in social networks, tech, webhosting

Why tent.io will flop and what we should learn from it

Of late, I’ve been investing my time and money on two online platforms – WordPress and App.net (ADN). The first, for blogging and the second for micro-blogging and conversations.

Around the same time that ADN launched, another service started off – tent.io. While ADN’s objective was to provide a scalable API that could and would do anything its developers asked for, tent.io began with the earnest aim of letting users own their own data. ADN is like any other online service in that the company runs its own servers, users push data – updates, photos or links to these servers and the servers push the data to other users. This single point of access means that all the data is stored on ADN infrastructure and this will not change. The big difference is that ADN doesn’t assert control over your data and you can export all those posts anything before you leave the service, if you do.

But there lies the problem. Facebook allows you to export your data, so does Google. Twitter, no longer interested in letting people export their data, is still figuring it out. The problem is, once you export the data, what do you do with it? Like a dog chasing its tail, exporting your data sounds excellent, specially to save you data from misuse by the respective companies, but once you download it, you’ve got nothing to do with it. There are no easy tools that allow me to transfer all my twitter posts to ADN or my 5 GB of GMail emails to an email account elsewhere. Even when these services exist, there’s barely any scope of the old data to exist in the new environment because each service tries to be different from the previous. For example, the testimonials people wrote for me on Orkut still sit there on that now defunct service. There is no ‘testimonial’ section on Facebook where I can place that data. So once you’ve exported all your precious data from a social network you’re leaving, that data will sit in a zip file on your hard drive until an eternity.

That’s where systems like tent.io and WordPress come in. My blogging has gone through many iterations – from a modest wordpress.com blog to hosting on free web hosting like HelioHost and ServersFree when I discovered that I wanted more freedom with my blog’s theme and plugins, after I read the InMotion Hosting review.  Finally opting for paid hosting on NearlyFreeSpeech when I discovered that my blog was often overstepping the limits set on free accounts, I’ve traveled far and wide on the Internet (one of my web hosts was based out of Eastern Europe). The only glue that help my blog together was the fact that I had total control over WordPress files, the database and backups. I even faltered and forgot to take backups until I discovered that automated backups to Dropbox were the best thing since sliced bread. One day, after discovering that one of the free hosts had shut me down overnight, the only way for me to get my blog back online was with the backups in my Dropbox. I did not lose a single file. Now, most of us don’t value our interactions on our social networks as much as we value our blogs. We think that it’s all pretty fleeting, just our thoughts at a particular moment or the lunch we had three days ago. But the value of that data grows with each tweet posted or each photo uploaded. We’re building our bases on ground that’s shaky. Consider two experiments I did –

1. I’ve been using a lot of bookmarking services over the past few years – I used to keep it simple and save all bookmarks on my computer. Until my computer crashed. I recovered everything, except the Application Support folder in Windows, loosing everything. Then I shifted to using Del.icio.us and was pretty happy with this tool my brother had introduced me to. But I fell out of habit out of that because it was not good enough to show me what I was bookmarking. For a while, I shifted completely to Pocket, then known as ReadItLater but then Instapaper pulled it away. Thus, all my bookmarks are spread all over the Internet and any one of these services threaten to die out some day, with me loosing all my data. My current solution is thus, as follows – I save reading material on Instapaper, all other multimedia on Pocket and everything, including a super set of the above, to my Google Chrome, which I have synced across multiple devices, thus giving me complete access to my entire history, bookmarks and logins. I trust Marco Arment to give us fair warning in case he feels like moving on from Instapaper some day and Google Chrome is too big to be shut down by Google any time soon, besides, I’m on Mac now and Time Machine backups are better at getting me my data back, unlike Windows.

2. Soon after I joined ADN and tent.io came up, Automattic, the company behind WordPress came out with their liveblog plugin. Traditionally, the plugin is supposed to be used for chronicling an event. But I decided that my life, live, is a good enough thing to chronicle. Thus, I decided to start live.nitinkhanna and now, I post all original thought on both ADN and live.nitinkhanna. The benefit? I own that information in a format that is transcendent beyond the current social networks I use and the backups they create. Now I don’t need to worry about exporting from ADN then writing code to extract all my posts and posting them on live.nitinkhanna, because my ideas, notes and posts are right here with me. Recently, when I was looking for a link that I had found particularly interesting, I did not go about searching my history or a search service for ADN, I knew it was somewhere on that one page that loads up on live.nitinkhanna and I found it in about 15 seconds. This gave me a unique perspective over where my data should be and in what format.

