Small pieces, joined not quite loosely enough

Here’s a small cautionary tale of unintended consequences. It explains why the particularly eagle eyed will have seen a post on the blog this morning which quickly disappeared – though not quite quickly enough to stop it propagating round the web.

Over the weekend, I installed the new Guardian wordpress plugin, more out of curiosity than because I thought I had much use for it. But then I came across an article about repurposing and representing text.  The temptation to repurpose and represent it was irresistible, so I wrote a couple of introductory paragraphs and thought no more of it. Then on the bus to work this morning, I remembered that I hadn’t actually posted it, and used my phone to change its status.  So far, so good.

Then I checked on the published version of the post. There it was, on the mobile version of the site (which uses the WPtouch theme) – but although the title was right, the words were not mine – in fact I did not recognise them at all.  They referred to the Guardian article, but did not come from it. I couldn’t work out what had happened and my bus stop was approaching, so I unpublished the post and went to work. But although the post had been live for no more than a minute or two, that was time enough for the RSS feed to have been picked up by the Google Reader account which drives Public Sector Blogs, which generates a tweet which tells the world (or that rather small corner of it which takes an interest in such things).

The strange words turn out not to be quite so mysterious after all.  The version of the article on the Guardian website has an introductory sentence which does not appear in the body text – the words above the byline in the screenshot.  It turns out that the Guardian plugin uses that text to populate the ‘Excerpt’ field – and since that field is one I never use and is collapsed in my normal view of the wordpress dashboard, I had no idea it was there.  The WPtouch plugin uses that short excerpt to populate the home page view of the blog on a small mobile screen.  All perfectly sensible, no harm done, a very minor storm in a very small tea cup.

But there is – I think – something interesting which comes from all of this.  It is that my understanding of what the Guardian is trying to do with its plugin is radically different from their understanding.

From the point of view of the Guardian, I assume, they are seeing a new way of syndicating their articles.  For them, perhaps, the article and thus its metadata are what really matters.  It makes perfect sense to force extract text, tags and a title on to the blog post in which their article is embedded, because the post is essentially the article.  And it makes sense not because they are bullies, but because they are trying to be as helpful as they possibly can be.

From my point of view, I know, I am seeing a new way of illustrating my blog posts.  For me, it is my blog post which really matters – not because of any intrinsic superiority, but because if all I wanted to do was point to articles on the Guardian’s website, pointing to them is all I would do.  So the chances of the preamble to the article being the most appropriate excerpt for the post as a whole are vanishingly small, and the idea that the Guardian has the right to pre-empt my chosen title suggests that they see themselves as rather more important than I do.

The Guardian also requires their article to appear in full, with links, copyright notice, tracking codes and adverts left intact and uninterrupted – in effect to require the blog owner to cede control over the space in which their article is reproduced. I don’t have a problem with that requirement, and for anyone who does, the simple solution is of course to link to articles rather than reproducing them.

But I would like to see the same respect and lack of interference with my content from them as they expect from me.  It’s early days, the version number of the plugin has climbed from 0.1 to 0.3 over the last 48 hours, there is plenty of opportunity – and I don’t doubt plenty of willingness – to tweak and improve.

All of this in the context of being strongly sympathetic to the Guardian Open Platform, partly because it is fascinating watching a newspaper trying to reinvent itself in real time, but even more because, as I wrote last month, the approaches the Guardian is pioneering have much wider implications, not least for public service providers.  Some of these same issues about the syndication of content interests of the different parties involved were behind some of the discussion today at NESTA’s digital disrupters event, for example.

Normal service will now be resumed, with the post which caused all the trouble this morning appearing shortly after this one.

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