Manual Backfeed in the Blogosphere

Forcing webmentions for conversations on websites that don’t support Webmention

Within the IndieWeb community there is a process called backfeed which is the process of syndicating interactions on your syndicated (POSSE) copies back (AKA reverse syndicating) to your original posts. As it’s commonly practiced, often with the ever helpful Brid.gy service, it is almost exclusively done with social media silos like Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Github, and Mastodon. This is what allows replies to my content that I’ve syndicated to Twitter, for example, to come back and live here on my website.

Why not practice this with other personal websites? This may become increasingly important in an ever growing and revitalizing blogosphere as people increasingly eschew corporate social sites and their dark patterns of tracking, manipulative algorithmic feeds, and surveillance capitalism. It’s also useful for sites whose owners may not have the inclination, time, effort, energy or expertise to support the requisite technology.

I’ve done the following general reply pattern using what one might call manual backfeed quite a few times now (and I’m sure a few others likely have too), but I don’t think I’ve seen it documented anywhere as a common IndieWeb practice. As a point of fact, my method outlined below is really only half-manual because I’m cleverly leveraging incoming webmentions to reduce some of the work.

Manually syndicating my replies

Sometimes when using my own website to reply to another that doesn’t support the W3C’s Webmention spec, I’ll manually syndicate (a fancy way of saying cut-and-paste) my response to the website I’m responding to. In these cases I’ll either put the URL of my response into the body of my reply, or in sites like WordPress that ask for my website URL, I’ll use that field instead. Either way, my response appears on their site with my reply URL in it (sometimes I may have to wait for my comment to be moderated if the receiving site does that).

Here’s the important part: Because my URL appears on the receiving site (sometimes wrapped as a link on either my name or the date/time stamp depending on the site’s user interface choices), I can now use it to force future replies on that site back to my original via webmention! My site will look for a URL pointing back to it to verify an incoming webmention on my site.

Replies from a site that doesn’t support sending Webmentions

Once my comment appears on the receiving site, and anyone responds to it, I can take the URL (with fragment) for those responses, and manually input them into my original post’s URL reply box. This will allow me to manually force a webmention to my post that will show up at minimum as a vanilla mention on my website. 

The manual webmention box and button that appear on all my posts.

(Note, if your site doesn’t have a native box like this for forcing manual webmentions, you might try external tools like Aaron Parecki’s Telegraph or Kevin Mark’s Mention.Tech, which are almost as easy. For those who are more technical, cURL is an option as well.)

Depending on the microformats mark up of the external site, the mention may or may not have an appropriate portion for the response and/or an avatar/name. I can then massage those on my own site (one of the many benefits of ownership!) so that the appropriate data shows, and I can change the response type from a “mention” to a “reply” (or other sub-types as appropriate). Et voilà, with minimal effort, I’ve got a native looking reply back on my site from a site that does not support Webmention! This is one of the beautiful things of even the smallest building-blocks within the independent web or as a refrain some may wish to sing–“small pieces, loosely joined”!

This method works incredibly well with WordPress websites in particular. In almost all cases the comments on them will have permalink URLs (with fragments) to target the individual pieces, often they’ve got reasonable microformats for specifying the correct h-card details, and, best of all, they have functionality that will send me an email notification when others reply to my portion of the conversation, so I’m actually reminded to force the webmentions manually.

An Illustrative Example

As an example, I posted on my website that I’d read an article on Matt Maldre’s site along with a short comment. Since Matt (currently) doesn’t support either incoming or outgoing webmentions, I manually cut-and-pasted my reply to the comment section on his post. I did the same thing again later with an additional comment on my site to his (after all, why start a new separate conversation thread when I can send webmentions from my comments section and keep the context?).

Matt later approved my comments and posted his replies on his own website. Because his site is built on WordPresss, I got email notifications about his replies, and I was able to use the following URLs with the appropriate fragments of his comments in my manual webmention box:

https://www.spudart.org/blog/xeroxing-your-face/#comment-43843
https://www.spudart.org/blog/xeroxing-your-face/#comment-43844

After a quick “massage” to change them from “mentions” into “replies” and add his gravatar, they now live on my site where I expect them and in just the way I’d expect them to look if he had Webmention support on his website.

I’ll mention that, all of this could be done in a very manual cut-and-paste manner–even for two sites, neither of which have webmention support.  But having support for incoming webmentions on one’s site cuts back significantly on that manual pain.

