Your Website Is Your Castle

In a previous blog post, I gave a very brief introduction to the IndieWeb, hopefully giving a sense of what it is and why it matters. In this post I'll try and zoom in a tiny bit and explain something of the mechanics of how the IndieWeb actually works and what it means to "like" a post or "share" a status update.

I'm deliberately trying to avoid too much detail in this post because, frankly, there's a lot to write, and it's easy to get lost. So I'm going to try and give a rough idea of what an IndieWeb enabled website looks like at a very high level, without going into the weeds. Further posts will go into more detail.

The Bare Minimum: Owning Your Own Identity

They say a person's home is their castle, and this is especially true when it comes to the IndieWeb - except, of course, on the IndieWeb, a person's website is their castle. Your website is effectively your home on the web and needs to be under your control.

So, yes, the first thing you need to join the IndieWeb is, obviously, a personal website but, more than that, it has to be hosted on a domain that you own. This means that a renting a space under a domain you don't own (in the style of, for example) won't do.

That being said, while hosting your own website on your own domain is a necessary first step, it is, by itself, not sufficient. In addition, you need to be able to use that domain to sign into other services using IndieAuth, a login protocol based on OAuth 2.0.

In general, this involves embedding your home page with various bits of information which can be used by third parties to figure out who you are. The process is particularly simple if you already have a profile on an existing social network and you're comfortable leveraging that profile for authentication purposes. Alternatively, you can host your own authorization endpoint, though that is, obviously, more work.

Hosting a website on a domain that you own, and being able to use that domain for sign-in purposes, is the bare minimum required for joining the IndieWeb. Ideally, of course, one would also like to publish interesting content on said website; read on for information on what that looks like in an IndieWeb context.

Publishing Content

At the heart of the IndieWeb is an attempt to unify the ideas behind personal websites, blogs and social networks, but in a manner consistent with how the world wide web operates.

Central to this vision is the concept of a post. A post, roughly speaking, is simply a piece of chronologically ordered content appearing on your website, identifiable by a unique URL called a permalink. It's hard to underestimate the conceptual importance of posts; they are the fundamental building blocks from which IndieWeb conversations are built. They are the main apparatus by which one recreates, in a decentralized manner, the kinds of online interactions one has come to expect from private social networks.

It should go without saying that publishing a post always happens on your own website. Your website acts much like your wall on Facebook or your timeline on Twitter - it's your personal soapbox, your castle on the web.

On the IndieWeb, almost all forms of content are considered posts, even things that one would normally not think of as such. In particular, we have, but are not limited to:

  • Articles. These are the equivalent of classic blog entries - titled, long-form pieces of writing.
  • Notes. These correspond to what other services might call tweets or status updates - short, titleless bits of content.
  • Reposts. These correspond to what other services might call "retweets" or "shares" - posts which re-publish other posts verbatim.
  • Replies. These are bits of content written in reply to a post on another website.
  • Likes. These are posts which represent the act of liking another post.

Articles and notes are probably the most familiar of these, and are probably what most people think of when they think of a "post". They are pieces of writing which make sense "on their own", so to speak; they are not, strictly speaking, "about" anything other than themselves. Reposts, replies and likes, on the other hand, are collectively "about" other posts and they only make sense in the context of those other posts.

The concept of a repost will be familiar to any user of Twitter (where the feature is called a retweet) and its casting as a new post on your own site (despite the fact that its content is almost entirely derived from another post on another site) probably makes sense in that context.

Reply posts, in an IndieWeb context, might require some conceptual adjustment if you're used to posting comments on standalone blogs. In the latter case, your reply ends up being trapped on someone's site or service, an outcome which is anathema to the notion of owning your own data. To avoid this, an IndieWeb reply, like all posts, is always published on your own site, even though it refers to a post on some other site.

In the same vein, and perhaps requiring even more conceptual adjustment, an IndieWeb "like" is also considered a kind of post. It's a bit weird to formulate it this way, since people tend to think of a "like" as an action applied to a post on another site, rather than content living on your own. The IndieWeb community begs to differ on this point and treats your like as if it were just another one of your posts, albeit one who's content makes no sense without pointing to another post (in a similar manner to a repost or a reply). In that sense, likes, reposts, and replies are all almost exactly the same in terms how they're structured on an IndieWeb enabled website (i.e. they are all posts which derive most of their content by referring to an external post) and differ merely in the meaning they are intended to convey.

An obvious question arises at this point: after you've liked (or reposted, or replied to) a post, how do you communicate that fact to the website owner? It seems like the sort of thing they'd want to know; many websites, for example, display a count of likes and reposts under the post itself. The answer to this issue involves the twin concepts of webmentions and microformats, but I will save the details for another post.

On Not Losing Your Friends

It's all well and good to talk about owning your own content and creating a social network out of the web itself, but the fact remains that most people are not on the IndieWeb. How do you deal with people who are using sites like Twitter or Facebook? Are they forever deprived of your cutting and insightful posts?

The IndieWeb's answer to this dilemma is not to prescribe any particular technology but rather to coin an acronym: POSSE, or Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. The idea is to publish a post on your own site first and then, only after it's available there, copying a version of the post to whatever other social networks you wish. It's more of an idea than a specific methodology, but there you have it.

There are lots of ways to do this, and it's strongly dependent on what software you use to publish your website. Lots of people do it manually; they will just copy the content to wherever it needs to go. Some blogging engines, like Wordpress, support automatic syndication to the social networks of your choice. I myself use a service called Bridgy to syndicate my posts to Twitter.

Once your post has been published to a social network, the question then arises of how to get notified when people interact with your syndicated post. In other words, what happens when someone likes your post on Twitter? The process of harvesting these online interactions on private social networks for use on your own site is called backfeed by the IndieWeb community and your options for doing this vary wildly depending on the APIs that are available for the sites you use. Most solutions I've seen involve some variation of polling your syndicated content for changes. In my case, I just use Bridgy (again) since it supports backfeed as well as syndication.

Filling in the Details

As I said before, I deliberately left a lot of details out of this discussion, in an attempt to keep the forest in sight and not be distracted by the trees. For example:

  • Exactly what information do you need to embed in your home page to be able to use your domain for sign-in purposes?
  • What exactly does a post look like?
  • How do webmentions work?
  • How do you integrate IndieWeb features into a Pelican based blog?

Alright, I'll admit that I'm probably one of only a small group of people who finds that last one interesting :-)

In any case, I'm planning on answering these questions with further posts. Stay tuned if you want more information.

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Jamie Tanna