Have you heard about the Indie Web? The idea that our habit of always using a “silo” company like Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter to communicate with our friends will ultimately hurt our society. The idea that we should re-decentralise the Web by taking back individual control of our data and communications.

A rant

Almost every message we send or photo we post, in recent years, we do by depositing it in a silo. We give our message or photo to a company such as Facebook, and let them store it on their terms. We let them control when and how and to whom they show our message. We even let them control whether and how we can get our own data back from them*. That system works just fine, of course. You can be my Friend and talk to me; all you need to do is sign up and keep to their terms of service. As long as I accept that they may start charging me for the service at any time. And as long as I don’t care that when they eventually shut down the service my diaries and albums will be gone, and all the links to them will be dead even though I kept a copy of the data somewhere else.

The silo system works fine, as long as we don’t mind not sharing our conversation and photos with some of our real friends and family who can’t or won’t join Facebook or prefer to use another system. And as long as I’m happy to log in to a different service to read my LinkedIn messages, and another one to read WhatsApp, and can’t download all my messages into a single application and go offline and then read them.

Good old email

What happened to email? It’s the only popular Internet communication medium that is still Open in the sense that anyone can join in without having to sign up to one particular company. Email has wonderfully opened up the world by being an Open protocol. That’s hugely important.

The Internet connects us all directly. It was designed that way. Technically, each of us could directly own and control our own data, our own communications, everything we do on the Internet — our own “digital self”. But we are choosing not to, and perhaps we don’t appreciate the implications this choice will have.

You might want to read Dan Gillmor explaining Why the Indie Web movement is so important.

The movable blog

When I write a blog article like this one, I should have the choice where to store the text, and that choice should not restrict who can read it.

Can you tell where this blog post you’re reading is actually stored and being served from? If you’re a geek you’ll know how to find out, but I’ll tell you: at RedHat’s OpenShift Online service. At least, at the time of writing, it was. If RedHat ever starts charging too much for that service, I can rent another server from another company, or even buy one and put it under my desk, and move the blog data and software onto it and continue running.

How? The key here is:

The URLs of my data and of my communication channels are under my own domain name:

http://<my-data>.foad.me.uk

http://blog.foad.me.uk/this-blog-entry

When I first experimented with setting up a blog, I set it up at jfoad.wordpress.com because that’s the Easy Way and it was only a private test with about two posts. Even so, before I realised what I was doing, I’d sent my brother a link to one of those posts. Then I moved the blog to a server under my own control, which meant it could no longer be at a wordpress.com address, and so the link in his email became broken. I broke the hyperlink. I Broke The Web. Oops.

To be able to move my blog to a different hosting company without breaking the Web, my URLs need to stay the same. To achieve this, the URLs need to be under my complete control, which means under my own domain name. I learnt the lesson and moved it to blog.foad.me.uk.

When I next need to move it, I will adjust my DNS records for the URL blog.foad.me.uk to point to the new server, and so the URLs of all the posts can stay the same, and all existing links to them can remain unbroken.

Indie Web

I’ve been learning about Indie Web principles, and I’ve been playing with some specific techniques in practice, but the movement has a lot of catching up to do. Two big obstacles we need to overcome are the enormous “network effect” that makes it hard for users to escape from the dominance of the big silo companies, and the lack of good, open protocols and methods that are easy to set up and delightful to use. In order to overcome the former we’ll need to create the latter, and that’s something I’m getting interested in helping with.

Let’s go and IndieWebify.Me


* Data protection law in Europe requires Them to let Us retrieve all the data they hold about us, hence Google “Takeout”, Facebook “Download my data”, and so on. That’s something, but it does not make an Indie Web.

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Grace
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Grace

Hello Julian, can you comment on whether the ‘network effect’ is more likely to be overcome in real world use by using open protocols to retrieve data from ‘silo’ networks so it can be posted elsewhere, or by starting again with new, open social networks?

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