Notes on the “indieweb” #4: four months in – community, difficult discussions and the end of the web
I first talked about “going indieweb” on 9 January. Getting this website to play nicely with comments, webmentions and posting to external services like Twitter and micro.blog has taken a bit of work, which admittedly isn’t the most onerous task in the world. At the same time, I’ve been disciplined in publishing on a regular basis – lots of notes, a few links and at least one fully fledged post every weekend.
So having set everything up what’s it actually like forgoing Twitter for your website, micro.blog and RSS feeds?
The first thing to note is that building some form of community takes time, just as it did in the prelapsarian blogging period of the early to mid 00’s. Getting all this technical stuff to hang together is only half the job (although it does provide lots of blogging fuel).
For a while, I simply pushed posts to micro.blog and Twitter without considering how they looked to subscribers. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, no-one was responding (and if I even had any followers on micro.blog I wouldn’t know – it doesn’t tell you). I solved that problem by tinkering with my RSS feeds to customise what I publish elsewhere, which resulted in more responses.
More importantly, I actually started following people on micro.blog and replying to their posts. Micro.blog doesn’t reveal your follower list – or even a count – an intriguing design choice which removes any embarrassment you may or may not experience at your low follower numbers. Combine with a regularly updated, human-curated discover feed, and you should be able to find interesting people to follow from a standing start (not least a thriving community of bloggers figuring out how to get their websites working properly).
What I’ve also found on micro.blog is an enthusiasm for “civilised” discussion lacking on Twitter. This sometimes puts me in mind of a sect that has rejected the outside world’s way of doing things. It can be great: posters are polite, considerate and welcoming of new members. On the other hand, I initially found it quite bland and slightly disconcerting – discussions of “difficult” topics seemed to be consciously avoided, perhaps in an effort to not be like Twitter at any cost.
However, I feel this has changed recently, the Basecamp controversy proving a bit of a watershed. At first, there were a few posts supporting Fried and DHH, or expressions of regret at the general tone of the discussion on the internal Basecamp message boards and Twitter. However, it’s been encouraging to read alternative views, especially this from Pratik on what it’s like to work in a US university when you’re from a minority culture and rnv’s insightful posts on workers and management. I’d like to see more of this on micro.blog – I think it can maintain a civil tone while allowing for interesting, robust discussion.
Of course, micro.blog is still a social media network where you interact with other users in an app or on its website. It may be easier to post to the service from your own site, and it does webmentions well, but essentially it’s a differently designed Twitter. True, a lot of its users have a website, and a lot of the discussions are about building and publishing to these sites, but this is not quite the indieweb in its purest sense.
Does this matter? Probably not – even the indieweb website isn’t precious when it comes to having conversations on Twitter et al, but four months in and I’m nearly convinced that the possibility of a decentralised network of websites talking to each other through comments sections and pingbacks (known as the web) has probably passed. We want somewhere to congregate and handle the ins and outs of replies and links – the question is what sort of discussion that place engenders.
I say nearly. Ironically enough, when I mentioned in passing how conversation no longer takes place below the line on websites, I got myself a comment, which in turn generated another post and more comments. It’s like 2008 all over again! Admittedly, this wasn’t the smoothest experience, but there it was – a conversation conducted in the comments and via webmentions.
I should admit that all this stuff is probably of very little interest to the outside world, and it’ll never attract much commentary. That’s fine. Or perhaps it’ll just take years to develop. That’s also OK – I have the time.
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Even the biggest websites in the world consist predominantly of lurkers with commenters constituting only a small portion of the user base. Even if people aren’t commenting, they might still be reading. I kind of regret commenting on the blogs that I have been finding over the past several months but I just wanted to let people know that they had at least one reader out there, and having the option of leaving a comment is great even if the feature goes unused. I miss when people hosted their own content and I didn’t want to see people give up and go back to centralized social media. I’m glad that we were able to exchange ideas though and I have been having some fun with the different avenues of conversation, especially Webmention since the novelty hasn’t worn off yet.
The webmention stuff is pretty good, although back in the day when we were all running WordPress our sites handled trackbacks with no problems at all. It’s quite funny that I’ve had to rebuild all that basic stuff manually – but you’re right, it’s quite satisfying.
I’ve been thinking (and acting) quite a lot lately along the lines of what you refer to as Indieweb.
Back in the good old days, I developed my own PHP content management system for running my assorted websites. This was a major leap forward for my previously hand-coded, pure HTML/CSS sites. My CMS slowly evolved into something pretty sophisticated for its time, with RSS feeds and comments and stuff like that. But then self-hosted WordPress became more mainstream, and I took the plunge and migrated everything over. I wrote about one final element of the migration exercise on the Friends of Charles Darwin blog. I now discover to my horror this was almost 9 years ago. I have, of course, since then, continued to tinker, adding various bits of non-standard, handy functionality to WordPress.
If I were starting over from scratch, I’d almost certainly use one of the readily available Markdown-based content management systems. I draft everything in Markdown these days, so it would make putting my stuff out there even easier. But I’m not (yet) prepared to commit to migrating my existing stuff over from WordPress to one of these systems. What I have meets my needs at the moment. And it’s self-hosted, so I remain in control.
But, as I say, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘Indieweb’-type stuff. I fully endorse many of the principles, such as making your own websites your primary publication platforms, and trying to relegate mainstream social media to something more akin to RSS feeds. And I’m going to continue to encourage others to do the same. But I’m less sold on the ‘homebrew’ software ethos of Indieweb. Yes, as someone (reasonably) technically competent, who loves to dabble, I can see the fun. But I think placing too much emphasis on home-grown solutions is going to put an awful lot of ordinary people off—and it’s the ordinary (non-techie) users who need to be encouraged on board.
As an amusing side-note, I was doing a spot of Obsidian brainstorming this morning on the topic of ‘Your stuff belongs on your own website’ (assorted posts, no doubt, to follow). Then a news headline caught my attention:
Even Trump gets it!
Great to hear from you, Richard! I think we must have first encountered each other on
leonpaternoster.com back in 1934 or whenever – things go full circle.
If I was starting out I’d probably use self-hosted WordPress – it does all that “homebrew” stuff out of the box really well. I moved to Jekyll (which gives you the Markdown) back in 2015 (again, the horror!), which is great for sites where you just publish essays but leave all the social stuff on Twitter etc. It’s not made for anything more dynamic.
I wrote about the hobbyist aspect of the indie web “community” – I couldn’t agree more. I’m comfortable in a techie world, but I’d imagine it’s a huge turnoff for most people.
If I had the time/money/expertise I’d look to develop a blogging system that did self-hosted comments, trackbacks, webmentions etc. while letting you write in Markdown or a simple rich text editor and publish to your own site. One of the things I really dislike about WordPress is the writing experience, and the fusiness of its themes. I’d like something that outputted blogs like Basecamp’s (ahem) email@example.com.
As for Trump, I assume he’s trying to get webmentions to work on his site as we speak.
Comments and replies to this post from other sites and services, such as micro.blog and Twitter.
I agree with Leon and Colin. There’s a lot to unpack in both of these posts and I agree with all of it. But I’ll chime in my 2.2 yen anyways.
The masses aren’t going to adopt their own websites instead of visiting and posting on one of...