Media, Technology, and Education
IndieWeb

An Alternative to the Corporate Web

I’ve written about why I think we need the IndieWeb before. I’m going to the Popular Culture Association Conference in April and will present about this there as part of the Internet Culture track. I’ve been talking to friends about what they might want to know about the IndieWeb as a way of getting a sense of what to present about. I realized that I have additional thoughts about the importance of the IndieWeb community so that’s what this post is about. Once the presentation is complete, I’ll make the slide deck available as a supplement to this post.

The Early Web

First, a little bit of a brief history so that we can understand where we are now and why we need an alternative to the corporate web. The World Wide Web was proposed by Tim Berners-Lee 30 years ago, back in 1989. Berners-Lee worked at CERN and was frustrated that so often when someone proposed a large scale scientific experiment, someone would raise the question of how they would keep track of all the individual components involved in the experiment and the mass of data and information that would arise from the experiment. As a solution, Berners-Lee proposed the development of a “non-linear text system” that would represent the various pieces of the experiment (people involved, equipment used, input data, output data, documents created, etc.) and the relationships (links) between those pieces. Information about the experiment would no longer be in danger of being lost because you could find anything you were looking for simply by following the various links in the larger system. Berners-Lee was given time by his boss to work on this proposal and by 1991, he had built enough of the system to invite people outside of CERN to participate. This was the birth of the World Wide Web.

The implementation of the early web involved people like me having static web pages that were designed to serve static information to those who stumbled across my pages. I tracked down my web site from 1997, the year I finished grad school. Looking at these pages, you can see how static they are. For example, there is no place for anyone to enter comments in order to engage in a conversation with me. In fact, there is no indication on the pages that I would regularly update the information found there. Despite how static and basic these pages seem now, the barriers to entry for a person to have a site like this were pretty high. First, you needed to have some fairly significant tech skills because the pages were built by hand coding HTML, the mark up language of the web. Second, you needed to have access to a server that would store your pages for the world to find. This was no small barrier back in 1997. The only reason I had access to a server was because I was a Computer Science PhD student (and then later in the year, a new faculty member at a different institution).

Web 2.0

In 1999, an experience designer named Darcy Dinucci described an updated vision of what the World Wide Web might look like. She dubbed this new vision “Web 2.0.” (In the course of researching this presentation, I realized that Dinucci does not have a Wikipedia page. This is a whole different aspect of Internet Culture that I would like to write about.) As a new faculty member, I was very excited about Web 2.0. The idea was a web that required little technical skill in order to participate. It was powered by sites that allowed user interaction and collaboration, facilitated the sharing of user-generated content, and was a space that created a community of users who could easily interact with each other. This vision promised the democratization of the World Wide Web. This was the web that cultural studies scholar Henry Jenkins was looking at when he wrote about participatory culture. Users with little technical skill could write reviews of products and services, comment on the news of the day, interact with others who shared their cultural interests, share their creative works, teach each other about their individual areas of expertise, and more. The most important part of Web 2.0 was that it facilitated connections between people. It helped to build communities. It was exciting!

We are now living with Web 2.0. People regularly do all of the things that I described above using sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Pinterest, Amazon, Yelp, etc. These sites have indeed empowered people. But that empowerment has not been entirely positive. I won’t get into all the negative aspects related to trolling, flaming, bullying, and so on. Instead, I’m interested in the negative aspects of Web 2.0 that are related to individual loss of control of their own data. Lots of problems arise when a person’s digital identity is spread across corporate silos. When I post something on Facebook, for example, my friends who aren’t on Facebook, who are maybe only on Twitter, cannot see what I’ve said. Even more concerning is the fact that the content I post on these corporate silos belongs to the corporations and not to me. We know that sites like Facebook surveil their users so that they can serve advertisements that might be interesting. Some people find this targeted content to be a positive thing. But there are darker sides to corporate surveillance on these Web 2.0 sites. The Cambridge Analytica scandal in which a third party company collected data about participants and, more disturbingly, their friends without a clear explanation that they were collecting and what they were doing with that data serves as a particularly horrifying example. The fact that this firm used the data they surreptitiously collected to influence elections in the US is ironic given our hope that Web 2.0 would democratize our online world. But the problems go deeper. Because the corporations control the data and information shared on their sites, some users (and larger organizations) have found themselves shut out of their own accounts when the corporations decide they have violated some rule. Users have lost their content when particular corporate sites shut down. Many users have documented the difficulties they encounter when they try to completely leave a particular corporate web site.

The IndieWeb

These numerous problems with our current implementation of Web 2.0 led me to look for an alternative to the corporate web and I found the IndieWeb. What is the IndieWeb? According to the IndieWeb web site, it is a people-focused alternative to the “corporate web.” The web site also says that the IndieWeb is a community of technologists, makers, and educators who have come together over a shared set of principles. The IndieWeb is also an openly shared commons of tools, projects, and documentation related to building personal spaces on the Web. What does all of this mean? The IndieWeb is a group of people who build their own web sites but in the process of doing so, they also build tools that will help others to more easily build their own web sites and make those tools freely available.

There have been other initiatives that try to do this but the current IndieWeb movement differs from those other projects in some key ways that are encapsulated in the stated principles of the community.

  1. Principles over project-centrism: A community developing many projects following a set of principles is more robust and produces better results than a monoculture focused on one project.
  2. Build what you need, use what you build: Scratch your own itch, by creating for yourself on your personal domain and iterating (the community calls this “selfdogfooding” which is a word I hate).
  3. Design and user experience first, formats and protocols second: Focus on user experience first, and then re-use, subset, implement, iterate, develop simplest minimal formats & protocols needed to support that user experience.

