A natural way of repurposing blocks of web content

web block protocol
Photo by Hal Gatewood / Unsplash

The web has always been about making content available on systems for public consumption by means of pages, also an ability to link content to related resources elsewhere, virtually anywhere in the world. Next emerged an explosion of approaches for extending the initial concept to support a bewildering array of computing experiences.

The page is the natural level of granularity for publishing and accessing content on the web.

It seems as though an evolutionary step of the web is dawning upon us, some feel more natural than others. On one side of the spectrum, approaches are emerging for integrating regular web experience with blockchain type of technology, whether it’s web3 or decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs), it is certainly catching on with help of venture capitalists and their portfolio startups. At the other end of the spectrum, an open standard approach for repurposing small blocks of web content is also being put forward. This latter is the topic discussed here.

A common way of repurposing web content is by way of fan-out publishing, which often takes place behind the scenes at the backend side. The approach known as content syndication is mature, often provided through content management systems, CMS, run by organisations to support their own websites. Content syndication has been around for decades, the systems tend to be expensive to deploy and operate, involve relatively rigid deployment setup and support mostly push-based operation. A simple solution for syndicating content aptly named Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, the most popular and versatile approach that makes summarised content available on the frontside, has been around for a long time indeed.

An interesting new approach, that feels like a natural evolution of web content authoring and publishing relies on repurposing portions of web content on the front side. The concept is simple, highly adaptable and doesn’t require any special complex technology. It’s called block protocol, an open and adaptable way of making blocks of web content available to other websites. A good way to think of it is, by analogy, when building a single website one normally create small portions such as headers and footers and maybe callouts that can be displayed on multiple different pages. This helps to preserve a consistent experience across all pages on a website while limiting unnecessary duplication of content, create once and publish multiples. The Block Protocol takes that approach and extends it to allow sharing small portions of content with other organisations’ websites.

Any site map adopt the block protocol, consume or publish blocks according to predefined schemas.

For blocks to be useful though, this necessarily means stripping out and replacing styling and branding elements. Beyond just look & feel, the block protocol aims to also enable behaviour adaptations at the adopting site.

The concept clearly aims at sharing structured blocks of content. The canonical example uses calendar events. Information of that nature, dates, monetary, geolocation, place names, scientific data, mathematical data, and so on, could prove useful for repurposing in this manner. Others such as company-branded marketing copy or localised content might prove less useful for repurposing.

Repurposing blocks of web content does entail some considerations, the consuming website will become dependent on other possibly unrelated websites with some implications. What if the supplying website should go down, should remove or alter the original block, what are possible security vulnerabilities? What about caching and content expiry? What about any IP, intellectual Property, implications one way or the other? Some of these questions, the more technical ones, appear to be addressed by the authors, others though will be subject to more work down the road.

RSS pioneers and advocates might wonder whether Block Protocol is a novelty compared to their preferred format. One way to distinguish the two though is that RSS is relatively rigid whereas Blocks can be structured in widely more varied ways, when behaviour is added to it then the difference becomes much more significant.

There clearly exist limited niche uses for this type of sharing mechanism at this point in time, this might just be a start as creativity may become unleashed to dawn an entirely new wave of use cases upon us.

As can be observed, information system architecture remit constantly evolves and the game changes frequently. Besides cloud and API driven architecture changes, content distribution mechanisms are also seeing an upheaval that could surprise teams. It’s no longer just serverless and low-code, what might one call a concept like Block Protocol, CMS-less? If this catches on in the industry then perhaps new terminology will emerge, and the usual cycles might kick in, players, conferences, books, etc.

About the Block Protocol

Joel Spolsky in his blog, Making the web better. With blocks! gives a nice introduction to the concept. The standard has its website, Block Protocol.

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