A photograph of a lake with a small island in it, fluffy low clouds hovering above.

When Twitter announced its plans to start asphyxiating all extant third-party clients this summer, I decided I would never again let my heart get broken by a web-identity service that invites me to invest so much of myself without offering matching levels of ownership and control. I have grown utterly weary of the every-few-years trudge of picking whatever service seems most agreeable at the moment, building up my network once again, and then enjoying things for a time while waiting for the rot to set in after management shifts and shareholders start grumbling.

By coincidence, at the very same time Twitter announced its euthanasia plans, I stumbled upon a promising way out: a chance to reclaim my own online identity without simply retreating to my own website as a digital hermitage, or otherwise turning my back on the ever-dimming but still-glowing promise of the interconnected web. This route exists through the long, quiet labor of technically savvy, politically realistic hobbyists who really do seem to be onto something, though they also seem hesitant to grasp the full potential of it. Driven by my usual selfishness, I want to help them change the world, because that will help me too.

I’ve mentioned IndieWeb here recently, introducing this blog’s new experiments in a “backfeed” that pulls in and reprints reactions to local content from across the web. Backfeed represents only one of IndieWeb’s core building blocks of technologies and protocols that this small, globally scattered team has spent the past several years developing and refining, to the point where it today boasts multiple W3C recommendations to its name. I find Webmention the most engaging of these, the admirably simple protocol for mediated inter-website communication that makes backfeed possible.

IndieWeb’s mission envisions a web that uses standards like Webmention to marry the powerful technologies and diverse cultures of the modern internet with the original promise of what we once called the world-wide web. In this democratic vision, everyone self-publishes to their own websites — each with its own domain name — and IndieWeb tech enables not just connectivity but active intercommunication among them, bringing about a sort of federated social media where everyone communications freely and yet still owns every bit of original content they share.

For all this driving idealism, IndieWeb impresses me with its practice of modern-internet realpolitik. While it turns its nose up at “silos” like Twitter and Facebook, IndieWeb philosophy eschews any great rallying call to throw off the yokes of these undeserving owners of your content. Instead, IndieWeb accepts silos’ present ubiquity as a reality to work with, admirably resisting the pure-nerd stance that would see them as damage to rout around. This working compromise is epitomized by Bridgy, a service that uses various silos’ own APIs (plus, I reckon, a wee bit of screen-scraping) to convert tweets, Facebook updates, and other silo-stored content into nice, platform-neutral webmentions. Via Bridgy, websites like mine can work with sites like Twitter as a peer — even though the latter has no interest in learning what a “webmention” is, much less bother sending one to me.

At the start of 2018, the IndieWeb community calculated that websites had, since the protocol’s inception, sent around one million webmentions. And that’s great! But: fully 95 percent of them came from Bridgy alone. This signals that, so far, the userbase of this core IndieWeb technology comprises only people like me: enthusiasts. Getting ourselves into a Berners-Lee headspace, we knit up our own hobby-horse solutions for consuming webmentions, and we might even dutifully send them out as well. (Ideally, Webmention-aware blog software will offer a fresh webmention to each and every URL that a new post links to.) But for now, it all feels like pantomime. Any website not run by one of the world’s very few IndieWeb-obsessed people will have no facility for receiving webmentions. (There also lurks the problematic nature of Bridgy, itself an unpaid hobby-project, becoming a monolithic service within a supposedly federated vision.)

Webmention, like most every IndieWeb technology, hides its light under a bushel of deep obscurity. I discovered IndieWeb three months ago by happenstance, and since then exactly zero of my fellow web-working professionals with whom I’ve brought up the subject had heard of it before that moment. On the one hand, I find this truly fascinating: here is a geographically diverse group of deeply caring technologists who have not just invented but, over most of a decade, refined and iterated tools for a truly democratized web. They have developed them to a point where the web’s core standards body has recognized their merit, and — more to the point — where a jaded lifelong web-engineer like me can so much as glance at them and immediately feel amazed by their coiled-spring potential, suddenly hungry to start working with them myself.

And this leads to my second reaction, which is the deepest impatience and frustration with IndieWeb itself for having developed tools to very literally revolutionize the web, but then continuing to not strive for a level of public visibility beyond that of model-train enthusiasts, perhaps, or ham-radio clubs. Smart, motivated people gathering regularly in the shared pleasure of their craft, with these quiet gatherings having negligible effect on the world at large.

An acceptable stance during the long incubatory period for new technologies, certainly! But through Webmention and other W3C-certified techs, IndieWeb has proven itself ready for a far more public debut. If it truly wants to help make real the federated web that it envisions, it now needs to show a little more initiative in getting its message out, rather than staying content with having nerds like me accidentally stumbling across it from time to time. IndieWeb has done the work to prove its message, and now it must somehow push it out upon the modern, cynical, commercially exploited web, showing it a path — a real path, well-defined and ready to explore! — to a better, less broken, more democratic web.

That will require quite a lot of coordinated amplification. So: I call upon IndieWeb to get organized. I want to see at least one real non-profit organization formed out of it. I fully believe that IndieWeb already has, through its years of published hard work, the ability to attract and build a diverse board of highly influential directors who care about the web’s future. From there, it could bring the attention and material resources that IndieWeb not only requires but has long deserved in order to start really reshaping the web at large, letting its ideas at last reach outside the rinky-dink hobby-sphere that currently confines it.

I recognize IndieWeb’s status as a truly global movement, as well as the fact of my own mere three months of involvement with it, so I decline to dictate any specific next actions here. But I can describe my experience in co-founding a non-profit corporation over less objectively important matters. Through that organization, various loose and hobbyist-led services that I have cared about for decades now have elements of basic organizational grounding, such as a bank account, legal representation, and presence on various charitable-organization lists. This corporation has central and easily-discoverable points for public communication and social media, and it can accept tax-deductible donations and sell branded merchandise. Most importantly, it can organize programs, raising funds to fuel them and attracting talent to staff them, all under a unified, recognizable, and trustworthy identity.

IndieWeb deserves at least as much as all this, and I daresay that it must have them in order to start truly effecting change on the world. Whether it intended to or not, IndieWeb has forged a set of tools that — with next-level leadership, attention, and funding — has a real chance to start making its vision real on a large scale, pulling the web’s power away from a handful of mile-high profit-seeking centers, and redistributing it to individual voices. While this isn’t my charge to lead, I pledge to help however I can, and I begin with this note of encouragement borne on equal parts hope, personal excitement, and benevolent impatience.

This was also posted to IndieNews.

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