Just edit it!

by Markus Tacker

: Just edit it!

We need tools not protocols for editing content on the web.

In my first article I barely scratched the surface of what is missing to encourage collaboration on public available data. In this article I’d like to share my view of what is missing.

I have a publicized a list of technology user groups from my area at usergroups.rheinmainrocks.de. The list is driven by a collection of XML files describing each group. The XML files are hosted in a GIT repository at GitHub. They can be edited by everybody.

Everybody can edit public on GitHub already. Everybody?

Well, at least if he is accustomed to the git pull request workflow, the file format in place, can speak english (as this is GitHubs only interface language), has an account on github.com.

If I want every member of my audience to enhance my collection of data about usergroups—GitHub pull requests on XML files would not be the choice. I picked it because it is easy to manage. From a contributors point of view another approach would be much more feasable: fill in some kind of form and be done with it.

Look Ma! No login!

Yes, I am talking about anonymous submissions. I can decide on the submitted data if it fits into my context. Author information is nice to have but not required.

I really don’t care who is submitting information—the information is what matters.

To encourage contributions to data the process must be as easy as ordering something from amazon: straight forward and self explanatory. But the tools we have at the moment are fare from that. In my industry we call the content management systems. And the emphasis is on management and system. Those are beasts in terms of functionality and versatility which is achieved by throwing massive collections of buttons and input elements at the users without any explanation. For every CMS you need not only the vendors handbook, but an instruction on how to use the system for the specific site it was adapted for.

Admin areas must vanish!

Admin areas—the thing behind the username and password fields—are designed for users to edit content. If the content for every website can easily be classified into a few—text, lists, links, images—why must there be a custom way to edit these in every CMS?

It is these admin areas which function as a blocker for contributions.

If we could establish an easy to use and standardized way to orchestrate the editing, review and approval of content on the web we could focus on publishing content instead of setting up systems for its management.

Protocols are for machines

There is a protocol—AtomPup—which enables the collaboration on arbitrary data in a system neutral way. This is achieved by defining a set of actions—known as the CRUD operations—and strategies to handle conflicts. It is a robust and universally approach but it lacks an important aspect: it does not care about the data to be edited. For the scope of the protocol this is the right approach. There is no need to care about the data—AtomPub is just a messenger. The implementation of the content editing is left to the user and he is forced to acquire the suitable tools.

Adding constraints adds to our goal

Just add some constraints and we could push this further into a general way for editing arbitrary data where we can make assumptions about the data itself!

If we could describe the contents of web pages in just a few content types we would could provide a service which enables the edition of the data instantly—and like GitHub does—in the browser.

I think we can!