A year ago today I finally managed to get all my ducks in a row and attend an IndieWeb event. I'd been aware of IndieWebCamps for at least five years, and after moving to London I'd made plans on a few occasions to attend their more informal Homebrew Website Club meetups, but somehow life had always gotten in the way 😅
The result was a wonderful weekend finally getting to grips with all the terminology, concepts, and possibilities that the IndieWeb boasts. IndieWebCamps typically have time set aside for practical doing and, what with being online, it was particularly easy to duck in and out whilst working on personal projects. By the end of the weekend I had wikified myself, set up (some) microformats on my site, configured IndieAuth via the indielogin.com service, and was steaming ahead towards getting ✨ webmentions ✨ working. It felt great, I had lots of ideas, and clear plans to leap onto Micropub and Microsub, get a social reader going, and all sorts of other things. I (felt that I) had finally grokked the IndieWeb and found myself fully on board.
French Narrator: One Year Later
So, looking back over the last year, how did those plans go? Well, whilst I did get webmention receiving working, that was mainly thanks to a combination of https://webmention.io/ and Brid.gy. I still haven't worked out the sending side of the equation, despite many attempts. As for Micropub? I'm not actually sure I need it, and I definitely don't need a social reader (RSS is fine). Microsub is a blurry memory and whilst I do like IndieAuth, I still only use it for the IndieWeb Wiki and the aforementioned webmention services. Don't get me wrong, these are all fantastic tools and ideas, but they just aren't for me.
When I first read about the IndieWeb it felt like a lot. I've written about this before, but the sheer weight of jargon in the space is frankly terrifying. When I finally felt like I had at least a partial grip on how things worked, it was such a feeling of achievement that it was hard not to go all in.
This is a problem that I think the IndieWeb has in general. There's a steep learning curve, so if you persevere through it you get caught up in everything. You end up spending hours pouring over specs, implementing all sorts of little bits and bobs, and doing things simply because you can without really questioning if you should. It's something you see fairly regularly within the community; a boom'n'bust cycle of someone joining, furiously getting involved, and then disappearing. Perhaps a few months later they'll write a post about how they're "leaving the IndieWeb" – deleting all their microformats or whatever – and are just generally disillusioned by the whole thing. Or they'll pop up on Twitter talking about how they don't find maintaining their website "fun" anymore and harking back to simpler days.
These criticisms are at least a little fair and I definitely hit that wall myself; in a normal year, this post would possibly have been my own dramatic flourish out the IndieWeb door. Luckily, what with the pandemic, my redundancy/furlough, change of jobs, and the end of my social life, hobbies, and commitments, I've had a lot of time to hang around the IndieWeb chatroom (via Slack, though just about every possible connection method is supported, of course). That has helped me understand this cycle of adoption, defeat, and detachment, but it's also taught me that the IndieWeb isn't a thing. You don't join the IndieWeb or complete the IndieWeb. Attempting to do so will drive you mad 😂
If I could nip back in time to March 2020, I'd tell myself I was thinking about the IndieWeb all wrong. So if you're coming to the IndieWeb fresh, or feeling like you're on the negative part of that cycle, here are two realisations that have helped me reframe my thoughts around the concept popularly known as "the IndieWeb":
The IndieWeb is a Toolkit
When I first started "IndieWebifying" my site, I felt like I had this checklist of steps that I needed to complete in order to be a part of "the IndieWeb". In hindsight, this is nonsense. Understandable nonsense – easy nonsense to believe – but nonsense none-the-less.
Instead, the IndieWeb is a toolkit. A collection of ideas, technologies, and services that can help you solve some particularly tricky problems. If you're wanting to get involved in the IndieWeb, the first question you need to ask is: what problem do I have?
Maybe you're trying to create a consistent experience across different digital channels, so that if someone likes a Tweet about your article then that "like" shows up when on the article? Sounds like you need to implement backfeed. Or maybe you want an easy way for people to comment on a page without needing to sign in? Webmentions will probably help you out. Looking for a way to consume RSS that feels a bit more like a two-way conversation? Check out social readers. Want to easily publish ideas directly from your phone to your website? Micropub might be what you're after. Like the idea of letting a service automatically populate a profile for you? Consider microformats.
