Refbacks were almost all noise and very little signal for me. Pingbacks/Trackback look dreadful and aren’t well supported anymore, so I don’t receive many. Webmentions have been AWESOME and just required two simple plugins for WordPress. My very small personal site has gotten over 6,000 reactions/replies in the past year (with the help of backfeed, particularly from Brid.gy.)
The real win is that I can use my own website to converse with others and don’t need the big social silos the way I did several years ago.
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.
(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:
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.
Contribute to dshanske/wordpress-refback development by creating an account on GitHub.
Similar to the design set up for other comment types, it would be nice to have a filter for refbacks in the dropdown menu at /wp-admin/edit-comments.php. With the Webmentions plugin enabled, one is presented with the options to filter for “All Comment Types”, “Comments”, “Pings”, and “Webmentions”. Adding a filter for “Refbacks” would be incredibly helpful as well.
It took me a moment to realize what it was exactly since I hadn’t yet added a field to indicate it, but since the IndieWeb chat doesn’t send webmentions by itself, I’m glad I support refbacks to be aware of comments on my posts. The avatar didn’t come through quite like it should, but it’s nice to be able to treat refbacks like any other type of mention.
The chat has some reasonable microformats markup, so I suppose the parser could do a more solid job, but this is a pretty great start. Sadly, Refback isn’t as real-time as Webmention, but it’s better than nothing.
I suppose we could all be posting chats on our own sites and syndicating into places like IRC to own our two directional conversations, but until I get around to the other half… (or at least for WordPress, I recall having gotten syndication to IRC for WithKnown working a while back via plugin.)
Yes, even in the age of the Modern Web™
Let’s say you have a blog and you just published an article. Ideally, that article will be shared on the web, linked from other people’s blog posts and mentioned in social media comments. These links that point back to your article are fittingly called LinkBacks.
Monitoring these linkbacks is important to website owners and bloggers. They allow you to follow the spread of your articles through the internet. The idea is; when someone on the internet links to your article, you get a linkback notification from them. Some bloggers choose to display those publicly (usually under the article), some of them only save them to their database while others just disable the functionality entirely. Regardless of your intent, you will eventually receive them. Handling them will prove useful to you.
Refback is a linkback method that works using the standard HTTP Referer header. Like pingbacks, trackbacks, and webmentions, it attempts to present links of other sites that have linked to you. Unlike other methods, the other site requires no additional support. The implementation works exactly as the other linkbacks do in WordPress.
I’ve had refbacks on the brain for the past couple of months after having read Why Refback Still Matters, so I figured since I’ve already got the pingbacks, trackbacks, and webmentions enabled, what’s one more way to communicate with my website from the outside? So as of this evening, just for fun, I’m now accepting refbacks too.