It's been a long time. How have you been?
I left Twitter over one year ago, with the intent that I would
reappear on some more open platform. Mastodon seemed like the obvious
choice, but profile migration still doesn't exist, and I didn't want to
join what was effectively yet another silo. In my view, the number of
instances that have shut down over the past year have vindicated this
decison. I want to own the things I post on the web, so that if they
eventually disappear it's at least my own fault.
At the time, Mastodon had just added interoperability with the
ActivityPub protocol. This seemed like the obvious solution: I could be
part of the fediverse without needing to choose an instance, and
without the complexity of hosting one myself (Mastodon is not designed
for a single user, the administrative overhead and the fact that it's
written in a language I don't use made running it not worth it.) I
started writing my own implementation of ActivityPub, with the
following design goals:
This turned out to be a much larger project than I intended. (Story of
my life.) In particular, Mastodon is very picky about the AP
implementations it will talk to, and I spent more time trying to keep
it happy than actually building a system I could use to post words on
the internet. I made some good progress, and I intend to continue work
as I have the inspiration*,
but I needed a way to get myself back on the web in the near-term as
So the question becomes: what existing, open technology allows you to
post text on the web with the minimal amount of up-front work?
Surprise: it's HTML.
HTML?? Who writes that anymore? We have like, Markdown and stuff! While
it's true that writing HTML by hand isn't the most fun thing in the
world, it's far from the worst. This post was entirely hand-crafted.
With that said, it was crafted with an eye toward eventually generating
the structure with some sort of static site generation tool. I haven't
settled on one, but historical evidence suggests I will end up writing
Standards to the rescue, sort of
Posting stuff on my website only solves one part of my original goal,
though. While it gives me ownership of my content, it also ensures that
no one will ever see any of it. The second part, syndication, falls
squarely in the realm of the
Indieweb. Indieweb isn't a single
technology, it's a loose collection of parts that you can put together
however you like to teach your website to communicate with other
One of the coolest aspects of the Indieweb is built on top of the
original semantic intent of HTML using
annotating content with simple standard classes (this article is an
h-entry, for instance), you enable an ever-growing set of
tools to automatically parse your website into feeds, contact
information, calendar entries, and things not yet imagined.
In my case, I'm using these building blocks to make it possible for
readers to subscribe directly to my website, much like you would an RSS
feed. By annotating the content directly using an
h-feed, I avoid
the need to maintain two (or more!) disparate representations of my
posts. People can subscribe to the
h-feed simply by
dumping vil.lv into their
reader. The reader will
automatically discover the feed using the
tag on the homepage, which points to /posts. If I
wanted, I could also have a feed embedded directly into the homepage
with a few recent posts, but currently the homepage is static and I
like it that way. It also has some
features of its own.
There is of course a downside or two. The most obvious is that, even
if you clicked on every single link in the above paragraph,
you have no idea how to subscribe to my posts. The Indieweb is a big
space, full of standards which need to be used in combination with each
other to be useful. Most things have no "one-stop shop" (at least not
yet). There's no Google Reader here (again, not yet), but then again
there's no Google Reader anywhere anymore. Subcribing to things on the
web in 2020 is kind of a mess.
This is a chicken-and-egg problem. Until
using Indieweb standards to publish content, it will remain a niche.
Some standards, like rel-me
have gained wide adoption, but these are tiny pieces of the puzzle.
I can't even point you to a reader that you can use right now, without
any up-front work.
The core of the
Indieweb philosophy is that your
website is the One True Representation of "you" on the web. This means
you use it for
signing in on other
Indieweb sites and services. Since encouraging the growth of the
Indieweb is obviously among the community's top priorities, there isn't
much of an incentive to offer alternative methods.
So what does this mean for potential Indieweb users? It's always
tempting to make the "well my <insert older relative here> won't
be able to do this" argument. We'll ignore the general accuracy of this
argument in favor of the spirit behind it: non-technical people are
very unlikely to own a domain, or even care to. They're even less
likely to want to read about what a microformat is, or how to tell
people about their articles using something called WebSub. This makes
the Indieweb necessarily a fairly tech-centric space. However, I don't
believe that this makes it less valuable. The Indieweb is a new
technology, though it happens to be built on top of some very old ones.
New technologies are always inhabited by tech types at the beginning.
But the reason we create them (or at least the reason we should
create them) is with the intent of improving the world at large. While
may not yet be usable*
by the average internet denizen,
this doesn't mean it has to
remain this way.
builds and every standard that
they iterate on, we get a little closer to having a truly open web.
What is currently a complex pile of disparate parts has the potential
to grow into something even simpler than the web we currently inhabit.
In the future where the Indieweb reaches its full potential, no longer
does a user have to join silo after silo, trying to keep up with the
latest trends, and having to rebuild their identity each time. Instead,
they simply have a domain, and that domain is them. Represented however
they want, however much they want, truly a
space of their own.
Being on the web is complicated because we haven't made it simple.
Simple as that. Let's build the tools to change that.
Enough philosophy already
This article got quite long and abstract at some point. The concrete
takeaway is that I'm going to be posting things here from now on. This
will make it hard to follow my content at first, but it will get easier
as I build out my integration with Indieweb and other standards.
Hopefully someone out there finds what I have to say interesting enough
to stick around during that process. I have no idea how I'm going to
bootstrap my presence outside of existing friends and the Indieweb
circle, but I'll figure something out.
The second takeaway is that while the Indieweb may not yet be useful
for a general audience, the fact that it is built on existing web
technologies makes it a perfect example of progressive enhancement. I
can still send the url of this post to anyone with an internet
connection, and they will be able to read it without any proprietary
clients or registering an account that they don't want. And if we ever
reach that glorious Indieweb future? It will be visible there from day
The final point of this article was to get someone else interested in
the lost art of building a personal website, and to let that someone
know that there are exciting new things happening. Did it work?
(P.S.: while it's obviously not optimal, you could use a
Github Pages site to
get your feet wet. It's enough to give you a web sign-in identity. You
will lose your identity if you move to your own domain later.)