodes directly from WMR.fm.  Now, today’s guest is Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag, as well as an early author on OAuth, which is an open standard authorization protocol, and ActivityStreams, which is the predecessor to ActivityPub, which we talk about a lot on this show. Chris, welcome to the show. Chris Messina: Hey, thanks, man. I’m glad to be back here. Doc Pop: Man, I am super excited to have you on for many reasons. And later on, we’re going to be talking about WordPress plugins and open web formats and hashtags and things like that. Let’s kick this off. I have a little bit of a trivia for you. Twitter launched in March of 2006 and a few months later, you wrote a tweet asking if anyone was working on a Twitter to WordPress bridge, and that actually is the very first mention of WordPress on Twitter, a big round of applause for you at the time. Chris Messina: Thank you Doc Pop: And I guess that’s a way I’d like to kick this off. What is your history with WordPress? Chris Messina: Wow. I appreciate you starting there in a way, because my history with WordPress does go way back, you know, I was an early user of WordPress, but one of the things that I think is more meaningful to me was that when I first arrived in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, way back in 2004, some of the first people that I met included Matt Mullenweg. And so Matt was one of the first people that I met. I knew what he was working on. I believe he might’ve been working at CNET at the time. And he and I and several other early web folks would get together and just talk about the future, talk about building the open web platform, talk about building social applications. And it was through those connections that we organized something called Bar Camp, which of course, if you’ve been to a WordCamp, you have been to one of the descendants of that. And so Bar Camp first came out in 2005 as an event that was organized and put on by the participants, by the people who showed up, and it sort of spawned a global movement that kind of gave rise to in-person interactions with people who you otherwise might’ve only known through the internet. I guess my early experience and exposure to WordPress was that it was this amazing and relatively accessible platform for, of course, publishing whatever you wanted to on the internet without any gatekeepers or without having to get permission from anyone. And of course it was extensible through plugins and it was also open source. So it had a number of these elements that made for, I guess, a generative type of software that allowed newcomers to expand it into, you know, what it ultimately has become today. Doc Pop: Back then, 2004 to 2007 in particular, it felt like the web was very unsiloed or becoming unsiloed. It felt like it kind of went from being one place. You went to spreading out to a whole bunch of sites that you could visit, and then new social networks were popping up and everything felt really kind of distributed. And WordPress was part of that. Twitter obviously was part of that Web 2.0. And then it felt like those silos kind of appeared again. And it felt like all of a sudden, we were being funneled back into the same kind of four platforms, and it feels like that’s changing again. Are we going back to like a decentralized web? Is WordPress maybe going to be part of that web? Or is it maybe going to be a whole different way the web works? Chris Messina: You know, there’s so much history that I could share, but I don’t want to bore you or the listeners. I think the way that I would look at it is there was definitely a period of exploration, experimentation, try new things. There was an assumption that building software that could be social and that had the presence of people and not only that, but people with faces was this kind of crazy innovation from a behavioral and societal perspective, you know, prior to, 2006 and seven, the internet was still something that was kind of awkward and hard to use. People were afraid. I was afraid to put my real name out there. I mean, it took me years. I mean, I started out on the internet as Factory Joe, and that was my WordPress blog because I wanted to have a separation between my internet identity and my real world identity. And over time, there were moments where that internet identity became more well known than my real name and my real self. And that I think was the moment where it started to be clear that the internet and the web was going to be something that was going to become commonplace, as opposed to something that was somewhat esoteric or, you know, only for nerds. And so I think as a result of the popularization of these tools and technologies, a need to make these things more easy to use and especially easier for people to find their friends and connect with their friends. And then there was a whole layer of privacy and privacy expectations that was harder to support in a decentralized fashion, because while decentralization is incredibly important for freedom and for exploration and experimentation and for pluralities of you know, ideas of how software can work and behave, you also need interoperability so that people on two different platforms can actually connect and focus on, you know, just being there and commenting on each other’s stuff or seeing each other’s stuff. So, that’s one of the real challenges of decentralized innovation. And I guess what I would say is that we’ve kind of gone through a period where there was a bunch of internet malls that were created, which was, you know, Facebook and Instagram, and platforms like that, where, yes, there was social content, but then it became commercial in nature and a lot of patterns for how people interact or want to interact or are able to interact on these platforms became well known, such that now, we can take all those product patterns and then put them into open source, decentralized products, and we can standardize them. So there’s kind of this breathing process or man, what’s the word, it’s pendulation, where