For those who’d like to give it a spin, I’ll also mention that I’ve similarly used the incredibly old refbacks concept in the past as a means of notification from other websites (this can take a while) and then forced manual webmentions to get better data out of them than the refback method allows.

Read Webmentions work log 20200117 by Jeremy Felt (jeremyfelt.com)
I hadn’t taken a close look at the IndieWeb comments documentation when I marked up the latest version of comments for this site last week. Today I’m going to follow some of the advice Chris had and stare closer at some prior art. My first objective is to remove all of the unnecessary classes ad...
Reading about Jeremy’s work is inspiring me to do more of my own.

Annotation posts >> Highlight posts

Because they’re so similar, I’ve decided to discontinue the custom highlight posts my site had in lieu of the more prevalent annotation post kind. The layout and format of both as highlighted text quoted from another site was almost exactly the same with the primary difference being my additional commentary added to the highlighted text to call it an annotation. Conceptually I considered “highlight + commentary/reply = annotation”. The difference is marginal at best–pun intended.

Since I only had 13 highlight posts versus 121 annotation posts (plus various additional annotations and highlights which I’ve rolled up into the body of some of my read posts) over the last year and a half, I felt it seemed redundant and bothersome to maintain two separate, but nearly identical post kinds. Semantically one may think of a highlight on some text as an annotation anyway, thus the idea of annotation subsumes that of a simple highlight.

As of this evening, I’ve changed all the custom highlight posts to be of the annotation kind. Other than the one word visual difference of the post kind text changing from “highlight” to “annotation” this change won’t affect much except for those who may have been subscribed to the highlight feed. Going forward you may consider subscribing to my annotation feed instead.

I had created highlight posts first, but in the end annotation posts have won the day. And for those that don’t have them, fear not, because honestly annotation posts are really just glorified bookmarks with custom text in the context. (The glorification only entails a highligher icon instead of a bookmark icon and a bit of CSS to color the text yellow.) I do find having them delineated for my personal research purposes useful though.

Liked Working through displaying Webmentions by Jeremy Felt (jeremyfelt.com)
Now that this site supports Webmentions, I’ve been having some fun digging into how I’d like them to be presented. The theme I’m using is very bare-bones. I created it using Underscores a couple years ago when I decided I had lost touch with the code I was using and for some reason wanted to g...
This should be an interesting experiment to watch.
Read Comment System by superkuh (superkuh.com)
Type, "/@say/Your message here." after the end of any URL on my site and hit enter to leave a comment. You can view them here. An example would be,
http://superkuh.com/rtlsdr.html/@say/This is a comment.
I love how superkuh’s comment system works. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a set up like that. Very clever. I wonder how it’s done and why it’s not more widespread? Could it be dovetailed with something like Webmention somehow?
Read We're closing Crosscut's comment section. Here's why — and what's next by Ana Sofia Knauf, Anne Christnovich, Mohammed Kloub (crosscut.com)
With the rise of social platforms and an uptick in threatening comments, the newsroom is taking reader engagement in a different direction.

We analyzed our Disqus data and we found that roughly 17,400 comments were made on our site in 2019, but 45% came from just 13 people. That data tells us that social media, email, phone calls, letters to the editor, our Crosscut events and an occasional visit to the newsroom are far better tools for us to hear about your concerns, story ideas, feedback and support.

The Disqus data statistics here are fascinating. It also roughly means that those 13 people were responsible for 600+ comments on average or roughly 2 a day every day for the year. More likely it was a just a handful responsible for the largest portion and the others tailing off.

Sadly missing are their data about social media, email, phone, and letters to the editor which would tell us more about how balanced their decision was. What were the totals for these and who were they? Were they as lopsided as the Disqus numbers?
Annotated on January 08, 2020 at 04:33PM

In the meantime, stay in touch with Crosscut by:
Liking us on Facebook
Following us on Twitter
Following us on Instagram
Chatting with us on Reddit
Signing up for one (or all) of our newsletters 

It seems like they’ve chose a solution for their community that boils down to pushing the problem(s) off onto large corporations that have shown no serious efforts at moderation either?

Sweeping the problem under the rug doesn’t seem like a good long term answer. Without aggregating their community’s responses, are they really serving their readers? How is the community to know what it looks like? Where is it reflected? How can the paper better help to shape the community without it?

