Silos, IndieWeb, and Me
I’ve had skippy.net since January, 1999. I’ve written almost 700 posts in that time. When I started writing stuff here, there was no Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or LiveJournal. I’ve been creating, hosting, and distributing my own content since the very beginning. I’ve gone from writing HTML by hand, to using WordPress, to now writing Markdown by hand and using Hugo to generate HTML. I used to permit comments on posts. My website has seen a lot of change over the years, all of which was motivated and implemented by me.
Over the years, various platforms sprang up to make it easy to create, host, and distribute content. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LiveJournal, MySpace, Blogger, and so many others. Each of these offered various benefits to users, and most of them have been free to use. Vast amounts of content have been created and abandoned over the years.
Each of these platforms is a silo:
a centralized web site typically owned by a for-profit corporation that stakes some claim to content contributed to it and restricts access in some way (has walls)..
I joined Twitter in 2007. I’ve written almost 9,000 tweets in that time. Until very recently, Twitter was the only place any of that content was available.
It seems weird to me, now, that I’d’ve spent so much time and energy curating my blog posts, while simply throwing tweets into Twitter with no sense of preservation or history. Twitter could shut down tomorrow, and all of my tweets could disappear forever. Such a loss wouldn’t really be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of life; but it turns out to be an easy thing to avoid.
I recently used the “Download your Twitter data” feature at the bottom of the Your Twitter Data portion of the Twitter account settings. This gave me all of my tweets, in several formats. I then spent several weeks poking at all of this data, and working on how to display it sanely right here on my own website.
I ended up writing several little scripts to exercise the Twitter API to obtain the original content of things I’d retweeted, as well as the original content of tweets to which I replied. It was a fun little exercise, and a bit of a diversion from the kind of techncial work I do at work.
The next step was to develop a solution for me to create content here first, and then cross-post to Twitter. In this way, I can always be the primary source of all of my content. There is a clever acronym for this process: POSSE “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere”.
Along the way, I’ve dug deep into microformats, micropub, and quite a bit more. I wrote my own micropub endpoint. I’ve met some great people, and learned a bunch of new stuff. In many ways, this has been like my earliest experiences with the open source movement, and then again with the original WordPress and Habari communities: a bunch of like-minded people trying to figure out what they want to accomplish, and helping one another make cool things.
Why go through all of this hassle? Why futz with error handling, inscrutable specifications, obtuse APIs, and security considerations when all of those details are handled for me by silos like Facebook, Twitter, etc? Moreover, why bother going through all that hassle with my own website when the end result is functionally just the same as if I had posted directly to Twitter to begin with?
In part, it’s fun. It’s a challenge, and something to do to keep me entertained. But more than that, it’s empowering to know that I am in control of all of my content. I’ve been posting content online for longer than many of these silos have existed; so maybe I’m a relic of a bygone time, when people had more skin in the game of content creation? Maybe I’m pursuing some quixotic vision where people share meaningful information without the burden of monetization or gamification or the pursuit of more followers.
The IndieWeb movement is an effort by people who share my ideas. It’s not the only group or effort with these goals, but it’s one in which I’ve found a lot of ideas that align with my own, along with a lot of working code to do what I want to do. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re at all interested in reclaiming ownership of your content, it’s worth checking out.
The IndieWeb suggests a number of interoperable protocols and recommends several standards to support data portability. Implementation details are left up to you: you can use an exiting plugin for an open source project like WordPress or Drupal; or you could write your own solution to do just what you want to do. The whole point is to get back to the truly decentralized goals of the Internet.
Twitter and other silos leverage the network effect, making it easier to use their services at the expense of true interoperability. The Internet was originally conceived to be truly decentralized; and while Facebook and Twitter and GitHub have geographic diversity, their services are emphatically not decentralized. Decentralization is hard, because there’s little economic benefit to it, and building and running global networks is time consuming and expensive.
Moreover, these silos trivialize much of the intention of sharing content at all. It’s supremely easy to post anything and everything, and rely on your followers to filter out what is not of interest to them. There’s a diminishment of personal connections, because you’re sharing everything with everyone. Of course I’m speaking in broad strokes, and making sweeping generalizations. These silos don’t preclude careful, intentional, or private sharing; but they tend to subtly discourage it. Individual users have their own workflows and sharing habits, so there’s plenty of intentional and intimate communication, but I’d wager that this is a vanishing minority of all content posted to silos.
The IndieWeb, as an alternative way to publish and manage content (and connections), removes a bunch of the economic motivations of silos. IndieWeb users are in full control of what they elect to share, and how they choose to share it. This is neither better nor wose than using a silo, of course: it’s just a different way to accomplish much the same end state. The motivations and drivers are substantially different, though.
While on my IndieWeb journey, I’ve realized just how much content I’ve lost over the years. Photos posted to Twitter used to go to TwitPic, but they’ve shut down. I used to use Posterous, but they got bought and shuttered. Lots of other services, large and small, sprung up, collected a wealth of content, and then disappeared, taking all that content with them. Many of the links in my notes and in my posts are dead, gone forever.
Focusing on controlling all of my own content helps me minimize this loss over time. By posting content and uploading media to my own site, I ensure that I choose when to abandon that content. It’s trivially inexpensive to maintain my collection of content, and it’s relatively easy to move between hosting providers. It does require a level of technical proficiency, and a sometimes non-trivial investment of time, but those costs are greatly outweighed by the benefits I obtain.