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Notes on the “indieweb” #2: Where do I find things to read?

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Central to the idea of the indieweb is the good old fashioned website, a place where you can publish whatever you like, in whatever format or context you please, before pushing it to, say, Twitter or Facebook. This concept is known as POSSE (Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere).

In this glorious world of writers and publishers, everyone would have their own site and exchange views, opinions etc. in each others’ comments sections. While this may sound ridiculous – why not just respond to a tweet and be done with it? – I can attest to the fact that it did actually work. And I’m going to digress here a bit, so you can understand a part of the why of all this.

A brief personal history of website networks. Sorry.

After commenting on websites such as iA I launched (which is the right word; these things weren’t trivial back then) leonpaternoster.com in 2008 and within a few months was exchanging regular comments with a group of about 20 or so web folk, some of whom I still know on Twitter, or are heroically maintaining their own sites.

We would naturally gravitate around one or two particularly knowledgable contributors, such as Vivien at Inspiration Bit (whose site is sadly no more – we change jobs, move on, lose contact, have families, lose interest or whatever). Just like Twitter, we’d be introduced to someone else and our networks would grow around these hubs.

It was a great world of sharing posts, designs and opinions, and what made it particularly meaningful was that you’d read something where the context and canvas of what was published was controlled by the author. In web design networks the look of the site itself would be the most obvious example of this, but an interesting taxonomy, a blogroll, a feature, an about page and the mere presence of a corpus of essays all expressed something that helped authors build some form of online identity.

(Incidentally, I’d also argue that publishing and commenting on a website encourages a form of respect. Even if we disagree with a commenter or author – and things could get heated or direct, even when discussing CSS or using images as a replacement for text – the fact we were responding on a real person’s own patch made us more thoughtful.)

Anyway, enough reminiscing. The question is: If we’re looking to websites for content rather than social media, how do we know when something new has been published without having to visit the site or a third party like Facebook? Of course, the answer is our old friend RSS.

RSS is the engine of the indieweb

Simple RSS provides a means to easily publish on your own site and syndicate elsewhere (it’s also what Facebook instant articles and Apple News use to generate their own versions of posts). But its primary use is to provide an endpoint for apps to easily monitor and consume your articles.

Now, the indieweb – like HTML5 when it was introduced to the world – isn’t necessarily doctrinaire when it comes to trying to change how and where we read posts. So if that’s on Facebook, Twitter, Apple News or even AMP it doesn’t matter, as long as the canonical copy of the post sits on the author’s own website. That way, authors retain ultimate control of their own content.

Let your friends read your posts, their way. POSSE lets your friends keep using whatever they use to read your stuff (e.g. silo aggregators like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.)… POSSE is beyond blogging. POSSE

However, you may feel that extricating yourself from social media is a good thing for ethical and even health reasons. You may also want the “fuller” experience of reading from an author’s site. The best way to do that is by getting yourself an RSS reader and subscribing to as many interesting sites as possible.

Subscribing to newsletters

Newsletters — an even more quaint-seeming technology than RSS — are currently all the rage. Robin has some thoughts on why they’re so popular (basically, creating your own website is a pain and it’s hard getting paid for your hard work) which, on the whole, I’d agree with.

Essentially, newsletters offer the same advantages as RSS over your Twitters and Facebooks. The signal to noise ratio is good while writers can take time over posts and essays. Most importantly, everyone (over a certain age, at least) understands email and will be using an email account already – there’s zero effort involved compared to installing an RSS app and adding a subscription to it.

Substack is the newsletter service du jour, and even Twitter is dipping its toe in the email water. It is worth pointing out that Substack offers an RSS feed of a contributor’s posts, and if you have got yourself an RSS app up and running, you are, in my opinion, better off using that. And as for writing a newlsetter rather than a blog that offers an email subscription, I have several opinions.

For Twitter refugees: micro.blog

If you’ve ditched Twitter or Facebook and you’re looking for a similar streamed updates service where you follow and reply to other posters, micro.blog is probably your best bet.

It’s a nicer Twitter, with optional blogging (for a $5/month fee) to help you go full indieweb. You don’t have to use a micro.blog blog – it’s free if you don’t – as it has crossposting from any RSS feed built in (as you can see from my account).

micro.blog’s a thoughtful service which has made some opinionated design decisions so it doesn’t descend into a hate-filled, bad faith and bad actor-fuelled roundabout of take and counter-take. There are no ads, follower counts or likes. It encourages you to find other posters through a genuinely interesting Discover stream, and a well curated set of categories (tagged via emojis, sweetly enough). And I’ve yet to encounter a neo-Nazi on micro.blog.

(Incidentally, it also has a really good API, which makes it a decent option for a headless CMS).

People are still posting blogs and there is an alternative to Twitter

I think indieweb serves two functions. Firstly, it enables readers and writers to wrest control of content from the social media giants. When the canonical thought, image or essay sits on your own website it’s there for as long as you want it to be, to do with whatever you want, to style however you like.

More fundamentally, while we may feel, and see, how damaging Twitter and Facebook are, our experience of online reading is influenced by their algorithms and, to be blunt, their shitty business models that require hate and violence to generate users, reactions and profits. We should be looking to extricate ourselves from these opinionmongering leviathans, to find other people expressing themselves in a better, more independent way. And that world is out there, so get subscribing – you only have your chains to lose 😃.

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