you move from one end to the other, you go from decentralization and experimentation into centralization, where you figure out the patterns that work. And then you kind of get into this ossification where everything gets kind of boring and the same, and then you move back in the other direction towards decentralization. And I believe that we’re in the period of decentralization right now, because we’re getting kind of bored with, you know, the gatekeepers that have decided what is allowable, what is okay, what are the right ideas to think. And I think people want more plurality and diversity. Doc Pop: I mentioned earlier that you were an early author on OAuth and ActivityStreams, and I feel like both of those tie into what you’re talking about. In the early days of decentralization, these decentralized services needed ways to be able to authenticate and give permission to access and talk to each other while still keeping some level of privacy. And I know that the OAuth is still around and thriving. OAuth 2.0, I think, is the big version now. And you check in WordPress plugins, you’ll see a lot, everywhere, for connecting your Facebook to your WordPress or WordPress, your Facebook or whatever. Right. It’s still around and hopefully, it’ll come back or is it already here and just people don’t know that they’re already living in this kind of decentralized world already? Chris Messina: Yeah. I guess I’d say there’s sort of like different measurements of decentralization. You know, there’s obviously the completely centralized and closed to interoperability platforms. Apple tends to be, you know, more centralized where everything kind of has to work well within their ecosystem, all the way from the hardware into the software and services layer. Then you go to the web, and there’s a lot of interconnectedness between different platforms, to the degree that it’s decentralized. That has to be evaluated based on the type of interoperability and the degree to which people are on their own little hosts, let’s say, or their own servers, and that those things interact or connect without, I mean, with some degree of coordination. So, Mastodon as a network is a good example of decentralization where you can have many different instances or services or servers that connect to one another without knowing that the others existed beforehand. All you have to know is that there’s a domain name and you use DNS and you can find the other servers and you can mention people who are on other servers. That’s decentralization, to answer your question, though, I think it’s worth going back to the origin of OAuth, which was originally called OpenAuth, but it turned out, I think Yahoo was using that name, so we couldn’t use that. So we had to shorten it. And what, where all these things came from, was as Matt was working on the early versions of WordPress, I worked on the launch of Mozilla Firefox, and that was in 2004. And I kind of came to this conclusion, and I’m sure many other people were thinking about it, which is that the browser should become social. The browser should understand who your friends are, because at the time we were using a lot of social apps. There were apps like something called Upcoming, which maybe today is similar to Luma or Eventbrite. We were using Flickr, of course, which is the predecessor to Instagram. We had a number of these apps that kept asking us who our friends were every time we’d sign up and create a new account. And it was like, well, the browser is the place that we were using to access all of these different services. And so let’s put it all into the browser as the user’s agent. And so that led us to realize that we needed to have a number of new technologies to enable that to happen. And one of those technologies was OpenID. And so that would be your identity. Essentially, you needed some way to identify a person. And the thought was, let’s build that as a URL. And that could be your WordPress blog. And so I started a project called the DiSo project, D I S O, to essentially create a number of WordPress plugins that would implement formats that would allow you to decentralize a social network on the back of WordPress. Now, this was before BuddyPress and those types of products existed, but we were mostly focused on how to build protocols to make this possible. And along the way, we realized that just sharing your password on every different website that you wanted to connect to, first of all, it was insecure. And secondly, it just created this maybe false sense of safety and we needed to solve for that. And that’s where OAuth came from. OAuth was a way for you to basically generate a kind of on-the-fly password that could be used for a single application or website, and that would also rotate itself over time. And so that’s basically how that came together. And in the beginning, it was just for a bunch of small startups and founders, and then eventually we were able to get people like Google and others to adopt it. Doc Pop: That’s a good spot for us to take a short commercial break. When we come back, we’ll pick up our conversation with Chris Messina. Stay tuned for more.  