 

Remember that I said that in Web 1.0 it was difficult to build your own site for a variety of reasons. Web sites have typically gotten more complex rather than less so because of the desire for interaction. But the tools to build sites have gotten easier to use so that average people can pretty easily set up basic sites that allow various types of interaction. A bigger problem is that if everyone is doing everything on their own sites, there is no obvious, easy way to find other people that you might find interesting to connect and interact with. In other words, the corporate web sites create a community that is challenging to recreate without those centralized sites. This challenge is one that the IndieWeb community is specifically trying to address via the commons.

The members of this community build tools that aid in interaction and community building that others can begin to use on their own sites. These technologists, makers, and educators build modular tools for themselves, document those tools and their processes, and share their work openly.

For example, WordPress is the platform that is behind about one third of all sites currently on the World Wide Web. It is one of the tools that I use to build and maintain my personal site. When I put content on Facebook or Twitter, the corporation owns that content but it is displayed to everyone I’ve connected to on that site (but not to those I’ve connected to on other sites). When I put content on my personal WordPress site, I own it but it is challenging to get others to see that content. The IndieWeb community subscribes to an idea called POSSE (Publish on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere). The idea is that you make your content available on your own site but then you share it on other sites. How can we do that?

We might do it manually. When I publish a post on my blog, for example, I can then copy and paste the link (or the full content) of the post on Twitter (or some other site) where my community on that site can find it. In fact, I do this all the time. It’s how I’ve created connections with lots of other professionals interested in the same things I’m interested in. But it’s kind of a pain to write a post, publish it, and then copy the link to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yammer, and maybe Instagram. I’m a member of other communities that I never bother to post my content to (primarily because I’m not particularly active in those communities).

Here’s where the IndieWeb community can play a role. Members of the community are working on multiple projects that make syndicating your work to other places easier. One of the projects is a service  called Bridgy, which provides support for POSSE. Part of the project is a WordPress plugin that is easy to install and use. The plugin can be configured to automatically post any content you put on your WordPress site to your Twitter feed. Another part of the service allows any Comments or Likes you receive on Twitter to feed back to your web site to be posted there as well. Here’s what it will look like on your personal web site:

These are the comments on my WordPress site for a recent post. The first actual comment was made directly on my web site. The Likes and Reposts were backfed from Twitter to my site. In other words, this list of 5 people interacted with the tweet containing the link to my post and those interactions fed back through Bridgy to my post.

As I said, Bridgy allows you to consolidate your web activity from across multiple corporate silos onto your personal web site. A caveat is that Facebook, which owns Instagram, made changes to their Application Programming Interface a while ago so that this kind of consolidation is not possible.

In order to allow POSSE to work, you need to make a connection between your web site and Twitter and the other corporate silos. The IndieWeb community has tools to help with that as well. For example, there is an IndieWeb plugin for WordPress that can help you establish your identity online, as well as recommending other plugins to support additional Indieweb features. Once the IndieWeb plugin is installed and activated, you simply complete your user profile, adding in links to other websites that you use. This allows you to connect your identity on those sites to your website, creating a consolidated digital identity.

Web 3.0

One last point: IndieWeb web sites use microformats, which are meta-data tags. For example, in order to establish a consolidated digital identity, the HTML for a post from my web site would contain the following:

  • <a href=”https://twitter.com/cathieleblanc” rel=”me”>@cathieleblanc</a>

 

@cathieleblanc is my Twitter handle and https://twitter.com/cathieleblanc is the URL of my Twitter feed.

 

When I add my web site to my profile on Twitter, the following HTML is generated:

  • <a href=”https://cathieleblanc.com” rel=”me”>https://cathieleblanc.com</a>

 

https://cathieleblanc.com is the URL of my personal web site. The rel=”me” tag on each of these is the microformat that tells each site that this is a relationship that is all about “me.” This meta-data is important to help computers start to understand the relationships between the various pieces of code on the Web. This is called the semantic web and actually represents Web 3.0, which was proposed by Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) in 2001. If all web sites used these microformats that describe what the data actually contains, we would be able to develop software that could read and understand anything on the web and display it in many different ways. For example, I might have some data on my web site that represents an event. I could have a calendar system that reads that data and displays it appropriately for the calendar. I might also have an attendance app that reads the data and allows people to sign in as attendees of the event. I might have a third app that allows people to give feedback on the event. I will be very excited when we rely on meta-data of this type because then I wouldn’t have problems like my Google calendar not being able to speak to my Outlook calendar. They would both read and display the same set of marked up events and I could go back and forth between the calendar applications seamlessly.

Conclusion

Chris Aldrich has written a great Introduction to the IndieWeb. In it, he says that the goal of the IndieWeb is to help us to gain more control of our web presences, to have a true sense of ownership of our content, and to help us be better connected to our friends, families, colleagues, and communities. To participate in the community, we can start by owning and using our own domains. (I recommend Reclaim Hosting.) We can then progress to owning our data by using POSSE and backfeed tools like Bridgy and microformats. And finally, we can all participate in the development of the tools that will allow this ambitious project of making the Web less corporate to succeed.

#indienews

 

Image Credit: Screen Shot of my web site from 1997 taken from The Wayback Machine

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

21 Comments

  1. Robin DeRosa

    I can’t wait to check this out!!! No time now, so behind, so I hope I can get to it tomorrow night or when I’m traveling. Exciting!!!

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