We have lost control over our content. To change this, we need to reconsider the way we create and consume content online. We need to create a new set of tools that enable an independent, open web for everyone.
This is the second article of a two-part series on digital citizenship. Part one was all about online privacy and how to protect it, this second part focuses on how we can build and promote tools that enable an open, independent, and resilient web.
“I need your clothes, your boots and your [data].”
If you’re being pessimistic (some even would say: realistic), the struggle of forces with the data economy and multi-billion dollar companies like Google and Facebook is already lost:
Quintillions of bytes of personal data are created every day on the internet and the larger part of this content is uploaded onto the servers of social media sites, publishing platforms, and cloud services like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Medium, Snapchat, Dropbox, and many more. For most of those platforms, your content also provides the context for their ads, so they made sure it is as easy and convenient as possible to sign up and upload and create new content. But this convenience comes at a price: The very moment you hit ‘publish’ on one of those data silos, you give away control over your data. And it even goes far beyond that. Just to give you an example: Ever drafted a Facebook status message but then decided to delete it before publishing it? Maybe because you felt the content was too private to share with the network? What you might not know is that Facebook collected your keystrokes and saved your text anyway in the background. Facebook then uses those drafted messages to analyze why users decide not to publish certain information. Besides that, you never know if your audience really will see your content, because Facebook heavily manipulates what users see in their timeline. We are willingly giving away control over our most personal stories and thoughts. Why is it that we give away this precious good so lightly?
You might say that of course, we have to pay for for the convenience and reach of a huge network like Facebook or the accuracy and helpfulness of Google’s services. But: It’s not that most users would have a choice. We don’t use those services because we are rational decision makers and we indeed prefer this solution over several alternatives. We use data silos in spite of that because there simply isn’t an open, convenient, trustworthy alternative – yet.
But even if you’re fine with strangers using family photos for the progress of face recognition software, there is another imminent danger in giving away your data: It can also lead to complete data loss if a service ultimately shuts down. This happened in the past, with MySpace and Yahoo’s Geocities being the most famous examples of site death, and one day, it will happen to sites like Twitter or Facebook, too. And even if we are able to export our data from a site – which is still the exception rather than the rule –, more than often, we end up with some unusable file format. Not only are we losing precious memories and lifetime that went into the creation of those personal artifacts. With every service that shuts down unarchived, we as a society also loose large amounts of data that is part of our culture. We must not lose what gets created.
So the bottom line is this: When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. You should be in control.
Redecentralizing the Open Web
It really is about time for us to redefine what being a citizen of the web means. Our digital identities are digital representations of our lives, so we need to take back control over our content, reclaim our digital future, and reshape the web as independent as possible.
But condemning the status quo while at the same time trying to replace a monopoly with another centralized solution surely won’t work. If we want to build a true alternative to the corporate web, it has to be build from the ground up with tools that are crafted in the spirit of what makes the web strong: Community, collaboration, debate, consensus, open standards, continuous improvement. Only then, the resulting solutions will be accepted, robust, and long-lasting. Additionally, as Tantek Çelik emphasizes, we should be able to openly access and use the content and code we create and publish on the web.
The basic building blocks to accomplish all of this are right in front of us. They have been here since Tim Berners-Lee first imagined what would become the World Wide Web. For example, anyone can set up a website like it’s 1999 – still today, all it takes is a computer and a text editor. And anyone can create a hyperlink and connect their pieces of information to related sources. All it takes is a one letter tag: <A>. Collectively, hyperlinks form the superpower that is holding the world wide web together. A network of information that is, in its most ideal form, both decentralized and distributed and thus resilient.
Both openness and decentralization are essential to rebuilding an independent web, because they protect it from manipulation and regulation, and they can be achieved in many different ways. But in the collaborative effort to redecentralize the open web and regain control over our content, one element plays a particularly decisive role: the personal website.
Your Website: A Declaration of Independence
Besides forming a distributed network of information, personal websites provide us with so much freedom on so many levels: On your website, you can publish anything you want, in any imaginable form, without the need to ask for anyone’s permission. You can make it your playground to experiment with new technologies and try out new ideas. The content you create stays online as long as you want under a permanent URL which you are free to set. And if you want to, you can notify the Internet Archive to grab a snapshot if the content of your site changes. You are in control. It is your home on the web. It is your voice as a web citizen.
