openness,  RSS,  web 2.0

We are digitalists – these are our tools


<Image Tatuagem geek no Barcamp – Tiago Doria>

To avoid the digital natives and immigrants debate, let's opt for the term digitalists instead, and define them thus:

"Those who are comfortable using a range of digital media and are open to the changes that digitisation brings to society."

It's not exclusive, anyone can become a digitalist, and it's not absolute, you can be a digitalist in some areas and maybe have reservations in another. But you're not Andrew Keen.

This follows on from previous post, where I took Scott Leslie's post about just sharing to argue that the mode of sharing has changed. Digitalists know this because they do it every day through blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, etc. In that post I suggested that institutions developed complex approaches to sharing because they either didn't know, or didn't believe that the simple methods would work. Scott commented that the flipside of my just because complex solutions were once required, doesn't mean they will always be ending was that complex problems don't necessarily require complex solutions.

And this is key to the tools available to the digitalist, they are simple. It's Really Simple Syndication after all, not Massively Complex Syndication. So here are my list of tools that a digitalist packs in their bag before leaving home:

  • Embed – as Tony says in his video, Embed changes everything. What the embed tag allows is for a wide range of media to be, well, embedded, across the web. Not in itself amazing, but its implications are profound. It means you don't have to agree how to share, you don't have to develop metadata or format standards – you just take the embed code. And what this means is that content becomes widely, massively distributed. And the result of that is that a) people can create multimedia sites without any expertise, b) people get used to sharing, c) content is no longer tied to its originating site, d) content is no longer tied to its originating context and e) models which work against embed (ie locking down content), ultimately fail because if it can't be embedded, it may as well not exist. Embed is the conduit for content across the web, and thus the key element in understanding new models of ownership, creation, business, distribution and presentation.
  • RSS – I've said it before, RSS is the universal acid of the net. It allows you to subscribe to any feed which will be updated regularly. Again, not mind-blowing in its basic form, but it is what this allows which is significant. It means we can all become broadcasters, because the 'schedule' is created by the user. It means you can personalise the information you receive, by selecting blogs, podcasts, video feeds you want to subscribe to you are in charge of the information you receive. And because it is a standard, subscribing is simple, just a click and its there. Which means anyone can do it. RSS is also the means by which meta services can be constructed. Take any output as RSS and you can build a site around it – Friendfeed is a good example of this. To an extent, your online identity is a list of your RSS feeds. If you were sad enough to want to know about me, you'd get a long way subscribing to my blog, Twitter, YouTube and Slideshare RSS feeds.
  • Hashtags – once we have all this information flowing around, we need to filter and organise it. Previously this would have meant establishing a committee, agreeing a new metadata field, informing all participants of the correct label, etc. With hashtags users themselves tend to think of a useful term, and put a # in front of it, which allows it to be easily located in search. For instance, there was a CETIS conference on widgets last week (I was supposed to be there but had to pull out). The participants settled on #cetis08 as the tag, and so any twitter posts, Flickr photographs, delicious bookmarks were tagged with this. Thus if you go to Twemes and enter cetis08 as your search term, you get a good feel for the conference. Hashtags allow us to filter and reorganise content – without the ownership of the label, and more importantly what is deemed worthy of a label, being determined by an authority.

What these all have in common is that they are bottom-up, simple and focused on sharing. It is this democratisation and emphasis on sharing, reuse and reorganisation that is the fundamental difference between old content models and new ones, so these aren't just geeky technical matters – they're the combustion engine of our society.

I've focused on data techniques, not actual technologies such as blogs and wikis, and I've tried to keep the list simple and easy, but I'd love to hear of any other suggestions you have for the digitalist toolbox.


  • Scott Leslie

    “Digitalist” works for me, nice term which I agree gets past the dumb generational distinction but captures the fact that there is something new afoot.
    “digitalist toolbox” – this one I’m not sure we need as a new term; it strikes me that it would be almost the same set as what we are often terming the “personal learnng environment” (oh god, I can just hear the comments, not from you, streaming in; “ple’s are offline too”; “ple’s are people too.” – I get it, already!)
    But I notice maybe there is a distinction, or at least you are noting ‘attributes’ of tools rather than the tools themselves. In that regards, I’d offer ‘favourites’ as a simple one; a common attribute of many ‘2.0’ sites, it actually has a strong effect in stimulating both the site itself, your digital ‘tracks’ or ‘footprints’ that contribute to your online identity and like all good digitalist tricks, don’t require you to do anything more than what you’re already doing for your own purposes; they share your initial effort.
    “Profile pages” – as in “digitalist tend to shy away from systems that don’t have profiles, that don’t aggregate their contributions and allow them, if they chose, to further curate their online identity, but indeed prefer systems that help them aggregate their contributions/identity *wherever they choose them to be aggregated.*” Is this the kind of thing you’re thinking about? Or have I got it wrong. Quite possibly I am generalizing my own tendancies here under a name (“digitalist”) that contains many different practices. Anyways, like where you are going with this, there do seem to be heuristics or characteristics of this kind of approach that I too find useful to distil and share. Cheers, Scott

  • Patrick

    Not sure about digitalists for a couple of reasons – it sounds like a heart drug derived from foxgloves, and it implies a division between those who are digitalists and those that are not. Feels perhaps a bit formal for the digipunk community – but hey if it catches on great.
    The toolbox bit is interesting because it could show me why I am still a bit on the outside. These are the reuse and aggregate facilities of the Internet, rather than the consume or generate. Using these the Internet becomes a resource you can shape without have to build, and share without having to target. I suspect you are right that those who “get” these aspects have a different view of how things work – so all praise to the digitalists!

  • Martin Weller

    @Scott – oh no, I haven’t just invented another term for a PLE have I? Tools is probably the wrong term actually, it’s more like techniques or approaches. Anyway, favourites – yes, definitely (or more broadly recommendations to include digg, stumbleupon type actions). These are another low cost means of sharing cognition and surprisingly effective, particularly when aggregated.
    @Patrick – someone on Twitter commented about foxglove and I didn’t get it until I read your post. Of course! I don’t want it to be an exclusive term, we’re all a bit digitalist. You’re right about it not being about the creation of content, but it has a backward impact on this – you create content that can be embedded and shared because those are the conduits through which it has to flow.

  • Brian

    I applaud the attempt to create an alternative to what I see as a false dichotomy that I believe is inherent in talk of digital natives/immigrants.
    As a data property, I would add (using this term hesitantly) remixability… that it is published in a format that allows for editing, or at least precise linking. I have been in a lot of discussions about the ideal granularity of resources, and to an extent I see it as more a question of being able to find the precise pieces of a chunk of content that I want, and being able to selectively reuse what I want. If I can do those things, I don’t care how big or small that defined piece of source content is…

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