Getting Back to an Independent Web

This is the second iteration of a post I’ve been working on that might eventually live on the blog at Hover. Comments and feedback are welcome!

I first got on the internet back in 1994. Back then it was a far different world than the one we live in today. To get online, I first grabbed a copy of The Computer Paper and flipped to the backpage where there were listings from dozens and dozens of dial-up internet service providers (ISPs) in the Toronto area.

I picked one from the list, called them up and got an account. $19.95/month for 28.8kbps dial-up. About a week later a floppy disk showed up in the mail (seriously) with the software I needed to get my Windows 3.1 computer online.

Within a couple of years I started maintaining my own website. I hand-coded it using Netscape Composer (downloaded from TUCOWS) and it was all hosted at http://www.interlog.com/~jkoole which was the little bit of space dial-up providers often gave each user. That URL no longer works because Interlog is long gone, but a little piece of that site lives on through to the present day in the form of a list of links to sites I visit regularly that’s part of my current little hand-coded personal website.

A place to call my own

Sometime around 1997, I decided I needed to have my own place online. I had switched to use a wonderful new technology called the cable modem that was offered by our cable provider Rogers. I went from 33.6kbps dial-up to speeds of 1Mb/s on Rogers Wave. Incredible! But my website at my dial-up provider was now gone since I cancelled my service with them and I needed to put it somewhere else.

This was my very first lesson in data portability. Of course, since my site was just a bunch of static HTML files, it wasn’t hard to move it from one host to another. But the URL change meant that I had lost all the equity I’d built up as many of my friends and family had been using my little portal as their homepage too.

So I did some research (online, of course) and registered my very first domain name – jameskoole.ca. I signed up for hosting from a small provider out in New Brunswick, Canada who ran a hosting business out of his home using a server at a colocation facility. My awesome website was back online and this time I wasn’t just renting a space online. Having my own domain name meant I was in control from now on.

Over the years I continued to work on my website. I posted updates about my life and started uploading my vacation photos to share with friends using gallery software. Then the blogging craze started and I moved first to Movable Type and then in 2003 I switched to a cool, open source content management system called WordPress (version 0.7) which is what I still use today (no, not version 0.7). Over that time, I used many different web hosts depending on my needs and budget. Switching around was easy because I could just dump out my content and move it to the new host, re-point the DNS and it all just worked.

Things like blogrolls, comments and trackbacks came along and allowed bloggers and content creators like me to interlink to each other in small (and large) networks. I made friends, shared opinions and read what others had to say. It was fun and it all worked nicely.

And then came Facebook.

Trust us! We’ve got you covered

Don’t bother getting your own domain name and building your own site, they said. Get on Facebook, find your friends and start posting, they said. We’ll take care of the rest, they said. Photos? Upload them to us. Events? We can help with that. Groups? Check. And it’s all free! Yeah, you’ll see some ads, but they’ll be relevant to you. So they are good ads!

Find-us-on-Facebook-signBusinesses went all in too. TV ads and billboards started showing Facebook URLs instead of domain names. Facebook stickers started appearing on storefront windows.

Facebook was everywhere and everyone was getting on Facebook.

We all got lazy

Fast forward to the present day, and we’re starting to see some of the horribly negative consequences of putting our content and effort into ad-supported services run by tech giants.

We’ve lost control of our data, our privacy and maybe even our society. Facebook has collected so much data about us that we can’t even comprehend it anymore. Based on Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of US Senate and Congressional Committees recently it seems obvious that even Facebook itself doesn’t have a good handle on what they are doing and the monster they’ve created.

It’s our own fault, really. The truth is that we all got lazy and complacent. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google, Blogger and others came along and recognized an opportunity. They gave us easy solutions to getting online and we took them up on their offers.

But our usage and reliance on these services came with consequences that we failed to consider when we abandoned the “good old ways” of the early internet. We scoffed at those early pioneers who told us we would be better off using the open standards they had created.

It used to be important to own our content and ensure it was portable. Then Facebook and Twitter came along and promised to make it all so easy. The only downside was we no longer fully controlled our own content, and we used their domain names and drove traffic to their sites. Sure, you can always download your data and…well…you can look at it? Sort of?