Welcome back to Press This, the WordPress community podcast. I’m your host Doc Pop. Today I’m talking to Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag. We haven’t even talked about the hashtag yet, and I know it’s a short show, right? We have so much to talk about and there’s so many exciting things to talk about right now, as federation is catching on, on the web, hopefully, and as the web is maybe swinging back, as you say, in the pendulum back towards decentralization. And you mentioned DiSo before our break, that’s the distributed social networking app that you were working on, and I wanted to say that Matthias Pfefferle, the creator of the ActivityPlub plugin for WordPress, he heard you were coming on the show and he wanted me to, I guess, thank you for your work on DiSo. He says that the DiSo project was a huge inspiration for him and motivated him to work on the IndieWeb slash Fediverse plugins on WordPress, which I use and love. So, shout-out to that. It was also, I know a huge growth for the IndieWeb community. Is there anything you want to say about about the state of DiSo now? Chris Messina: You know, a lot of the things that I started or, or helped to get off the ground, because certainly these were collaborative efforts were, were the seeds or, or sort of like, you know, germs of ideas and concepts that I believed in. And worked on long enough to kind of till the soil for these things to take root. But then it turns out I’m not an excellent farmer. I kind of like move on to the next thing, maybe a little more like Johnny Appleseed, I guess. And I just hope that these things grow into whatever they’re going to become. In so much as, you know, when I saw that Automattic was going to be adopting ActivityPub and that Matthias had actually worked on this, you know, one, there was just a sense of like, you know, pride, you know, sort of like my children have grown up and they’ve turned into something real. But also like the fact that they were raised by, you know, a village and a community of people after I’d long moved on. So I think it’s on the one hand, important for me to kind of hold the torch of the origin of where these things came from and to reflect on the reasons why we wanted to do these things and what was causing us to create them in the way that we did. But then also to embrace open source as a way to allow these things to sort of lay fallow is too negative, but essentially to sort of take root, and then when the time was right to sort of spring forth from the ground and to turn into something wonderful and to blossom into what they could become. And so, you know, I’m just so stoked to see that, you know, Matthias was able to do this and to do it in a way where he’s going to bring it to the entire WordPress ecosystem. Like that is exactly what we wanted to do, but when we were doing it, it was too soon. People didn’t understand why this type of decentralization was necessary or important. And now we have a lot of examples that I think lead people to understand why one, you know, I don’t like the idea of like owning your audience, but having a more durable connection and relationship to people over time through software that you have control over is important, and that these underlying protocols and technologies that we came up with were all about enfranchising people to have those relationships in a long term, meaningful way. Doc Pop: Switching gears a little bit, we’re talking about owning your audience and maybe how audiences find you and they might find you like you might have a newsletter that you maintain and you send links out to sites, or you might use social media and send links out to sites, that seems to be driving less and less traffic these days. But the number one way to discover a new site or, you know, to surf the web, still, is Google. That’s clearly not going to change anytime soon, but a new… Chris Messina: It might change, but go ahead. Doc Pop: Yeah, a new study by German researchers states that Google search results are getting worse. It’s not our imagination. The year-long study showed that highly optimized, low quality, basically spam articles are dominating search results. And similarly, sites like 404media found that Google news was boosting AI-generated versions of 404media’s articles. In other words, people were using AI to copy, paste, and slightly change words and then just flood. And Google News was promoting those instead of the original source articles. One last thing that’s happening on top of all of this, because there’s always been this war between spammers and Google, but the last thing that’s happening is Google and Bing are now adding AI-generated articles when you do search results. They’re kind of like, I don’t know, taking away that promise that they had to help connect sites. And instead, it seems like they’re starting to kind of keep them there. So, okay. That’s my long-winded speech about how I feel. Chris, I want to hear how you feel about how small websites can continue to be discovered in the next coming years. Chris Messina: Well, I will share a feeling, and the feeling that I have in the current moment, I think is one of, to some degree, bewilderment, but also excitement and enthusiasm, a little bit of trepidation and also optimism. And I don’t think optimism is a feeling, but I’ll go with it. The question that you ask presupposes that the way that the web is and has been needs to be the way that the web persists and will continue to be. And this arms race that you mentioned presumes that this battle over attention and access to audiences is somehow the purpose of the internet and the web, and I hate to tell you, but it’s not. It’s really about creating connections between different people with different perspectives and experiences or products and resources. And we’ve been spending the last 15 to 20 years, largely creating a lot of text based content. You know, one, because of digital storage the efficiency of that model. We are coming up to a point you know— we use the singularity, I think, to describe where, you know, humans and computers kind of, you know, become one or sort of where there’s an overlap where computers overtake human intellect. And I think. It’s important to recognize that, I guess I would say like the flora and fauna, or like the microbiome of these small websites can and will persist, but the way in which they pursue success probably is going to need to change and be different than it has been in the past. And I’ll just say like, If you look at, there’s a new search engine called Perplexity, which aspires to be an answer engine, and Google, for a very long time, I mean, I worked at Google for three and a half years, also wanted to be an answer engine. They wanted to, you know, index all the world’s information to make it useful and available and accessible. And in a similar way, that doesn’t mean that getting you to some other website through the internet is