Welcome to the Indie Web Movement

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 25 2014 9:01 AM

Welcome to the Indie Web Movement

Suppose you could write in your personal blog and have a summary of your post show up on popular social-media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook—and then have responses on those sites show up as comments in your blog? You can, and if some talented programmers have their way you'll soon be able to do so easily. In fact, it's what I'm doing right now with this post, at least with the version that's also appearing on my personal blog.

Why would you or I want to do this? Simple: We're in danger of losing what's made the Internet the most important medium in history: a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks—that would be you and me—don't need permission to communicate, create, and innovate.

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This isn't a knock on social networks' legitimacy, or their considerable utility. But when we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, and which exists on their sites only as long as they allow.

Even if most people don't recognize what's at stake—yet—I'm happy to say that a small but growing group of technologists does. And they've created what they call the "Indie Web" movement to do something about it. It takes place in an extended online conversation and at periodic in-person meetings. The latter are IndieWebCamps, where they gather to hack together tools aimed at liberating us, to the extent possible, from centralized control—what the Web's key inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has called "re-decentralization" of the Net. In their early work they're taking advantage of the good things the social network "silos," as they call them, can offer, while ensuring that the data we create, and much of the conversation it engenders, lives in our own home-base sites.

They're creating what they call an alternative to the "corporate-owned" Internet. And do we ever need it. The principles, as they say on their website:

•    Your content is yours. When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users’ data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.
•    You are better connected. Your articles and status messages can go to all services, not just one, allowing you to engage with everyone. Even replies and likes on other services can come back to your site so they’re all in one place.
•    You are in control. You can post anything you want, in any format you want, with no one monitoring you. In addition, you share simple readable links such as mywebsite.com/ideas. These links are permanent and will always work.

Amber Case, one of the Indie Web creators, was drawn to the idea because the Internet had become "a claustrophobic space where all I could do was consume, with barriers to building and owning." She saw a new generation of Web users who'd never registered a domain name and weren't even aware of what was possible.

That happened, in part, because "Twitter and Facebook showed an easier path to creating online," says Aaron Pareki, another Indie Web organizer. "The original vision was everyone has their own space and made things. Then the silos formed and attracted people because it was easier."

I spent two days with them and others in the movement at their recent San Francisco camp (there's another camp being held this weekend in New York City) and came away dazzled by the vision of what they intend. I learned more about a variety of technologies they're creating to make it happen, including things called "webmention" and "microformats," among the underpinnings of the move toward re-decentralization.

I also came away with the open-source tools, which are still rudimentary, that have enabled me to move in a more independent direction. In my case, because I use WordPress for my personal blogging, I've installed several software modules, "Jetpack" and “IndieWeb” to extend the software's basic functionality.

The outbound piece depends, in turn, on Tantek Çelik's "POSSE," which stands for "Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.” Getting the comments, likes, favorites and other responses back depends on Ryan Barrett‘s Bridgy. I won't go into the technical details, but this stuff is close to magical even in its currently rudimentary form—and far advanced from when I first heard about it, in a post last fall at Wired.

This is also classic Internet innovation: created and deployed at the edge, not the center; rough, and constantly being improved. And if we're lucky, and help these folks by testing it out on our own devices, it's a vital part of the future.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University. He is the author of Mediactive.

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