On top of all of that, we were also forced to “trade” every single bit of data about ourselves that these services could take from us including everything we did, read and looked at away from their services.

It’s time we go back to the good old days

The time has come to take back the web and go back to how things used to work. It’s really not all that complicated and lots of people have already been doing this for many years.

All the tools exist. Here’s what you do:

  1. Get a domain name and a website to forms the core identity for each person who wants to create and share online. Maybe that’s a WordPress blog, or a Micro.blog site, a Squarespace site, a Ghost blog, a hand-coded website hosted on GitHub or even served up locally from your own computer. But be careful what you pick! Make sure whatever service you choose has true data portability and offers the ability to host at your own domain and not theirs. Pro-tip: if it’s ad-supported and “free” then it’s likely not going to be a good choice.
  2. Use syndication to enable sharing and discover-ability. Once you are up and publishing, there’s no reason you can’t syndicate it to other places. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is the answer. It has existed for a long, long time and works really well. There are lots of clients around still and pretty much every decent content management system (CMS) generates standard RSS feeds.
  3. Use comments and trackbacks to interconnect and facilitate discussion. Remember comments? That’s what we used to do before Twitter and Facebook came along. If you read a blog post and want to comment, do it. If you have a lot to say, write a post of your own and link back to the original. Keep a list of the other sites and blogs you like and read on your website so others can discover them too.

My efforts to take back the web

Here’s what I’m doing to make this a reality. Many others are also either making the switch back to an independent internet, or never stopped doing it this way.

I publish everything on my own site and domain name first. I use WordPress.com for this because they offer true portability and a system I’m very familiar with at a low cost, but there are a ton of good content management systems that would work fine. As long as there is an RSS feed, you are good to go.

I can post short “status updates” that are basically tweets, or longer posts and even photos and videos. I can use the web to post, or a number of different apps on my mobile phone or tablet that can post to WordPress using their open standards. I can make pages that act as my resume or profile and I can link out to any other places online that I want to.

Most of the time I post first on my own website and then the magic all happens. Remember that owning and controlling your content at your own domain doesn’t mean you have to stop using other services. You own and control it!

In my case, I’ve stopped posting to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram because I don’t think the privacy trade off is in line with the limited value they provide, but if you have audiences or friends there, then tools exist to continue to post out to those services. The key is to include links back to your site at your domain, and to avoid driving traffic to a domain you don’t own or control.

This is referred to as Publish (on) Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere (POSSE) and there are a number of great ways to accomplish this. A neat little service I use called Micro.blog does a great job syndicating your posts out to a good list of services including Facebook and Twitter. Instagram is trickier because they are the least open of the major social networks, but it’s possible to syndicate using OwnYourGram if you must use their service. IFTTT can also take an RSS feed and push out posts to other services fairly easily.

The IndieWeb is alive and well

As you might expect, there are tons of people who are working to create and share the tools that make all this possible for the average person. And it all starts with a domain name.

At Hover, where I work, we’re big fans of a open and independent web and we’ve built smart tools into Hover that help you connect your domain name to whatever service you want. If you change your mind about whatever tool you use, it’s easy to switch and keep your content at your own domain forever. And even if you change your mind about Hover, getting your auth code and transferring your domain to another registrar is simple.

Once you have a domain name, you need a way to get a site online. That could be a simple WordPress site using WordPress.com or self-hosted using a relatively inexpensive shared hosting plan. Or you can use Micro.blog which is a nice, easy to understand way to publish short posts (just like Tweets or Facebook status updates) that you control. Just make sure whatever service you choose values an open and independent web and supports using a custom domain that you own.

Get Involved

The IndieWeb organization is dedicated to maintaining independent internet publishers and creators. They have a ton of information and even tools that help creators take advantage of what the internet can offer without selling out and giving up control of their content to companies and services that are far more interested in monetizing your personal data than helping you share ideas. Check them out and get involved.

It takes a little time and effort, but in the end, it’s more than worth it to own your content and be in control of what and where you publish the stuff you create.