Defining the IndieWeb

The concept of IndieWeb is something slightly different to many people and it’s ever evolving and changing, just like the internet itself.

Trying to define it is somewhat akin to trying to define America: while it has a relatively well-defined geographic border and place in time, its people, laws, philosophies, and principles, while typically very similar, can vary and change over time. What it is can be different for everyone both within it as well as outside of it. It can be different things to different people based on their place, time, and even mood. In the end maybe it’s just an idea.

A basic definition of IndieWeb

In broadest terms I would define being part of the IndieWeb as owning your own domain name and hosting some sort of website as a means of identifying yourself and attempting to communicate with others on the internet.

At its simplest, one could say they have an IndieWeb site by buying their own domain name (in my case: boffosocko.com) and connecting it to a free and flexible service like Tumblr.com or WordPress.com. Because you’ve got the ability to export your data from these services and move it to a new host or new content management system, you have a lot more freedom of choice and flexibility in what you’re doing with your content and identity and how you can interact online. By owning your domain and the ability to map your URLs, when you move, you can see and feel the benefits for yourself, but your content can still be found at the same web addresses you’ve set up instead of disappearing from the web.

If you wished, you could even purchase a new domain name and very inexpensively keep the old domain name and have it automatically forward people from your old links to all the appropriate links on your new one.

By comparison, owning your own domain name and redirecting it to your Facebook page doesn’t quite make you IndieWeb because if you moved to a different service your content might be able to go with you by export, but all of the URLs that used to point to it are now all dead and broken because they were under the control of another company that is trying to lock you into their service.

Some more nuanced definition

Going back to the analogy of America, the proverbial constitution for the IndieWeb is generally laid out on its principles page. If you like, the pre-amble to this “constitution” is declared on the IndieWeb wiki’s front page and on its why page.

Some people may choose to host the business card equivalent of a website with simply their name and contact information. Others may choose to use it as the central hub of their entire online presence and identity. In the end, what you do with your website and how you choose to use it should be up to you. What if you wanted to use your website like Twitter for short status updates or sharing links? What if you wanted to use it like Facebook to share content and photos with your friends and family? What if you want to host audio or video like Soundcloud, YouTube, or Vimeo allow?

The corporate social media revolution was a lovely and useful evolution of what the blogosphere was already doing. Thousands of companies made it incredibly easy for billions of people to be on the internet and interact with each other. But why let a corporation own and monetize your data and your ability to interact with others? More importantly, why allow them to limit what you can do? Maybe I want to post status updates of more than 280 characters? Maybe I want the ability to edit or update a post? Maybe I want more privacy? Maybe I don’t want advertising? Why should I be stuck with only the functionality that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn and thousands of others allow me to have? Why should I be limited in communicating with people who are stuck on a particular service? (Would you use your phone to only call friends who use AT&T?) Why should I have hundreds of social accounts and an online identity shattered like just so many horcruxes when I could have one that I can fully control?

By decentralizing things to the level of owning a domain and having a simple website with control of my URLs, I can move to cheaper or more innovative web hosts or service providers. I can move to more innovative content manage systems that allow me to do more and communicate better or more broadly with others online. As a side effect of empowering myself, I can help create more competition and innovation in the space to do things I might not otherwise be capable of doing solely by myself.

Web standards

Almost all of the people behind the IndieWeb movement believe in using some basic web standards as a central building block. Standards help provide some sort of guidance to allow sites to be easier to build and provide a simpler way for them to communicate and interact with each other.

Of course, because you have control of your own site, you can do anything you wish with it. (In our America analogy we could consider standards to be like speech. Then how might we define free speech in the IndieWeb?) Perhaps a group of people who want some sort of new functionality will agree on a limited set of new standards or protocols? They can build and iterate and gradually create new standards that others can follow so that the infrastructure advances and new capabilities emerge. Generally the simpler and easier these standards are to implement, the more adoption they will typically garner. Often simple standards are easier to innovate on and allow people to come up with new ways of using them that weren’t originally intended.

This type of growth can be seen in the relatively new W3C recommendation for the Webmention specification which grew out of the IndieWeb movement. Services like Facebook and Twitter have a functionality called @mentions, but they only work within their own walled gardens; they definitely don’t interoperate–you can’t @mention someone on Facebook with your Twitter account. Why not?! Why not have a simple standard that will allow one website to @mention another–not only across domain names but across multiple web servers and even content management systems? This is precisely what the Webmention standard allows. I can @mention you from my domain running WordPress and you can still receive it using your own domain running Drupal (or whatever software you choose). People within the IndieWeb community realized there was a need for such functionality, and so, over the span of several years, they slowly evolved it and turned it into a web standard that anyone (including Facebook and Twitter) could use. While it may have been initially meant as a simple notifications protocol, people have combined it with another set of web standards known as Microformats to enable cross-site conversations and a variety of other wonderous functionalities.

