James Gallagher

how I am joining the Indie Web

Published on June 15, 2020 in indie web

It's been a few weeks since I first encountered the Indie Web, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. The Indie Web has helped me rediscover what it was that got me interested in technology: the technology itself. Startups and growth, while interesting, don't particularly resonate with me. Reading about how the web is built, now that is something that really gets my mind going.

How do you join the Indie Web? This was the question that was on my mind when I started to do more research into it. There are a few great guides out there on this topic, namely the one on the Indie Web website (which you should check out). In the spirit of the Indie Web, I feel like I cannot make any suggestions on how you can contribute. What makes the Indie Web so special is that you are really encouraged to find what it is that makes sense to you, and explore it in depth.

The reason I am joining the Indie Web is because I care about privacy, and simplicity, and the old web that we once had. I'm not old enough to remember the web of the '90s, but I have fond memories of the web of the '00s. Websites felt less smooth, but that was part of their character. Those websites, I now know, were built using technologies like HTML and CSS, without the usage of large web frameworks. It's humbling to come across a website that still embraces those principles because it reminds me that the same architecture that built up the old web is still there.

No matter how many modern frameworks we develop -- React, NextJS, and whatever else -- there will always be the same principles powering the web. We'll always rely on good 'ol HTTP, TCP/IP, and other standards. I think these modern frameworks have a place in the future of the web. Both of the examples I just cited power this site. But I never want to lose sight of what matters. That's the content that is shared on the web.

I've come to expect that new technologies should be faster and sleeker than their predecessors. That's how I think most people see technology. We should be moving backwards, and not forwards. Yet I would say that there are few technologies faster than the ones we've already built for the web. HTML and CSS may not be perfect -- although maybe they are, as I'm not too familiar with all the standards -- but they are certainly blazing fast.

You can upload a HTML page to a web server today and call it your own. You don't even need a domain name to share what you have built. It may not be attractive, but you could share the IP address of the service you have configured. The barrier for getting your website set up is really low.

That brings me to the Indie Web. The Indie Web has crystallized many of the values that I care about when using technology. I care about using the technologies that work, rather than the most modern solution that is said to be the "best yet." I care about developing for content first, and design second. The internet is a place for us to share content. That's what it is best at. This is another value that the Indie Web has cultivated.

Domain names

I was already on the Indie Web long before I started reading about the topic. I already owned a personal website, and it turned out that was the first level of being part of the independent web. I had already built my own internet home. It felt great to know I was already on the way to taking control of my data, and I didn't even need to do anything. If you don't already own a domain name, that's the first step to getting involved.

Why is owning a domain name so important? A domain name is to the internet what your name is to you. It's the means by which people can find you. Sharing an IP address is technically possible, but it's not easy to remember. A domain name gives you a name that you can use on the internet. People know me as James, but they also know me as jamesg.app. This is my internet home. This is the place where I share most of my thoughts about the world.

Building my own site

Earlier this year I decided to build my own personal website. I had been hosting my data on Squarespace for a number of months, but my site didn't feel like my own. It wasn't. It was hosted on someone else's architecture, and I could only customize the style of my site to a certain point. I could feasibly have made my own theme for Squarespace, but to do so I would have had to build a site in compliance with their guidelines. I'd have had to use Squarespace standards to build my site, and those are not openly portable.

Building my own personal website has been liberating in the sense that I now feel like I own what I am creating on the internet. When I post something on this site, I know that I have control over it. I can change it at any point. The content is my own. We're all aware of how many centralized platforms like Myspace haven't stood the test of time. It's likely -- even if it may not seem like it now -- that platforms like Facebook will one day, too, fall. I don't have to think about what I'll do if those businesses fail. My data is stored in public, on GitHub. It's also on my personal computer.

Data ownership is not the only reason I built this personal website. I built this site because I felt like other platforms didn't reflect my identity. My Twitter profile looked like everyone else's. I could write my own bio, but that's not nearly as creative as designing my own internet home. On this site, I am able to better express my identity. It's amazing how much power HTML and CSS can give you. I can decide on the style and hang up my own metaphorical pictures. You don't need to code your own site like I did to embrace the Indie Web, but I'd highly recommend it.

Creating a more connected web

My journey into the Indie Web has reacquainted me with what the web was really about: sharing information. The modern web has become all about profits and SEO and optimizing websites for the masses. There have been some good advances come out of this, such as how easy it now is to read the news. You don't need to wait for the six o'clock news to hear what's going on in the world. The NYT website has you covered. What I don't like is how we seem to have lost control over how we share information. Information is fed to us, rather than seen as something we should choose to consume.

Notifications tell us what apps to open. Social media curates the content we see using algorithms that we'll never be able to fully understand.

This doesn't sound like the web I want to use. What web do I want to use? One where there is a sense of connection between other websites.

