Dan Gillmor

Why the Indie Web movement is so important

Suppose you could write in your personal blog and have a summary of your post show up on popular social-media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook – and then have responses on those sites show up as comments in your blog? You can, and if some talented programmers have their way you’ll soon be able to do so easily. In fact, it’s what I’m doing right now with this post, which is also running at Slate Magazine.

Why would you or I want to do this? Simple: We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history – a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks – that would be you and me – don’t need permission to communicate, create and innovate.

This isn’t a knock on social networks’ legitimacy, or their considerable utility. But when we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.

Even if most people don’t recognize what’s at stake – yet – I’m happy to say that a small but growing group of technologists does. And they’ve created what they call the “Indie Web” movement to do something about it, in an extended online conversation and at periodic in-person meetings. The latter are IndieWebCamps, where they gather to hack together tools aimed at liberating us, to the extent possible, from centralized control – what the Web’s key inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has called “re-decentralization” of the Net. In their early work they’re taking advantage of the good things the social network “silos,” as they call them, can offer, while ensuring that the data we create, and as much of the conversation it engenders, lives in our own home-base sites.

They’re creating what the call an alternative to the “corporate-owned” Internet. And do we ever need it. The principles, as they say on their website:

Amber Case, one of the Indie Web creators, was drawn to it because the Web had become “a claustrophobic space where all I could do was consume, with barriers to building and owning.” She saw a new generation of Internet users who’d never registered a domain name, and weren’t even aware of what was possible.

That happened, in part, because “Twitter and Facebook showed an easier path to creating online,” says Aaron Pareki, another Indie Web organizer. “The original vision was everyone has their own space and made things . Then the silos formed and attracted people because it was easier.”

I spent two days with them and others in the movement at their recent San Francisco camp (there’s another camp being held this weekend in New York City), and came away dazzled by the vision of what they intend. I learned more about a variety of technologies they’re creating to make it happen, including things called “webmention” and “microformats,” among the underpinnings of the move toward re-decentralization.

I also came away with the open-source tools, which are still rudimentary, that have enabled me to move in a more independent direction. In my case, because I use WordPress for my personal blogging, I’ve installed several software modules that extend the WordPress software’s basic functionality. One is “Jetpack,” which lets me create posts that show up on on social network sites; another is “IndieWeb” to get the replies back to my own site.

The outbound piece depends on Tantek Çelik‘s “POSSE,” which stands for “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. Getting the comments, likes, favorites and other responses back depends on Ryan Barrett‘s Bridgy. I won’t go into the technical details, but this stuff is close to magical even in its currently early-days form – and far advanced from when I first heard about it, in a post last fall at Wired News.

This is also classic Internet innovation: created and deployed at the edge, not the center; rough, and constantly being improved. And if we’re lucky, and help these folks by testing it out on our own devices, it’s a vital part of the future.