Five Years on the IndieWeb

About five years ago, in early 2019, I stumbled upon the IndieWeb, a movement and community dedicated to modernizing the personal website. I quickly became enamoured with its ideas and spent the next year revamping my website and blog to make it more compliant with their standards.

I've written about the IndieWeb before but if you're just tuning in, there are several dimensions to it:

I pretty much went whole hog here; my website and publishing workflow supports all of the above, and link previews to boot. Not particularly well, mind you, but that's a different conversation.

Owning your own data, and collecting it in one place, just felt right to me, as I've always been a bit uneasy with the idea of leaving my online presence spread out among a handful of third party applications. The nerd in me also appreciated the way the IndieWeb both generalized the notion of a post, and classified individual posts into specific types, like articles or notes; I'd often mulled over rudimentary versions of this kind of scheme in the past, but never really had the wherewithal to implement it.

(To be fair, the IndieWeb post classification scheme is not perfect. In particular, I don't find it particularly useful to distinguish between certain types of posts, like notes or photos or videos; to me, these are all just different variations of a note. In general, I think it's more useful to firmly distinguish between original content, such as articles or notes, which have their roots in traditional blogging, and derivative content, such as likes, reposts and replies, which seem to have come about as a response to the emergence of social networking. This personal preference surfaces in my blog via my "Lifestream" feed which houses all my original content into one feed)

My blog never had a lot of readers, and I never had a ton of followers on social media, so while the social networking aspects of the IndieWeb, particularly the webmentions, certainly intrigued me, they were never what sold me. I wrote this a few years ago, for example, in my inaugural post introducing myself to the IndieWeb at large:

Even if the entire IndieWeb consisted of a single personal website, it would still "work", in the sense that the owner of the website would be in control of their own content and would still be able to share that content with their friends on (say) Twitter.

This reveals something of my mindset at the time, I think. The IndieWeb, for me at least, was mainly about owning and organizing your content in one place, under your control. It was about curating your online presence and identity. It was about an efficient publication flow. It wasn't really about talking to other people.

A good thing too, because while the IndieWeb is a very cool idea, I can't honestly say that it ever really took off. It remains, five years after I joined, a niche concept, for various reasons that others have explored. So if you made your website IndieWeb compliant with the express purpose of connecting with other people on the IndieWeb...well, I'm not saying that you'll find a ghost town, but you certainly won't find the bustling metropolis that is Facebook or Twitter (I will never call it X).

Don't get me wrong - after the Musk takeover of Twitter, decentralized social networking is certainly having a moment, but it's mostly in the form of ActivityPub, the protocol that powers Mastodon and a host of other applications specializing in different things, such as photo or book sharing. And while these applications are certainly a step up from the standard crop of corporate backed silos, they aren't a replacement for a personal website; your online presence and content, while nominally under your control, is still spread out across different platforms - platforms which come with a certain amount of lock-in. As I've mentioned before, it's not something that really appeals to me. One of the main advantages of using something like microformats instead is that your posts remain plain, vanilla HTML. It's basically the old school web - with some extra metadata for the sake of interoperability. This does appeal to me.

Still, if you joined the IndieWeb in the hopes of being part of a conversation and have been disappointed, these ActivityPub based applications might do the trick. You can even self-host them, if you've got the time and inclination.

But while I do use these applications, they will never be my main presence online. And I think, at the end of the day, this is what the IndieWeb has truly offered me - a framework for me to have a discoverable online presence in a way that doesn't put me at the mercy of companies or applications that may disappear at a moment's notice. Even if I'm just one voice shouting into a silent void, there is value in that.

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