I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to justify what I do to my clients and people in general. Because what I do is not exactly cheap; but I believe in the service I provide. Still, you might wonder, why have a website at all these days?
There’s Twitter. There’s Facebook. You can reach a hell of a lot of people on those platforms, and while the medium limits the message some, if you’re trying to stand out from the crowd, connect with readers, they can be great platforms. Why would you still need a website? Why pay some guy like me to build you an elaborate set up when you could spend 15 minutes creating a Facebook fan page and Twitter account and be done.
To explain why, I want to talk a little bit about RSS feeds first.
We have this thing called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which has been around for ages, and web professionals like me love it, but it’s not necessarily taken off with the general public as a means of keeping up with what a website does. RSS generally requires a special program, and it allows you to keep track of your favorite websites. Just about everything on the web you might want to follow generates some kind of RSS feed so you can aggregate all that information into a reader (like Google Reader, soon to be dead) without having to remember to go to the website directly every day, checking for new content.
RSS is really, really great. There’s a good chance if you’re reading this, I don’t have to tell you that because you already subscribe to my blog. And it’s a big part of why the open web beats social media. RSS is open; you publish to your feed, and subscribers of that feed get the updates. Why would you not rely exclusively on Twitter or Facebook to do the same thing via their platforms? More people use those, right? Because Facebook and Twitter are companies that ultimately control what you publish and what others see. Your website is an extension of the open web. Open beats closed when it comes to disseminating information.
Facebook started out with a really open-seeming platform, letting anyone set up fan pages and it was great at first, but then they decided they needed to turn a profit. They took your fans hostage and decided, hey, it would be a shame if your next post wouldn’t reach all 5000 people who have “liked” you on Facebook, wouldn’t it? Why don’t you pay us for a “promoted” post, and we’ll make sure they all get to see it. It’s back in the news lately–you just can’t know what they will decide to show, and to who. 25,000 followers does not mean 25,000 followers anymore.
RSS doesn’t have that, thankfully–the reader decides what they see and what they don’t. The process, for all the reader tools I have used, is transparent. Facebook’s process is opaque. And you can probably bet it’s only a matter of time before Twitter introduces something similar (although to be honest, the noise on Twitter is so enormous that it’s probably not necessary to “hide” anything. It just goes by too quickly to be noticed).
A website (and thus your RSS feed) is something you own and control, for the most part (let’s not get into semantics about owning domain names and so forth). It’s an outpost on that wild, untamed open web, a place where the rules are a lot thinner than Facebook and Twitter. It seems safer to stay within their little ecosystems, and they’ve done a great job of making it seem easy and close to free; but you’re not the customer there; you are the product, as Charlie Stross (and perhaps others?) famously pointed out.
There are a lot of ways to build your platform online, your way of connecting with friends, fans, family, whatnot. I use them all, and I encourage everyone to use them all; but I also think you should never rely too much on someone else’s product. Ironically, it’s been the announced death of Google Reader that has me realizing that. Free is great, but free can go away just as easily as anything. Google Reader can evaporate, doing enormous harm to RSS, and Facebook can decide to start charging you to access the people you did the hard work of gathering around yourself.
Websites still matter; I firmly believe it, or I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. But why hire someone like me? You hire me for the same reason you hire a plumber or a carpenter: to build something you don’t want to build yourself, because they can do it faster and maybe better. Because specialization is the secret to human civilization.
And because this is the web we’re talking about, all of this is subject to change without notice at any second. Get ready; disruption is coming.