IndieWebCamp Brighton 2024

I first wrote about the Indie Web way back in 2016, though I can safely say that I'd known about the community for some time prior to that. At the start of 2020 – just before the dawn of eternal March – I decided to try and learn more, joined the community chat channels, and signed up for IndieWebCamp London. Unfortunately, as we're all well aware now, fate had other plans for that time period, but I happily attended virtually, learned a great deal, and left with an Indie Web wiki account and a much better understanding of the goals and ideals of the movement. At the time I was certain that, within the year, I'd have made it to at least one in-person get together, whether that be another Camp or the more regular Homebrew Website Clubs.

Well, here we are in March 2024, almost exactly four years later, and I've finally made good on that promise. The London HWCs have been running fairly consistently, but I believe exclusively online[1], and whilst there have been a few Camps in the intervening years, none have been in easy access or on dates that I could make. So when a revival of one of the OG Camps was announced in Brighton, I signed up. The timing couldn't have been more ideal (in some ways; in others it was very suboptimal 😅[2]) and so I booked some accommodation for the weekend and bought my ticket[3].

A group photo of the people that attended IndieWebCamp, including the author, taken outside the building against a brick wall in the sun. Everyone is smiling.
Look at all those happy, smiley faces, all still full of energy at the start of the day!

The camp started early with a 9:30am kick-off (on a weekend no less; barbaric! 😂), so I'd travelled down the night before. I still arrived a little late (I blame the new shoes, which resulted in a detour for plasters), but thankfully had only missed some general mingling. The proper starting activity was a round of introductions, with each person taking turns at a laptop to show their current website(s) or any plans they had, and generally say hello. Following this, we gathered about a whiteboard to do some session planning.

I've never attended (or even really understood) a "camp" or "unconference" style event before, and I'll say that I found this part quite, well, weird? Bemusing? I'm not too sure. People came forward and proposed topics, which were then written on post-it notes and stuck to a grid of available time slots. Once a good number of topics were present, people "voted" with stickers on which talks they'd most like to attend, and then the post-its were moved around between the various slots, until a rough consensus was approached. There were five time slots throughout the day, and each had four possible topic slots (based on the number of breakout spaces around the venue itself), so at any given time there could be up to four discussions happening. Clashes are obviously inevitable – particularly when trying to optimise for 25 people, each with their own personal interests and goals – but out of the chaos a surprisingly decent order did arise, helped in no small part by the guidance of Jeremy, who has plenty of experience managing these kinds of planning sessions (which you could definitely tell! 🙏). Still, I couldn't help but feel that this is crying out for a service of some kind that can take the various topics as inputs, allow people to cast (and move their votes), and automatically sort out a structure for you, particularly with a group of this size.

The final schedule shook out quite well for me, with a clear winner in almost all of the time slots that aligned with my own interests. I didn't end up proposing anything myself, because by the time I might have done so, there were already more topics that I wanted to attend on the board than time slots available, and I didn't want to get tied into another one myself, as the person who proposes the topic is also ostensibly in charge of running that session. This turned out to be another weak point of the system, in my view, as it meant that sessions could be categorised into two groups:

  • Those proposed by people who had very little knowledge of a topic and were wanting to have others help explain and educate them;
  • Those proposed by people with a firm knowledge on their topic and a certain amount of pre-planned talking points or specific intended direction, who wanted to gather feedback on a pre-defined idea of some sort.

Each of these have their own downsides. The first means that a session could fall into the "only questions, no answers" trap, where no one had the necessary knowledge or experience to properly help each other, or drive the discussion in a productive direction. These sessions were still useful, but they also felt a little lacklustre. Of course, if you did get a few subject experts in those talks, they could be incredibly fertile ground, but from the sessions that I attended I'd say that this outcome was rare.

It feels like the proposal phase would benefit from an extra step: rather than have the topic proposer automatically lead a session, I think there should be an appeal for an expert to do so. If the proposer themselves feels they fill that niche, then by all means give them first refusal (and perhaps cap a single person at being able to lead one or two sessions maximum during an event), but it would guarantee that at least one person in attendance might be able to steer the topic meaningfully. If no one volunteers to be the "expert", then there is a choice. Either the session is dropped or, if it was generally popular, at least you go into it knowing that this is going to be more of a discovery-by-committee type affair, which would help manage expectations. To be clear, I think both outcomes – committee-led and expert-led – are valuable, but in different ways, and that would be useful to know ahead of time.

