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A whole year has passed since my last self-indulgent post about Plerd, my very own open-source software tool that powers this blog. A casual glance makes it seem like little development has occurred since then; I had announced version 1.5 last August, after all, and 1.6 landed only earlier this month. That small numeric increase belies much bigger potential, however, so please do allow me to describe it further.
Essentially, Plerd 1.6 merges in all the webmention-related work that Fogknife has demonstrated since this past spring. These features’ lack of documented examples and thorough testing made me mark them all as experimental for the present, but they work nonetheless. A Plerd user who knows what to expect — a population which, as I write this, may admittedly consist of one living person — can have their blog automatically send, receive, and display webmentions, linking their posts into a web (if you will!) of other, related articles and responses found across the internet.
Webmention sending: Every time a post is created or updated, Plerd tries to send webmentions regarding the URLs that the post hyperlinks to. This involves, for each such URL, checking that remote location for metadata indicating the presence of a server that receives webmentions on that website’s behalf. If it finds a listener this way, Plerd will subsequently send a fully fledged webmention to the indicated destination. The webmention says, in essence, “I just created or updated a webpage that links to this other page of yours. If you download my page it might have some metadata that’ll help you format a link back to it, if you care to display one.”
Webmention receiving: Plerd, meanwhile, can run its own process that listens vigilantly for incoming webmentions. On receipt, it queues well-formed webmentions for processing by a separate program. That program — expected to run via
cron or a similar scheduled-automation utility — checks this queue regularly. When it finds new webmentions, it tests each for validity (does the source page actually refer to one of the Plerd blog’s pages?), and finally stores the valid ones in a special database that posts can reference when they build their own HTML.
Both of the above behaviors act in accordance with the W3C’s webmention specification, and have passed the public obstacle course for new implmenentations (an idea, I should add, that I love) found at webmention.rocks.
You can already find examples of displayed webmentions throughout Fogknife. This post about OmniFocus shows a variety of webmention “flavors” underneath the article’s text. Most are Twitter responses translated into webmentions via Bridgy, but a handful are original webmentions from other services, and a couple come from Fogknife itself — an entirely appropriate response when one post within the blog links to an earlier one, and an elegant path to building an organic “related posts” feature.
More subtly, you can find evidence of Plerd’s functional webmention-sending ability elsewhere on the web. That “this was also posted to IndieNews” link, at the bottom of this post? When this post first went live, my Plerd instance knew to send a webmention to IndieNews. That site, in turn, understood my claim (by way of Microformats2 metadata embedded within this post’s HTML) that this document contained information relevant to its interests, and could also infer some hints about how to best display the link and provide a little extra context. That’s cool.
All this represents months of effort on my part, and in some ways it seems utterly foolish; as of mid 2018, webmention remains an obscure technology supported by very few websites. But: I feel bullish on its future. A List Apart, a venerable and much-read web-design publication, recently published a great summary of webmention by Chris Aldrich. As public disillusionment with “silos” like Twitter and Facebook grows, I definitely feel an ever-more intense yearning — led by progressively minded technologists who know we can do better — to reclaim the potential of the early web. And I start to see more eyes besides my own turn towards webmention in particular. It is just one of the technologies in the basket of open web standards collectively known as IndieWeb, but I find it far and away the most exciting of the bunch in terms of immediate and obvious potential for healing the web. Nobody has to give up anything, or put their faith in yet another siloed service! Instead, we set up publishing homesteads on your own domains, and then — through webmention, and other IndieWeb tech — let them light up and be lit up by the rest of the web, silos and all, via syndication and intercommunication.
I can see Plerd playing an important a role in this future, and a role larger than merely myself. I can’t shake the feeling that right now represents a great time for hackers like me, obsessed with IndieWeb’s potential and impatient with its current shortcomings, to help create a galaxy of practical implementations. I want Plerd to not only become my own toolkit for all my personal online publishing, I also want to position it as an excellent option for any writer possessing a certain minimum of technical aptitude to run an IndieWeb-aware blog — so long as they can also put up with Plerd’s opinionated design philosophies. (And, if not, there’s always the WordPress plugin, or the growing world of more specific IndieWeb projects.)
Months, perhaps a year or more, will pass before Plerd can get to that point. My next steps echo my “called shots” for Plerd from over three years ago, neither of which I managed to accomplish at the time: loading Plerd into a public package manager, and then writing thorough, booklet-length documentation for its use. The latter will cover both the basic use that drove me to invent the thing in 2014, and the newer and fancier fetaures like webmention support. It will supplement, if not entirely replace, Plerd’s now absurdly long README file.
So long as my interest in IndieWeb’s promise holds, I think I can get Plerd to a very interesting place that’ll prove useful to writers other than myself (and the handful of cherished friends also using it at present). If you’d like to help, I invite you to download and mess around with the thing, and consider dropping me a line about how you’re getting on.
This was also posted to IndieNews.
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