the most efficient way to make that information useful or accessible. So where we’re going in the future will be that you will have a number of different agents and bots and services that you conversationally interact with, you know, just like you text a friend a photo, you’re like, what is this? A computer is going to be able to look at the things that you send it and respond with a relatively detailed set of information without you having to go to secondary or tertiary sources, unless you want to. From a capitalist perspective, we’ve made it very, very efficient to create low-quality information calories. And we’re pumping out all sorts of junk food through the social media networks because they’re very cheap, essentially, to spread information through. And it’s starting to cause a kind of like information obesity, where we need to fight back with better quality information and better quality relationships. Now, what does that mean for small producers of, let’s say, artisanal content? Well, in a way it means it’s a golden opportunity for you. Especially if you have a relationship with your audience and especially if you’re developing that relationship over time. You know, it’s funny, a couple of years ago, I think back in 2016, I coined this term “conversational commerce” to explain how we’re entering into a world where the ways in which we have conversations with computers literally is a conversation that creates a bi-directional channel where we can kind of get to shared understanding by going back and forth to arrive at some greater sense of clarity or knowledge about the other person or the other entity and that commerce in the future. It would be less about going to, you know, Amazon and putting in some generic phrase or product name and then seeing a list of all these different products that are basically ads, trying to bid for your attention, to get them to, to get you to buy them. But instead, you kind of talk about what your need is and through that you could reason with a computer and it would sort of point you to a number of solutions that might be better for you. In a similar way, I think people that are writing better content have expertise that hopefully they can then offer through higher-value transactions or I don’t want to say courses, but like where going deeper is going to be a place where humans are able to provide a lot more value than just sort of like creating thousands of pages on a website for audiences that are completely unknown. So maybe this is not a great answer for you know, your audience, but I have a very hard time imagining that just creating content farms is going to be a long-term sustainable business relative to creating high-quality differentiated content that you just can’t get anywhere else. Doc Pop: I think that’s another good spot for us to take a short break. And when we come back, we’re going to wrap up our conversation with Chris Messina. I have one more bit of hashtag slash WordPress trivia for you. So stay tuned after the short break.  Welcome back to Press This. We are wrapping up our conversation with Chris Messina, and I’ve already mentioned Chris, your hashtag credentials as the inventor of the hashtag. And you were the first person to mention WordPress on Twitter. I have one more fun bit of trivia for you right now. Did you know that if you go into WordPress, just a vanilla version of WordPress right now, and in a post or page, if you type a pound sign and then text, it will automatically create a hyperlink, functionally a hashtag, that searches your site for other hashtags. So if I typed on my blog post, “Hey, today I have. #ChrisMessina on the show today. What questions do you have?” And if you publish that and click on that, it’s now a clickable link. Did you know that that exists? Chris Messina: I was not aware of that. So thank you for letting me know. Doc Pop: I mean, it’s kind of everywhere now. And this actually does bring me a little bit back to this idea of discoverability and connectivity. We’ve talked about ActivityStreams, which you worked on and it was the predecessor to ActivityPub. I’m wondering if maybe the way that this works, web links get a, I don’t know why, they get a bad reputation, but people always say web links and then they laugh. And I’m wondering if we’re going back to this era where maybe using this functionality, right, this hashtag functionality or any sort of tags, maybe my site, my WordPress site could federate with other sites, right? Maybe I’m just sounding like I’m trying to sound smart or something here, but like, maybe I could choose to federate with other sites. And when you click on a tag on my site about cooking or about Christmas or about whatever, it could actually show you basically a web link search result. Do you think this is something that’s useful and that might help keep sites connected? Or is this the wrong direction to be thinking right now? Chris Messina: No, I think that’s a great idea. And let me explain why the purpose of the hashtag when I proposed it all the way back in 2007, again, you know, Twitter came out in 2006. The iPhone came out in January of 2007. And having gone to South by Southwest in March of 2007, you know, where some people had iPhones, but most people did not, we were using Twitter as a real time network for finding out what was going on and where to go to find other people and to meet up with them. And there was a backlash from people who were not at South by Southwest, basically saying, we’re getting all these spam text messages—because Twitter was a text message service back then—sent to our phones at all hours of night while you guys are out getting wasted in Austin, you know, how do we filter out all of your stupid tweets? There were a number of different solutions that could have worked. One of them that I was trying to propose was well, I wasn’t proposing this, but there was a suggestion that maybe Twitter should have groups, you know, kind of like news groups. And so you’d create a group and then you could choose who’s in the group and