The second session type has fewer inherent issues, but it did lead to what I'll call "topic collapse". What I mean by that is, some sessions were proposed by a person with a clearly defined goal, but covered a topic with broader implications that included other points of interest for different people. These sessions could feel a bit strained as the group tugged in opposing directions, or effectively blocked other topics being proposed, for fear of being "too similar". To be clear, this was a much smaller issue, and I think probably shook out in most cases in the end. Heck, there were even two proposed sessions that ended up combined into one, which wound up being both very interesting and very popular, probably because the topic had been broadened slightly. This feels like a much harder issue to judge, as a result, and I'm not sure that it can really be combatted.

The first session that I attended was on sustainability within the Indie Web and, personally, I think this was the most densely interesting discussion of the day. Lots of good points were raised – including some very valid criticisms about the minimal real-world impact that focusing on a personal website can even have, and how any time spent hyper-maximising a blog would likely be better spent on a political campaign or grassroots organisation – and I left with some new perspectives on various topics. In particular, the realisation that automated processes which run on schedules are necessarily wasteful, and would be better configured as event-triggered (so long as that trigger doesn't run too frequently), as well as the impact on energy use of "waste data" and unnecessary backup hoarding, which is something I definitely want to think a bit more deeply about. Returning to my earlier points, this session also felt like the best mix of technical and non-technical folk, with experts in both groups, which does seem to have helped bolster the breadth and depth of conversation.

After a break for lunch – which mainly served as a dual-exercise in exploring Brighton's busy and very varied foodie scene, and a chance to get to know people a little better – we began the afternoon in earnest. On my end, this meant the session I was most interested in: photo hosting! Unfortunately, the conversation tended to circle the same general outcomes it always does: AWS is surprisingly cheap (unless you set it up wrong, in which case you could be in for a stressful shock) but with a horribly unintuitive learning curve; Git is the techie preference, but even more complex; and people are generally annoyed that services like iCloud and Google Photos don't have an easy backdoor to use as image hosts. As someone who has no interest in learning Git to that level; wants to actively avoid both Amazon in general and the financial nightmares of no-cap, serverless services; and yet still wants to host thousands of photos (in my ideal setup), I still don't have an actionable way forward, beyond spending the now significantly increased cost for additional space on my existing web host. So that's a shame, but perhaps indicative of there simply not being a good solution. I think if I were to attend a similar session in the future, it would need to either be on AWS alternatives or ways to ensure that those types of services can't overcharge you.

For the third session, I had a choice to make. There were two topics that I was interested in, one from the perspective of a relative newbie – browser bookmarklets and testing tools – and another from the position of a decent chunk of experience: accessibility. I took a peek in the latter and noticed that none of the people I knew of as accessibility experts or practitioners at the Camp were in attendance, so I decided to sit in and see if I could help. I'm glad I did, because the conversation was varied and interesting, and there were a few occasions when I did have experience solving some of the specific problems that were raised, and was able to offer some thoughts. Hopefully people found that helpful; I certainly came away with a couple of additional tools to check out. I still slightly regret missing out on the other session, but I think I'd make the same choice if offered a do-over, so I guess that just counts as my inevitable clash for the event 😉

Next up was something a little different; this was my first session that I'd comfortably place in the second category I outlined above. Terence had brought along a stack of NFC tags and walked us through a mini-talk on how to program them, read them, and some of the ways they can be useful. This was fascinating, and left me with a bunch of ideas for little tech-hacks around the house:

  • Adding an NFC to every record sleeve I have that automatically opens my vinyl microsite to the relevant album page. (You can apparently buy NFC tags that also have internal counters, so each use increments an integer by one, which strikes me as a useful way to track how often I listen to a given record, too);
  • Taping one to the bottom of my desk to trigger a Netlify redeploy via web hook;
  • Leaving a couple by the front and back doors at home that can either turn on/off our "vacation" automated routines or just turn off the heating if we're going out briefly (that last one could be useful to have by the bed as well!);
  • Having one taped to the TV remote or PS4 controller that could be used to trigger "movie mode" automations (dim the lights, close the curtains etc.).

Basically, anything that takes a binary input that you might otherwise use a much more expensive smart button to trigger. I'm not sure how many of these ideas might become reality – and there doesn't appear to be any way to trigger non-binary states, such as dimmer switches or shade controls – but at pennies-per-tag they're certainly a cheaper option.

I even left with an NFC tag in my wallet that will take you directly to my homepage, which is pretty cool, and whilst Terence gave one to everyone who participated in the session, I like to think I earned mine by being the idiot that actually handed over a credit card to be scanned (it was too intriguing, okay!). And yes, this was one of the live-broadcasted and recorded sessions – whoops! 😂 Still, who'd have guessed that contactless payment devices sometimes write a transaction to the card's internal memory, too 🤯

Finally, the day was concluded with a joint-session run by Ana and Maggie, looking at the pain points of running a personal website. Each were approaching the topic from a different angle, but they complimented nicely. The general joke was that this had turned into a bit of a therapy/venting session, but I actually thought the discussion was really interesting. What quickly surfaced is that everyone has their own needs, specific requirements, and subsequent concerns. Even a topic as "simple" as URL structures had some wildly diverging takes. This wasn't exactly unexpected (personal websites are, obviously, personal), but it was fun to see it happening nonetheless. I also remain very intrigued by Maggie's ideas of a CMS built specifically for digital gardens, and look forward to seeing where she takes that project.