But the point isn't to integrate all of the things into your website. It's to solve the problem you have with a solution that has been community tested, openly developed, and will likely have already planned for some of the edge cases you wouldn't ever think of.
And hey, if your site doesn't need social interactions, or comments, or publishing channels, that's fine. Ditto if you already have a solution that works for you. It sounds silly, but this was a big (and fairly recent) step for me to take. I've been battling away at understanding Micropub for over six months and the other day I realised my CMS does all of that for me. I was literally trying to build a Craft plugin in order to be able to build an Android app so I can post from my phone... when I can just open my admin panel from any browser and go from there.
Similarly, I spent a while feeling like I was somehow letting the side down every time I logged in to The Old Reader to see what's up in the land of RSS. It wasn't a new, fancy social reader, so it wasn't truly IndieWeb. But who cares? I don't want to be able to comment on RSS posts and I like the way The Old Reader UI works. I've been using it for years and it hasn't let me down, so that's fine for me. I was solving a problem I didn't have. Of course, the great thing about IndieWeb ideas is that if I ever do have that problem, a tool is already available. And if you have that problem right now, you just need to open up the IndieWeb toolkit and pull it out.
The IndieWeb is Poorly Named
(🌶 I'm aware that this is a mildly spicy take, but please bear with me 🌶)
If I look back over the posts on this website, the first instance I can find of the term "indie web" is in 2015, but I'm pretty confident I've been using it for longer than that. When I attended IWC London, I genuinely thought that I was meeting a group of people who were passionate about the "indie web", but I was wrong. The "indie web" is a different thing entirely from the IndieWeb.
Now, if you drop into the IndieWeb chat and ask what it means to be "part of the IndieWeb", you'll probably be told that all you need to do is:
- Have a website;
- Own your URL;
- Make it available.
☝ These are the exact words I wrote after IWC London as the criteria to be considered "part of the IndieWeb" and they're sort of true. The community is pretty unanimous in this definition, but here comes the spicy take: they're wrong 👀
Those three steps are what you need to do in order to be part of the independent, or indie, web. But that's lowercase i, lowercase w. The IndieWeb – check that casing – is a bit more specific than that. The IndieWeb is an attempt at moving behaviours and functionality away from large, corporately-owned online communities (what people involved in the IndieWeb refer to as "silos") and onto independent websites. Specifically, the IndieWeb is focused on online social behaviour. Hence why I think the concept is poorly named. It should be the SocialWeb, or possibly the IndieSocialWeb, or maybe something different entirely.
Plenty of people active in the IndieWeb community will disagree with this take, and some of the wiser individuals will rightfully note that the "IndieWeb" has a different meaning for different people, so any hard definition will fall short. But over the last year, framing the IndieWeb in this way has really helped me, personally, understand it better.
After all, the entire toolkit is framed around these problems. Whether its microformats or fragmentions or social readers, every part of the ecosystem is focused on interactivity, on digital socialising. So if you come to the IndieWeb looking for somewhere to chat about building websites or about blogging, you'll be a bit lost. Just look at the dev chatroom: most of the discussion revolves around backend implementation details or networking principles. A question on CSS or accessibility or even content management is a rare thing indeed. This isn't a community centred on helping people build their own websites, as I had first imagined. Instead, it's a community attempting to shift the power in online socialising away from Big Tech and back towards people.
That's a seriously noble goal, but it took me about half the year to work it out, because it's not how they brand themselves. Ask what it takes to be a part of the IndieWeb and it's always some variation on those three points I have outlined above. Their informal meetups are called Homebrew Website Club. Even the name evokes feelings of lone developers working outside the system on personal projects. It feels a lot like somewhere that should be for tinkerers and makers, but their goals are much more targeted than that and their intended audience is much broader.