Some people in the IndieWeb might define it as all of the previous ideas we’ve discussed as well as the ability to support conversations via Webmentions. Some might also define an IndieWeb site as one that has the ability to support Micropub, which is a standard that allows websites to be able to accept data from a growing variety of applications that will allow you to more easily post different types of content to your site from articles and photos to what you’re drinking or reading.

Still others might want their own definition of IndieWeb to support the functionality of WebSub, MicroSub, IndieAuth, or even all of the above. Each small, free-standing piece expands the capabilities of what your personal website can do and how you can interact online. But since it’s your website and under your control, you have the power to pick and choose what and how you would like it to be able to do.

So what is the IndieWeb really?

Perhaps after exploring the concept a bit, most may not necessarily be able to define it concretely. Instead they might say–to quote United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart“But I know it when I see it […]”.

The IndieWeb can be many different things. It is:

  • a website;
  • an independent network of websites;
  • an idea;
  • a concept;
  • a set of broad-based web standards;
  • a set of principles;
  • a philosophy;
  • a group of people;
  • a support network;
  • an organization;
  • an inclusive community;
  • a movement;
  • a Utopian dream of what the decentralized, open Internet could be.

In some sense it is all of these things and many more.

In the end though, the real question is:

What do you want the IndieWeb to be?

Come help us all define it.

IndieWeb.org

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27 responses on “Defining the IndieWeb”

  1. @c I really like the article; it makes it easy to wrap one’s head around the definitions of IndieWeb.

    The one bit I did dislike, and it’s small, and a bit orthogonal, but still related:

    Why should I have hundreds of social accounts and an online identity shattered like just so many horcruxes when I could have one that I can fully control?

    I get your point there, especially in context, but I still don’t like the perpetuation of the idea, brought forth by these big data/social media corporations, of the flattening of identity. Before corporatized social media, it was relatively easy on the Internet, as it has always been in real life, to expose only a facet of your identity to a certain group, a different facet to a different group, and so forth. Everyone everywhere did not need to know all of me. This is one of the things that, despite all of the IndieWeb movement’s great strides in liberating us from the worldviews and constraints of the social silos, the IndieWeb doesn’t seem to have a good answer for (that I know of). Maybe there isn’t an answer that’s compatible with “a domain of one’s own”, and maybe that’s OK and I’m just reacting negatively to the appearance of that language. Dunno 🙂

  2. @smokey Personally, I don’t think anyone should share 100% of themselves on the Internet.

    With the IndieWeb, it gives you the control to share what you want and how much. But more importantly (and for me) the IndieWeb is all about owning your data and your identity, something you don’t control/hold with social media sites.

  3. @unoabraham For sure, we should share less than 100% of ourselves, and own and control that which we do choose to share. But—and this is a small issue, but it’s one that, for whatever reason, I get hung up upon, we should also be able to only share certain parts with certain people, and I don’t see a good solution yet to that issue with a single, centralized (but yes, under my control) “repository of me” on the the web. @bradenslen’s idea of multiple domains is certainly food for thought.

  4. @smokey Further to my point about flattening of identity, @simonwoods posted this tonight. I’m priviliged that none of these real-world identity-flattenings affect me, but there are lots of people for whom it is a life-or-death situation, and the IndieWeb needs to be aware of the issue and iterate a little bit on this “single, centralized me” part of the message 🙂

  5. @smokey A couple of observations from my personal experience.

    Typically when you follow a person you want to discover all of their content, so we begin to search for all of their blogs, YouTube channels, etc. Not really possible to segregate content unless you start blogging under a pseudonym.

    I have been somewhat of a domain collector with over 80 domains and grand plans for each of them. Unfortunately, it’s way too much work and too much hassle for anything really meaningful to get done with so many domains. I did plan one for a blog, and for a microblog, a photography blog, one for status updates, etc. and while I did try it for a month, it was too much work. So I eventually cut them down to 5 domains in total and to just one blog, and one photography blog.

    A good idea to have multiple domains, but it’s way too much work unless you have a content creation team on hand.

  6. Mildred Marianne asked How do you define #IndieWeb? and a couple of us weighed in. My own brief answer concluded “More a state of mind than a thing, I’d say” but Chris Aldrich went into a lot more detail. His piece is well worth checking out in detail, as it offers a bird’s eye view of all the different things the IndieWeb is and could be. I might take issue with singling out the country of America for his metaphor as being a tad parochial, but one could choose any reasonably democratic place instead.
    I want to respond to a little thing. In questioning the closed nature of the big silos, Chris asks parenthetically: Would you use your phone to only call friends who use AT&T?