I wonder what a moderated IndieWeb solution for them might look like?
Annotated on January 08, 2020 at 04:42PM

It would be cool if they considered adding syndication links to their original articles so that when they crosspost them to social media, at least their readers could choose to follow those links and comment there in a relatively continuous thread. This would at least help to aggregate the conversation for them and their community while still off-loading the moderation burden from their staff, which surely is part of their calculus. It looks like their site is built on Drupal. I would suspect that–but I’m not sure if–swentel’s IndieWeb Drupal module has syndication links functionality built into it.

Rather than engaging their community, it almost feels to me like they’re giving up and are allowing a tragedy of their commons when there may be some better experimental answers that just aren’t being tried out.

The worst part of this for me though is that they’ve given up on the power of owning and controlling their own platform. In the recent history of journalism, this seems to be the quickest way of becoming irrelevant and dying out.

Replied to a tweet by Hungry Bread ElevatorHungry Bread Elevator (Twitter)
Some of the off-label uses of Hypothes.is have been enumerated lately, including some I’ve mentioned.

I’ve tinkered a bit with CROWDLAAERS, but it’s always seemed to me geared toward a very niche audience including teachers potentially using it for grading? Perhaps I’m missing some more of its flexibility? Remi Kalir might be able to help elucidate it or indicate if he’s noticed anyone using it for off-label usage.

I might see it being more useful if one could analyze site-wide annotations on a domain with a wild-card search of this sort: https://tomcritchlow.com/*.

I have to imagine that it would be cool to see all the annotations and conversations across something like the New York Times with a data visualization tool like this.

Jon Udell and gang are aware of Webmention, but haven’t pulled the trigger (yet) on making the decision to build them in. I’ve outlined some methods for making their platform a bit more IndieWeb friendly by adding markup and some additional HTML to allow people to force the system to be able to send webmentions. I do frequently use Jon’s facet tool to check highlighting and annotation activity on my website.

I have found Crowdlaaers useful several times in that I’m aware that some pages are annotated, but they’re either not public or are part of other groups for which I’m not a member. An example of this is this page on my website which has one annotation which I can’t see, but by using Crowdlaaers, I can. Another example is viewing annotations on sites that have subsequently blocked Hypothes.is like this example. Of course, sometimes you’ll do this and find odd bugs floating around in the system.

 

Replied to Not enough people want Webmentions by Jeremy CherfasJeremy Cherfas (Jeremy Cherfas)
A little while ago (on 19 October, to be precise) someone mentioned commento.io, an open source commenting system for websites. It looked interesting, so I tried to leave a comment on the post that mentioned it. Despite a few problems with login, I managed it, and asked whether Commento could play nicely with webmentions. No reply there, but I also took the matter up with support at Commento.
Given that it’s a paid service, I do see the potential that it could be viewed as an odd bit of competition. But at the same time, if it were my business, I’d take some leadership over the topic and work at building what might bring the product more value. Customers aren’t always communicative and building the things based on stated customer desires isn’t always the best way to go because the customer doesn’t always know what they want. A service provider needs to know the space, potential values, and provide the vision to get their company where it needs to be. Given this, their response seems to be a bit of a cop out. I remember thinking much the same thing about Disqus a few years back. I suspect if they knew their businesses well they’d see the imminent value and know that “if you build it [t]he[y] will come.
Read Render Snarky Comments in Comic Sans by Zach LeathermanZach Leatherman (Zach Leatherman)

Hosting my own content and comments allows me to be a bit more creative with it. So I decided to take this a step further and have a little fun with negative comments.

This isn’t intended to be a hot-take on Comic Sans. Instead it’s meant to change the tone of the negativity to make it sound like a clown is yelling at a kid’s birthday party.

This is an awesome way to handle some comments online.

👓 The Impossibility of ‘Heathers’ | National Review

Read The Impossibility of 'Heathers' by Kevin D. WilliamsonKevin D. Williamson (National Review)
Which movies from your youth would be impossible to make today due to political correctness?
Interesting that he asks for reader responses here, but the website provides no way to actively respond.

👓 Keep Track of Your Conversations in One Place | WordPress

Read Keep Track of Your Conversations in One Place by Jan Cavan BoulasJan Cavan Boulas (The WordPress.com Blog)
You can now stay on top of the discussions you care about, right from your Reader.