A screenshot of the "ad hops" website. It shows a three-column grid of ten beers, each with a photo, beer name, brewery, some hashtags such as "floral" and "mild hop", the date the image was taken, and a star rating out of five (all are rated three or four).
Very basic, but I was happy with my Hack Day progress. It's good to see these ratings back in public again after so many years. The first two beers were even enjoyed during IWC 😁

As is traditional, the second day of the event was reserved for people to work on their personal websites. For some, that meant finally digging some blog posts out of the drafts folders, for others it was project management and discovery sessions, and for many it was working on a specific feature or niggle for their own site. I had pre-prepared a side project to ensure that I had something to focus on: finally getting my beer journal back onto the web!

I'm happy to report that, by the end of the day, I have a web page which can query my Craft database[4], pull back all of the "drink" posts, and render them in an Instagram-like card grid. Each "card" has the name of the beer, the brewery, my rating and tasting notes, and the date it was logged. I didn't quite get around to adding location (though the latitude/longitude data is being fetched), drink type/category, or really settling on a design that I liked, but by mid-afternoon I had something demoable, which is all I was really after[5].

Oh, and being an IndieWebCamp, I felt it was appropriate to also mark up the page with microformats. I'd hoped to get some input from some of the more experienced IndieWebbers at the event on what this should look like, but everyone seemed so busy helping out other people or working on their own projects, that I just muddled through myself. I'm not totally happy with the output, as it's using some hidden data, and I'm not sure that using a relative h-card to my main site is the best approach, but this is a classic microformats "chicken and egg" issue, in that I'm not really clear what the consuming case would be anyway. As a result, perhaps the basic setup I have is sufficient for now.

It was incredible how quickly the time went, and whilst I'm happy with what I ended up with, I was also a little surprised that I didn't get any further. Still, it was a productive session, we had a good lunch, and it was fascinating to see what other people had been working on. From navigation via penguin, to site architecture analysis, to privacy policies, to improved content discovery, it was a very wide range. Most importantly, several people left with websites that were entirely brand new, which feels to me the highest benchmark of success for any Indie Web event.

All in all, I had a fantastic time. I found the hack day much more productive and invigorating than I had expected, and whilst I may not have come away from the discussion sessions with the answers that I had hoped for, I certainly came away with lots of ideas and many new questions. 

If there were one tip I'd give anyone considering attending an IndieWebCamp – other than simply to do it (enter Shia LaBeouf flexing) – it's to stick around for the pub/lunch sessions[6]. The Saturday evening was great fun, but I had planned on catching a train straight after the event finished on the Sunday. When I discovered that the station had been mobbed by a veritable stampede of football fans fresh from a Brighton match, I delayed my departure by an hour, and I'm really glad I did. Whilst the formal sessions had the highest density of new ideas and interesting topics, and the hack day had the most productive periods of time, the pub and café chats were where a lot of the ensuing thoughts were able to crystallise, and I was surprised by how much inspiration I left with as a result.

There was something really energising about being with a group of people that had a diverse range of backgrounds, ideas, and interests, but who all shared a specific outlook on one problem space. We definitely didn't all agree on what the ideal solution to a given problem was, but we were at least approaching topics from a similar starting point, which was great. It made me realise that even amongst coworkers and techie friends, I never really get to talk about certain topics or sweat the details on specific issues; I certainly never get to hear first-hand accounts of how other people have tackled the kind of specific web problems that crop up on personal sites. Having the opportunity to do so was enlightening in every sense of the term; I arrived back home feeling physically lighter, somehow buoyed up by all of the new ideas and plans swirling around in my brain.

Plus, the whole weekend was a fantastic excuse to get to know people better, beyond the tech side of things. It was great to finally meet various folk who I've chatted to online, or waved to via Zoom screens, and equally as fun to get to know people whose paths I have not crossed before at all. Perhaps this is predictable, but it turns out that if you already share several key ideals with someone, you're also likely to share overlapping interests in other areas, and I had plenty of excellent conversations about music, TV, food, ethical shopping, and even the evolutionary history of camels, at various points throughout the weekend.

Which is all to say a massive thank you to Mark, Paul, and everyone else who helped to organise the event. It was a huge amount of fun! The only thing left to ask is: when's the next one, then? 😏

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