    The simple answer for many people is yes. One reason why dual-SIM phones are popular, and why many people own two or more phones, at least in Italy (and probably many other places too), is that many carriers offer reduced rates to call other numbers on the same network. At least, that’s the explanation friends have given me as they rummage through handbags looking for the specific phone that is ringing. I guess that with PAYG on a “free” phone, that approach makes sense. Or used to; it does not seem so prevalent these days. I don’t know whether calls to the same network still get a discount. Possibly not. Either way, giving a discount to people on the same network is on a par with restricting converation to others in the silo.
    As for Chris’ final question — What do you want the IndieWeb to be? — that’s something I sometimes struggle with myself. Part of me just wants to go back to simpler times, times when I first discovered NucleusCMS and bought this domain and another, almost 14 years ago.1 But the rest of me likes being able to write from my phone, to add photos, to have different kinds of posts, to respond from here when I choose, etc. etc.
    In the end, the state of mind thing is what gives me most reward. As I work towards being more IndieWeb, which I also can’t actually define, I’m forever learning new stuff, putting some of it to work, ignoring some, squirrelling some away for a rainy day.2 I still learn things via the big silos, but I’ve never learned anything in the process of actually using them.

    It wasn’t, actually, my first domain, which I may have got in 1997, but as I no longer own that it doesn’t count. (The current owners could probably do with giving their site a little love. I have to think nobody actually visits.) 

    Case in point: Chris offers a fragmention for any text I highlight on his site, but I choose not to use it. For me, copying the text will do. Others may choose to use the fragmention. That too is part of the IndieWeb. 

  7. I have had a go at defining or at least mapping out what the IndieWeb is before here and here. However, you have taken it to the next step.
    I liked Greg McVerry’s recent rewrite of the principles, as much for the intent as for what he captures. Maybe that could be a possibility for people? Like WordPress did with GDPR, provide a default starting point and revise it to represent your own flavour?
    I am reminded of my many debates and discussions around the notion of ‘digital literacies‘, that what matters is the process. That is why I really liked your closing provocation:

    What do you want the IndieWeb to be?

    This comes back to your point about building a better web:

    I’m not looking for just a “hipster-web”, but a new and demonstrably better web.

  8. @smokey The multiple domains “solution” is what I ultimately went with. I wanted a blog of commentary on politics and world affairs where I was free to rant and thump (I’m a centerist so I thump both the Right and the Left) but I didn’t want to bring bloody chunks of raw meat into MB. I value the community here at MB, the guinea pig photos, the level of discourse, the chat, the developer stuff: it didn’t seem right for me to drag my political rantings in here. It seemed to me that would be doing to MB what I didn’t like about Twitter and FB. And it’s all in or all out on MB, I couldn’t selectively post here. Another reason, which fits into what you are talking about Smokey, is that I didn’t want my “web presence”, my other domain, to get overrun by political stuff, that is just one part of me but you need to be careful where you place your lightning rods. 🙂 So, I split, a domain for Nice Boring Brad and a place for Evil Brad. And yet this approach still can be within the Indieweb movement, own your own domain(s), own your own content, syndicate elsewhere, you are free to merge the two if you want in the future, etc.

  9. @smokey I’ll see what I can do to minimize it or potentially eliminate it (particularly on mobile where the UI could use some help.) I’d previously tested Android which wasn’t horrible, but could be better. Thanks for letting me know.

  10. @smokey I think you’re right that this part of the identity piece hasn’t been figured out well within the broader IndieWeb. There is a broader idea of “publics” that covers some of what you’re talking about. I suspect that @kevinmarks has written about it extensively in the past if you’re looking for some general guidance. Some of the other relevant pieces I’m aware of are those of “audience” and several have played around with the idea of private webmentions as well, though these have yet to be built out to enter the mainstream yet.

    On my personal website I have several friends and family who have access to various private areas which they can only read and comment on while logged in, so it’s a small start, but isn’t nearly as flexible as one might wish.

    I suspect that as things progress and laws like GDPR require more of it, these ideas will become larger itches for more people so that they can maintain just one website which only reveals the facets they want and only to the audiences they want.

    Thanks for re-raising the issue. We definitely need more people thinking about and working on it.

  11. @smokey Incidentally, I suspect that one of the communities that is likely to begin building and implementing a lot of this is the education sector which values semi-private posts to cordon off material for particular classes that aren’t as public facing or that may run afoul of FERPA. I know a few IndieWeb developers who are working in the health care areas professionally and so some of the HIPAA regulations may seep in that way too for people owning their own medical data and keep it private.

    Of course all this doesn’t mitigate the fact that we need to do better outreach to more diverse and potentially marginalized people and communities who might help to better build out these pieces as well.

  12. @c @smokey I think the euphonybof a domain of one’s own is the problem here. I have domains of my own that expose different aspects of “me” and each is Indieweb to a slightly different extent. I’ve worried in the past about how to tie them together but it has become a lot less important to me over time.

    There was a thing recently where someone asked me if I was also one of my other identities. I just said yes.

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