At the same time, the IndieWeb isn't about total decentralisation or abject anticapitalism. There's plenty of both vibes in their actions and in the community at large, but it isn't the ultimate goal. If some people choose Facebook over the IndieWeb, that isn't a failure because the IndieWeb doesn't truly care about what people do, it cares about providing options. So long as that person could do everything Facebook offers on their own terms, with their own website, then the IndieWeb is winning.
I've also seen a lot of people take aim at the IndieWeb for simply copying silos like Facebook. I feel like this is yet another issue with the branding; another set of people missing the point. IndieWeb tools don't aim to copy silo functionality, they just aim to let people interact with one another in the same way that they would on a silo, only using their own website. That's a fine line and I see how it can appear blurry at times, but it's also a really important one and an aspect of the IndieWeb which I find particularly compelling.
All of this piles up into a mess of misunderstanding. The IndieWeb attracts the tinkerers, and the decentralisers, and the anti-capitalists, and all manner of other people that have found a rallying call in the concept of an independent web... and many leave disappointed, because that's not the point. It's a bit of a shame, and l think the name is more problematic than positive in some ways, but I'm also confident that it doesn't really matter. Because some of those people stick around long enough to see the IndieWeb for what it actually is, get involved and help build more parts of the toolkit, and so, despite the janky name, the concept grows.
And Yet, He IndieWebbed
Because despite the misunderstandings and burnout that seem to be a constant occurrence, the IndieWeb is a really great idea. A cursory glance is enough to find something interesting, but beneath the surface there are some abyssal-level hidden depths. It consistently reminds me of that oh-so-perfect line from Django Unchained:
You had my curiosity; but now, you have my attention.
I was pulled in by the hopes of a community of like-minded tinkerers, but I found a movement with some extremely intelligent and mature concepts at its heart.
In particular, two elements of the IndieWeb have really stood out over the last year. The first is that the community is both endlessly creative and genuinely interested in solving big issues in meaningful ways. Whether it's their commitment to careful (and caring) community stewardship or their particular strain of techno-ethics, I have been consistently (and pleasantly) surprised at what I've seen during the last twelve months. I don't always see eye-to-eye with their decisions and I don't think that the community is perfect, but it's consistently (and deliberately) striving to be better, and that's a fairly rare thing, online or off.
The second is that their approach of allowing standards to evolve through practical application, rather than highfalutin conjecture, is an incredibly powerful technique for problem-solving. The number of my ideas that have died on paper as I try to flesh them out are beyond count. It's the Goldilocks conundrum: the feeling that something needs to be just right before other people can see it. The IndieWeb methodology proves that this logic should just be thrown away.
Watching others within the community develop tools in the open, primarily by building for themselves... that's been a really interesting journey to go on, personally. It's taught me to just try stuff and see if it works; if it doesn't, the effort is rarely wasted because I likely now have a better idea of what to try next and solid evidence for why this new direction is a better one. It heads off all the second-guessing and drives a process towards a solution much faster. I'm still not great at it in practice, but I'm getting better and it's helped my site evolve along the way in many small, but significant, ways.
What's more, watching the debates happening in real-time has really driven home that this approach doesn't just scale, it scales well. For a personal site, incremental improvement measured against real-world testing feels okay. For an industry-level protocol or specification, it feels like it should just collapse. Yet with the IndieWeb, not only is their work surprisingly resilient, it's far more adaptable as a result.
Both of these elements are ideas that many communities strive for, but I'm not sure I've ever found one that does either as well as the IndieWeb folks manage.
So, if I was to go back twelve months and look at what I've achieved with the IndieWeb, I might be a little disappointed. I don't have a fully fleshed-out Micropub server, I'm not pinging webmentions back and forth across the ether, and I haven't ended up delighting in my social reader antics. But then, I've learnt that I don't need to use the full toolkit in order to make my site the way I want it. And more importantly, I'm more interested in the IndieWeb – the real IndieWeb – than I've ever been before.