It wasn't until recently that I started to think about the web as a web. It's not just a place where you upload content and share it with the world. Every website is connected. There is no centralized server that powers the web; everyone owns their little piece. I could buy a Raspberry Pi tomorrow and hook it up to the internet and then it would be part of the web. I could set up an Apache or Nginx server and then I'd have my own self-hosted site.

As I spend more time reading about the Indie Web, I am learning more about why we should be trying to make a more interconnected web. We need to do it to take back control over the internet that we have right now. Creating more connections between websites and users is an essential part of taking back control from centralized platforms.

I am starting to use hyperlinks more often in my blog posts, and I intend on continuing with this trend. Hyperlinks are one of the many ways in which I can promote an open web. A hyperlink allows me to share with you a resource that I have found interesting or relevant to what I am writing. It's your choice whether you click on it or not but I will use them anyway to share with you materials that you may like. This helps create a more connected web. You don't need to rely on Google to rank your blog post well on their search index. If you write good content, I may hyperlink to it. That will help other people discover something that I've already found to be intriguing.

Another way that I've been promoting a more connected web is through installing a web ring on my site. I had no idea what a web ring was a few weeks ago, and now I see them as vital to discovering content on the internet. A web ring is a network of people who have uploaded their websites to a list. When you install a web ring on your site, you will have a widget that, when clicked, will take you to a random site on that web ring.

It's a great way to discover new content for a few reasons. For one, as more people join a web ring, more sites become available to which you can randomly navigate. Second, web rings are usually focused around one topic. I am part of the Indie Web web ring (check out the footer on this site to access the web ring). Most of the sites I've encountered on the web ring so far talk quite a bit about the Indie Web. Many people are building their own personal websites. Yesterday I found myself clicking around on web rings for ten minutes and I discovered so many new great blogs.

The web ring is a core part of this site not just because it helps me discover content, but because it helps you, my loyal readers, discover related content to read. I don't even need to worry about hyperlinks to different blogs. When you click on the Indie Web web ring, you know that you are going to come across a site which is at least somewhat related to mine. The only bond may be that we both find the Indie Web interesting, but that's enough.

Webmentions

I plan to write a tutorial on this at some point, once I figure out how I want to structure it. Maybe I'll give it a go after publishing this post. Anyway, I digress. The point I want to make is that I am now starting to embrace webmentions as I venture forth further into the Indie Web.

Webmentions were initially intimidating for me, because I didn't quite understand how they worked. The idea was that you could publish a comment on another person's site and simultaneously own your own data. Webmentions are built on open standards which is what makes this work, but there was a bit of a learning curve. I highly recommend Aaron Parecki's tutorial on how to get started with Webmentions if you're struggling to understand the technical architecture behind Webmentions.

Over the weekend, I implemented Webmentions on this blog. After overcoming a few technical challenges, I got them to work. This feature now allows anyone to respond to my blog posts and own their responses. Webmentions are hosted on your own site, and are then parsed using a standard format and read on my site. That means that you can write your own responses and have them appear in my comments thread, but you can still own your data. You can delete or modify your Webmention at any time. You don't have to worry about me changing the comments edit policy on this blog. There isn't one, and there cannot be. You are in full control over your data.

I haven't come across many sites that support Webmentions outside of the Indie Web, but I hope that more do in the future. It may be less intuitive than writing a traditional comment, but it does promote data ownership. You own your comments. In a world where we rely on companies like Twitter and Instagram to surface the best comments and most-liked replies, it's good to know that there are tools out there that help you take back control.

My journey continues

I'm still relatively new to the Indie Web. I read on their forum that they host Homebrew Website Clubs that you can join that are dedicated to personal websites. There's also a wide range of technologies I am yet to delve into. I've played around with microformats and Webmentions but those are only two of the many technologies being developed by people on the Indie Web.

I'm proud to be a member of the Indie Web. It's taken me a long time to realize this, but the internet that I've been using for the last few years isn't one that aligns with all of my values. Centralized companies like Twitter may have provided me with a lot of value, but I now understand that there was a cost to the value they provided. Twitter took control over my data. It made a profit from the content I submitted. This doesn't sound like a web I want to use. So I have decided to start embracing more independent technologies.

I'll never be able to escape from the grasps of the technology giants entirely. I remember watching a video series by The Verge (I think) where one of their writers tried to cut out technology giants from their life for a few weeks. It was an eye-opening series because they showed how many times the tech companies tried to interact with your device. Those connections were blocked, but they were still tracked. What I remember most from the series is not how much the tech giants track us, but how difficult it is to really detach from them, and how inconvenient it is when you do.

I have instead decided to embrace a set of core values that make up who I want to be on the internet. I want to own my own data. I want to help surface other people's content by using hyperlinks. I want people who interact with this site to own their own data. Privacy, simplicity, and openness are all fundamental values of the web, and they are still within our reach. These are the values that I care about.

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