Now, coming back to the sensationalist headline I used for this post. I do not hope that tent.io will die. In fact, the opposite. The success of a service like tent teaches us that data should be readily available to us in a format that’s of our choosing and no one can take it away from us. Tent will be successful despite failures like Diaspora because tent is not assuming that it’ll change the landscape and must be funded heavily by VCs. Tent is opting to be open source and available. Its opting to be on Github so that millions can download the software and run it for themselves. Only, millions won’t. The primary implementation of tent is the tentd ruby software package. It’s not something that someone would pick up and install on a server right away. I can look up the WordPress famous 5 minute install and actually set it up on a free hosting service like ServersFree within that time frame. Tentd is still in its infancy, but it needs to move in that direction.

Not many people know that you can, in fact, install ruby based apps online for free on various services such as AppFog. I setup a data and processing intensive app called Fever on AppFog for free recently and wrote about how to do it. Next, I’m going to set up tentd there, so that I can learn and teach you all how it’s easy and free. But not many people will do that. Not enough people will opt to go for a complex ruby based server to store the details of their latest lunch or photos of their cat at play. Common people are afraid of coding. They prefer hosted services like Facebook where they just have to log in and start ranting about the latest change in the service instead of owning up and paying for the right to own their data and control the features of these services. Most companies don’t even think once before opting for a managed WordPress installation where they don’t have to worry about uptime or themes or plugins. They can concentrate on customer engagement and pay the bill at the end of the month.

Tentd or some new avatar of the tent ‘protocol’ needs to come down to at least the hated but familiar world of PHP-MySQL so that more people (bloggers) will experiment with it. They need to write a 15 minute famous install because really, all a person wants is the system to be up and running as soon as possible so that they can tell their friends about today’s sunset. They need to find a way to make life easier for the pseudo-programmer, who knows how to click the install button but cares not whether the application is PHP or blasphemous .NET as long as it’s working and it’s free to run.

What can we learn from all the above? Life in the own-your-social-data land isn’t easy. People who strive to do so look for the perfect way, tweak it well and stick to what they have, even if it’s just a Facebook account where they know they can just click download if they want to exit the network some day. I assure you, they won’t. So if tent wants to make as big a dent as WordPress did, they need to start thinking about easy. Tent can be like Tumblr to people – the option of posting an image, a video, a link, a quick note or a long post, all rolled into one. The issue is that it must be just as easy for people to set up too.

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  • Andrew Roach

    Yes.

    I came across this article while trying to discern if Tent had gotten any easier to work with in the last year.

    Tent needs to integrate with wordpress, or at least live along side it. My wordpress installation needs to be able to host my social stream and display the social streams of the people I follow. (And more people. all the people.)

    • @andrew_roach:disqus I believe that we’re looking at amazing alternative solutions for WP to be more mobile-social focused. Two awesome projects I’m looking forward to meeting are pressgr.am and postcardsocial.com. While Pressgram is focused on photo sharing, camera filters and owning all your content, and is nearly out in the iOS app store, PostcardSocial is in Alpha right now and is looking to break the BuddyPress monopoly over WP-as-a-Social-Service. I believe these two should suffice for our needs right now. If you want to know more about these, Pressgram is https://twitter.com/Pressgram and the PostcardSocial dev is on ADN -> https://alpha.app.net/kylnew.

      I hope this helps.

      • Andrew Roach

        Very helpful. Thanks.

        I’m investigating these two projects, and trying to figure out if they can integrate with the project I am working on.

        • Well, what are you working on? Out with it! I love hearing about anything new on WP… What’s up?

          • Andrew Roach

            I’m a small time developer with a bit of a music addiction. I’m working on a thing called Analog Revolution.

            (Quoted from the about us page of http://analogrevolution.com
            “Analog Revolution is an independent record store, located in Hiram, Georgia. We stock the traditional record store fare: new and vintage vinyl records, turntables, amps, speakers, and digital hi-fi gear.

            We also have a decidedly nontraditional side, with a penchant for DIY and hand made goods. We press records, we print books and magazines, and we are all about our community.”
            )

            We’re doing all manner of interesting technical/artistic things (pressing vinyl records in my basement, releasing albums on NES cartridges (to be played back in an actual NES), designing/building custom speakers… there’s a lot in the works.)

            We’re still pretty early along in everything (our first single and our first issue of the magazine are both set to launch next month.)

            One of our long term goals is to be able to provide some deep community integration. The ability for us to be able to interact with our customers, bands, and writers, and for them to be able to interact with one another, without the reliance on a centralized third party (and without the conversation and interaction being limited to AR.) I see these platforms as a potential realization of that goal.

            As I said, it’s a long term goal, but it’s one that I am excited for.

            • If you’re in a hurry, BuddyPress would suffice, though I’ve heard there are some better plugins for Joomla/Drupal for social. If you’re willing to wait, PostcardSocial shouldn’t be that far out and if you’re in the Beta, you can definitely help steer the platform towards something workable. How about you get in touch with Kyle Newsome? Need an ADN account? I have invites…

              • Andrew Roach

                I’ve explored buddy press in the past and I’ve found it to be a bit too closed/old/fuddyduddy for what I want. I’m willing to watch and wait on postcardSocial (while exploring the social scene.)

