Why We Need the #IndieWeb: A Short History
Back in 1993, as a young computer science graduate student, I created my first web page. To do so, I had to learn a new language, HyperText Markup Language (html), which was pretty easy for me as someone who had been programming in Cobol, PL/I, C, Basic, and so on, since high school. My web pages contained static text with embedded links to other pages of static text that had embedded links to still other pages. This is the definition of hypertext.
This was before we had search engines like Google and so one of my pages was a directory of links to pages around the web (called a hotlist) that I curated (although I wouldn’t have used that word at the time) and that contained useful information about various aspects of artificial intelligence and molecular biology, both of which were interesting to me. I created a page on my site with an electronic version of my CV. I described my research on another page. I created my digital identity through those pages. It was fun. And very easy to do. The University provided space for my pages so I didn’t have to worry about domain registration and hosting and so on. I just had to know the URL to my own home page.
Because I was curious, I used the Wayback Machine to look for a copy of one of my old home pages and I found this version from Spring 1997. Even though several search engines were popular by then, you can see my hotlist here. Although the pages don’t render exactly the same as they did back then, this is a pretty accurate representation of what most individuals’ web pages looked like. We made these hotlists as a way to keep track of web pages that contained information that we found useful, that we wanted to check on regularly. More about that in a bit.
Although these pages were not difficult for me to build, building them was out of reach for many people. The tools used were not particularly user friendly. Most people didn’t have access to a space on the World Wide Web to store their pages. And for people not familiar with programming, html was a mystery, with unfamiliar tags and codes and unforgiving syntax. I taught my students html but in the late 1990s, the standards for building web pages began to include Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which were (are) an attempt to separate the marking up of text (how it looks) from the content of the text. This was a good innovation but it complicated the building of web pages. Improvements in network bandwidth led to increased use of server-side scripts in web pages to make the pages less static and more responsive to users. The languages for these scripts were (are) harder to learn than html, which put web page development further out of reach of the average person. Because of these challenges, the majority of people were pretty passive consumers of the early World Wide Web (if they even knew about it at all). But if someone had a web presence in those early days, it was because they had built it themselves.
I was really excited about the democratic promises of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s. By changing the way web site interfaces were built, developers allowed average users to contribute content to those web sites. Everyone, regardless of their technical skill and knowledge, could participate and contribute to the digital world. In fact, in 2006, the Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” This was the magazine’s recognition of the millions of people who had begun to contribute to sites like Wikipedia, MySpace, YouTube, and so on. This was the start of the social media revolution. Today, of course, we have moved far beyond Web 2.0. There are YouTube and Instagram stars who have built their entire following through their contributions to these sites. We build professional networks of people we’ve never met in real life entirely through our and their use of these social media platforms. We talk about managing our digital identity even when that identity exists exclusively on these sites that are owned by large corporations like Facebook and Twitter. The lowered tech skill and knowledge threshold for entry into this digital world has allowed our parents and grandparents and virtually everyone with access to a digital device to develop their own web presence.
But there’s a problem with these corporate sites. They need to make money. We use most of them for free. So their business model is that they sell us–that is, data about us. We sign end user license agreements (EULAs) giving our data away in return for the right to live Tweet our conference or to share our vacation photos on Instagram. The EULAs often give rights to our original content (photos, posts, etc.) to the corporation. And the corporation sells us to other corporations like Cambridge Analytica. They analyze us (our data and content) to determine who should see which campaign ads and fake news stories. We hear about these misuses of our data but the benefits of these sites are right in our faces while the dangers and risks are kind of hidden and maybe even a little nebulous. These sites bring us together. They give us digital gathering spaces where we can discover others with similar interests and interesting perspectives. These sites provide notifications and updates about things we’re interested in. They provide the interactive equivalent of the hotlists that we used to create on our web pages.
The IndieWeb is an experimental answer to the corporate web of Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The IndieWeb movement wants to bring us back to a time when our digital identity is created and hosted on our own web pages. The tools to build web pages have gotten easier to use. We can use WordPress.com, for example, to build a web page in a matter of minutes. You just pick a name (URL) for your site (a domain), use some simple word processor-like tools to create some content, and publish it on the web. WordPress.com hosts (stores) your pages, delivering them to anyone who types in your domain’s URL. Of course, you might argue that you’re just changing Twitter or Facebook or Instagram for WordPress.com, another corporate entity. So you might decide to buy your domain and pick an entity like ReclaimHosting.com, a site that exists solely to allow you to take control of your digital identity. You can then install WordPress from WordPress.org and manage the blogging software on your own. This self-hosting of WordPress takes more technical skill and knowledge than using WordPress.com but you get much more control. You can install themes (which control the look of the web pages) and widgets (which change the way the web pages work). If you decide your hosting company doesn’t have your best interests at heart, you can take your web pages and move them to another hosting company. Or you can set up your own web server and host your site yourself. Of course, this requires even more technical skill and knowledge. In general, the more control you want, the more challenging the tasks are.
That’s where the IndieWeb comes in. Members of the IndieWeb community are building tools to try to make moving your web presence off the corporate web easier, giving you more control over your digital identity. I like to think of the IndieWeb as a way of trying to regain the democratic ideals of early Web 2.0. IndieWeb wants us all to have a web presence that we own and control. We can still use tools like Twitter and Facebook to bring us together but we publish our content first on our own web sites and then decide where we want to share them. An example is this post. I’m writing it on http://cathieleblanc.com/blog. But I want others to see it. So after publishing it on my own site with my self-hosted installation of WordPress, I will put a link to it on Facebook and on Twitter for others to see. Facebook and Twitter serve as today’s interactive hotlist. Everything old is new again.
I’ve been playing with IndieWeb tools for the last few weeks. The community is very helpful and committed. I look forward to continued investigation and experimentation and see lots of promise here.
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