who’s not in the group. And you know, it would work kind of like Flickr groups and as a text messaging-based service, I was like, that’s not going to work. Like, I have to be at a bar drunk and you know, know how to use whatever the group functionality is here. And so it just occurred to me that we could use IRC style prefix, like hashtag prefix, and then word. And that could create what I call the tag channel. And so that’s kind of where the original idea came from. It was certainly inspired by IRC, but it was built for mobile social networking. And so the first real use case was actually for the Bar Camp community, which I mentioned before, and that was for us to find each other. And so that was an early, small, relative distributed or decentralized ecosystem of events that were happening all over the world, you know, with maybe thousands of people, you know, not hundreds of thousands or millions of people. So to your point, I do think that there’s an opportunity in the future where there are a number of ActivityPub compliant servers, some WordPress, some Mastodon, maybe even Threads, that are emitting activities and in those activities, you can use hashtags as a way of coordinating activity between these decentralized actors. I’ve been having this argument largely with Meta about Threads’ lack of use of hashtags. In fact, they resist them, although they use the hashtag symbol to create these tags and they call them topic tags. I call them Franken tags. It’s fine. So just in the way that you can create a tag in a post, like you can in WordPress, you can create a tag on Threads. However, Threads will remove the pound symbol prefix, and so it’s very hard for downstream. I’m going to show you how to do that in just a second, but first, let me show you how to add a tag. So in the case of Bar Camp, like the prefix of the pound symbol is actually important. It’s a signifier to everyone else who’s on your federated network to use the same symbol to talk about the same type of event. The point is you can come up with whatever arbitrary tags you want to use. And then, if you use hashtags, that actually creates more freedom and more ability to decentralize and still have coherent conversations. So that’s why what you’re saying is exactly the point of hashtags and why I’ve been fighting for them for most of my career, because people misunderstand. The coordinating value of the tags, like all the complaints about hashtags are reasonably valid from a purely aesthetic perspective. People say they’re too ugly or like people use too many of them. They abuse them or they use irrelevant ones. Those things are all true, but that has to do with the behavior, not the technology. So when we think about this applied to, I prefer the social web over Fediverse. But if you talk about the Fediverse, hashtags are an intrinsically useful way to allow people to run to the edges of the internet and to build up their own little outposts and yet stay connected through these type of carrier pigeon messages that cross pollinate across the entire network. And I think hashtags is a way to sew all those things up. Just like when you mentioned someone, you know, you have an identity for a person that lives at a domain, a hashtag actually is a global identifier that works across the entire social web. Doc Pop: That’s well put. And I actually even realized as I was describing that to you, I was still thinking pretty old school, pretty myopic. If I wrote post on my WordPress blog and I included a hashtag on there, people couldn’t click on it and maybe see other people in my federated world, but maybe also they’d have a tab that shows other people they follow that mentioned that same thing, and that could include other WordPress blogs as well. So that, wow, that really blows your mind. It’s not just me connecting to my friends, but also my followers. Chris Messina: Look, I mean, the whole idea is that it’s a way to slice through a number of different contexts and to bring together a conversation where you choose. It’s not exactly moderation, but where you choose what is inbounds and what is out of bounds, right? So if I want to see Doc Pop’s friends and what they’re talking about, this hashtag that I’ve never seen before, and suddenly it explodes this conversation about something that I’m actually interested in. That’s super valuable. That’s an amazing discovery tool that no one had to create.  You don’t have to register or check in with some authority and they can’t shut you down, right? And if people start spamming the tag, that’s not a big deal because you don’t follow them. right? So there’s a self healing aspect of the Fediverse that I think we’ve lost and that is worth fighting for. And like, obviously I’m biased, but I think hashtags are very and should be used as a way to re-enfranchise people when they want to connect with networks that are off of the mainstream sort of, you know, mall-based social networks. Doc Pop: And on that note, Chris, what is the best place for people to follow you online right now?  Chris Messina: So you can always get to my website. Chris Messina dot me. I’m in the process redoing it, but you know, we’ll see. And then I’m also actually on Threads. So, you can find me, at threads.net/@Chris. I have left X slash Twitter, so those are the two places where I’m most active these days. Doc Pop: And thanks to everyone for listening to Press This, a WordPress Community Podcast on WMR. Thanks, Chris, for your time today. if you want to learn more, you can follow TorqueMag.io on RSS. You don’t have to go to a social network. Subscribe to torquemag. io or just visit it as frequently as you want.You can find transcribed versions of these podcasts plus more WordPress news and tutorials. You can also subscribe to the Press This podcast on RedCircle, iTunes, Spotify, or directly from WMR.fm. I’m your host, Dr. Popular. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I spotlight members of that community each and every week on Press This.

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