Of course, setting up your own website takes a certain set of skills and a little more effort than joining Facebook. You need to register your own domain. You need to set up a system that serves your content. You need to find your preferred way of creating and presenting content. Sometimes it needs discipline. But what you will get is a personal representation of yourself, an archive of thoughts that will outlast all turmoil on the web – and so much joy!
Having your own website surely is a wonderful thing, but to be relevant, useful, and satisfactory, it needs to be connected to other sites and services. Because ultimately, human interactions are what fuels social life online and most of your friends will still be on social networks, for now.
The Reinvention of Social: Joining the IndieWeb
This is what the IndieWeb movement is about: Creating tools that enable a decentralized, people-focused alternative to the corporate web, putting you back in control, and building an active community around this idea of independence.
At its heart, the IndieWeb is all about your personal website. You can use your website’s domain name to sign in to websites and services via IndieAuth. Then, you start building connections between your website and other sites and services. These connections can work both ways: You can publish on your own site and then send a copy (“syndicate”) to Facebook, Twitter, Medium et al. Or, you publish elsewhere and send posts and even reactions like mentions or likes back to your own site. If this incoming data is marked up with semantic microformats, it can be parsed and displayed on your site anyway you like.
The IndieWeb approach to collecting reactions to your posts are the so-called Webmentions. A Webmention is basically a way to notify a website that you link to it from your own site. Let’s say I write a post in which I cite one of your posts. My server then sends a request to your website’s Webmention endpoint saying: “Hey, you were mentioned under *this URL *here.” Your website checks back if the URL is valid and after that fetches some information to display the Webmention on your site. With the help of Bridgy, this also works for likes, retweets and other interactions on several social media platforms. Webmention is a W3C Recommendation since January 12, 2017 and there are many implementations out there already, including hosted services like Bridgy, Webmention.io, A Webmention Endpoint, the “IndieWeb CMS” Known, and plugins for WordPress, ProcessWire, Typo3 and – the one I wrote myself – for Craft CMS.
There are many more interesting IndieWeb tools, but equally important are the main principles of community and participation: The IndieWeb movement is open to anyone who wants to join. Brainstorming and building events like IndieWebCamps and Homebrew Website Club Meetups are held regularly all around the world and are a fantastic opportunity to work on your own site and shape the future of the independent web. I attended the last IndieWebCamps in Berlin and Düsseldorf and enjoyed it a lot – as did others. So come and join us on one of the next events.
First We Shape Our Tools
All the tools that have been created out of the IndieWeb movement, open source projects like Solid, or the distributed Twitter alternative Mastodon already are a great foundation to build upon, but they can only be the beginning. More tools will be needed to be able to explore ever more robust solutions and progressively reinvent the core technologies that underpin the web. And over time, all those tools will also need to become easier to implement and use to appeal to a broader user base, so that they unlock their full potential.
If we are able to achieve this, if we are able to shape tools that have the power to change the web as an environment, the fight for an independent web is not lost, because as Tim Berners-Lee put it at the Decentralized Web Summit: “You can make the walled garden very very sweet. But the jungle outside is always more appealing in the long term.” So let us make the jungle of the independent, open web shine. Let us start coding, start designing, start building these tools.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
This short sentence comprises the promise of a world without the borders of the physical world, a promise of equal access to information and freedom of speech. This freedom is at stake and we need to protect it. Not because we, the people who create the web, are idealists, rebels, or revolutionist. We are ordinary people, just like the teenagers who use social media every day and just like the 83-year-old grandmother who loves to read the news on her iPad. But we happen to be the ones who know how to change the workings of the web. We are a worldwide community of creators and this brings with it a huge responsibility. Taking this responsibility seriously means becoming an active member of a community that helps to keep the promise of an independent and open web alive, and by this sustaining an active counterbalance to global mass surveillance and the corporate web. This may seem idealistic at times. But even the smallest changes can be transformative and if we don’t fix the web, one small step at a time, nobody will.
It is in our hands to shape the future of the web, or as Wilson Miner put it in his 2011 Build conference talk:
“The things that we choose to surround ourselves will shape what we become. We’re actually in the process of building an environment, where we’ll spend most of our time, for the rest of our lives.”
Header image shows Jon Postel and colleagues working in room 3420 at UCLA’s Boelter Hall campus – the birthplace of the internet. Image retrieved via Kleinrock Center for Internet Studies at UCLA