“Everything old is new again”

I’ve come across some interesting posts, articles and discussions about the indieWeb recently. On first glance it seems like another buzzword in a sea of buzzwords online for fairly mundane things. The basic premise I absolutely support - taking back control of your digital identity from the corporations. I particularly like the outline here, although, reading through it reminds me of some of posts I have previously written. The background of how the web used to be I found interesting as I certainly did not have the technical skills at the time to build my own web presence.

Moreover, the consideration of different forms of network are interesting too. Certainly the modern web suffers from the over centralisation of services from the big 5 companies, which are now so big they have the collective acronym of FAAMG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google). The push towards an “indieWeb” is based around moving towards a more decentralised system, which I support in theory. In this model the user has a lot more control over their data and web presence. However, this approach introduces the same issues the early web had; namely that the diy approach is more time consuming and requires commitment to learn from the user. I’ll revisit this later.

The IndieWeb Concept

The indieWeb is experimental, but proposes that registering a personal domain name should be the starting point in generating a web presence. It is assumed that this would be linked to some form of blog, although this does not have to be the case. The domain is a key step in the decentralisation process, as it moves the user away from the corporate services. In theory a user can run services from this domain, be it a blog or some other service. This base domain is the platform from which ideas can be published and syndicated out to other services.

Eventually, this domain can be used for authentication as it becomes the virtual embodiment of a person online (just ensure that your domain registrar messages you in plenty of time if a renewal is coming up!). Additionally, tags used to syndicate content out to other networks can be used to notify other indieWeb users if their content has been written about or to have online conversations. It’s like a more interactive, supercharged RSS feed (incidentally, you can subscribe to this blog’s feed here.)

I like all of these ideas in principle, but I can’t help but think that this creates a worst-of-both-worlds scenario at the moment.

The Issues

Firstly, the idea of syndication in theory is great. However, it takes no ideological stance against FAAMG. Having a central blog from which links are posted on these platforms back to the blog does not take away these platforms power. It does not necessarily avoid the issues of tracking and privacy inherent in these platforms. The idea of using these platforms as repositories of links to whatever a user is publishing on their domain is not much better than publishing it on the platform directly. It does nothing to dismantle these platforms by replacing them with a superior option.

Additionally, I don’t fundamentally see how this concept addresses the original issue of accessibility which caused the rise of the ‘corporate web’ as it is called in some of the indieWeb literature. Fundamentally, even with tools like Wordpress, self-hosting a domain at home or a VPS is hard. The tools provided by the indieWeb add further complexity at this stage. They do nothing to address the fact that the minimum knowledge for entry is too high for the vast majority of internet users. Case in point, this article mentions Mastodon, a promising federated Twitter-clone. It describes it as;

“For example, Mastodon lets you set up an instance, like a chronological timeline, by downloading the software. Then other people can do the same, and those instances join together to create a federation, where people can follow different topics across boards."

Which is all well and good, but as someone who has gone through the process of getting a Mastodon instance up and running I can categorically say it was not a case of simply “downloading the software.” Even if a Docker image is available, a user now needs to go and learn Docker before they even begin!

How can this be improved?

While it’s admittedly arrogant for a user like myself to hold any criticism of the developers who actually work on these technologies, I do have a certain amount of experience and knowledge in making technology accessible to people. In it’s current nascent state, I can’t see the indieWeb providing much of a challenge to the current centralised infrastructure of the modern internet. Even with all of the public, visible issues with FAAMG, they still count millions of users as customers. The expectation that people will move to infrastructure they set up themselves is simply naive at this stage.

The fundamental principle behind the indieWeb is great, but I would like to see it take users into account more. This is true of people in ICT generally, as has been considered in recent years in relation to passwords. The best technical solution is not necessarily the best human solution, and the indieWeb concept is reflective of this to me. It is asking the same questions that were asked twenty years ago before the big 5 took centre stage in the race for usability and monetising people’s data. However, little progress in usability terms seems to have been made. The indieWeb is proposing a model that was largely how the internet operated all those years ago, and in this way it seems that everything old is new again.

However, I am optimistic. Perhaps once the functionality of these open-source, privacy-focused tools gets fleshed out developers will start considering how to make these accessible to people with comparatively low levels of technological literacy. Will it be enough to kickstart another phase of internet history? Time will tell I guess.

I found the following articles interesting if you want to read more about the indieWeb for yourself;