                I’ve been working on some simple plugins to cross post content between tumblr/twitter/facebook and our website, but I’m more concerned with the community than I am with the network.

                Hurry is the exact opposite of what I’m in on the social front. At the moment, I’m devoting all of my energy to the magazine and the records (which is why social is on my mind again. Everyone needs a hobby, right?)

                I have an ADN account, but I’ve never used it much. Kyle is the developer of Postcard social?

                • Yeah, BuddyPress isn’t exactly pristine, so it’s ripe to be innovated out of the scene. Yes, Kyle is the dev for PostcardSocial, it’d be worth your time to talk to him.

                  Excellent differentiation between community and network!

                  I use dlvr.it to spread my word, but I prefer using the liveblog plugin on live.nitinkhanna.com and a hack script that posts to ADN and twitter, so the network part is kinda covered.

                  As for the community , I can’t recommend anything that you can own right now, so there’s always a wait. On the other hand, ADN is a great community, specially for projects like mndp.tv which you should totally check out… The tools being built around it make it feel much more homey than any other social platform I’m on right now…

                  • Andrew Roach

                    I’m not familiar with dlvr.it, but I appreciate the suggestion. I loved your liveblog suggestion, did you write the hack to cross post yourself, or is it a community thing?

                    ADN seems interesting to me, but I have had a hard time getting engaged in the community. I’ll Give the mndp.tv project a look.

                    Thanks!

                    • About dlvrit, sure… I like that they’ve got a simple service and all… You’ll see when you explore it…

                      I wrote the hack for the liveblog myself. There’s not much community, just the devs and a few others around the project. I liked doing that, was fun… I did submit it to them on GitHub, so lets see where this goes…

                      You’ll need time for ADN, that’s for sure. The conversations there are a much better quality… Cheers!

                      And thanks for all the talk… I don’t get to use my own blog for conversations that much…

                    • Andrew Roach

                      I have found myself sitting strongly in the anti-comments crowd for a while, but this has been pleasant enough to make me consider disqus comments on AR.

                      Thanks for all the help.

                    • Ah, Disqus… Well, it’s been a funny ride. I usually kill comments on old or esoteric posts, keeping them active on tech posts because those invite the most purview… Something to consider when you’re thinking of comments.

                      Enjoy!

                    • Andrew Roach

                      I was digging in to this topic again today, as I had some down time, and I came across this: http://www.discourse.org/ which is in use on boingboing.net.

                      Have you looked in to it much? The instance in use on boingboing seems to work very well. It’s not quite social, or at least it’s not the stream part of social, but it does make strides toward solving the community problem. (I’d still like it to communicate with other software in other places around the net, but it’s a start.)

                    • Andrew, I have seen Discourse and felt it was more related to discussions than to social streams. Didn’t know it was being used at boingboing. That’s interesting! I’ve been a lurker for long there, maybe I should start participating…

                    • Andrew Roach

                      It is far more related to discussion than social streams, but the two are interrelated issues (at least I feel like they are.)

                      Half or more of my social media activity is discussion. Finding a service to replicate the creation and consumption of disparate social streams would be great, but it wouldn’t be useful for the general public without a way to also replicate the conversations, the discussion, that makes up the “social” part of social media.

                      Current social media has some problems, and raises a few questions. I’m not sure that Discourse is the answer, but whatever the answer ends up being it will be as much or more about sharing a social stream and viewing a social stream as it is about discussing the contents of those streams.

                      (Some existing social sites handle the integration of this discussion better than others. Facebook/Twitter/ADN have integrated discussion in the stream quite well, but Tumblr, Instagram, and Vine have struggled to find a way to allow communication to exist along side the stream. Instagram and Vine have internal comments, which work fairly well (but they also have facebook/twitter/tumblr comments, which are not integrated in to one feed.)

                      Tumblr has asks/FanMail/Replies/submissions and Disqus comments. Each of these has a discrete and not terribly obvious purpose and only one of them, replies, is directly integrated in the stream. (and there is no way to reply to replies. Some community conventions have poped up but there isn’t a standardization, and there is nothing official.)

                      To my mind the solution would be a combination of a new (group of) social streams, an integrated RSS-like social reader, and some kind of discrete conversational tool (that ties together content from all of these disperate social streams and keeps the conversations grouped together.)

                      But I don’t have a clue what that would look like. )

                      I have, by the way, greatly enjoyed this conversation. Thanks.

                    • Andrew Roach

                      I started using pressgram today, It’s great. When you get it running be sure to share your username.

                    • @andrew_roach:disqus I’m nitinkhanna on the network, though I still haven’t set it up on my blog…