Dark Matter and the #IndieWeb

(Adapted from a lunch time tech talk I gave at Pivotal office in Santa Monica, California on 2016–04–26.)

The Problem

All empires fall.

The corporate web is an oligarchy of disconnected silos whose business model is surveillance. We are their product and their customers are: advertisers, cops and governments.

When the very few own (corporations) the only choices (means of production and distributions) for the very many (us), we don’t have much choice at all. Pepsi or Coke (both brown sugar water). Bush or Gore (son of a president, son of a senator). YouTube or Vimeo. Same shit, different pile.

It stifles free speech and limits autonomy.

When we publish our creative works imperialist silos, we are completely beholden to their every whim. We can only do what they allow us to do within their silo on their terms. If they change their terms, which they can do at anytime, we have to play by those new rules.

Silos

When I say a “silo”, think of a corn silo. There’s stuff inside of it. There is not stuff outside of it. It does not connect to other things. Everything is just inside of it.

Some people call these “walled gardens”, but I think that’s giving them too rosy of a description. I don’t think Facebook is a garden where things bloom and grow. I don’t want to eat anything that’s grown in there.

Content Censorship

If you post a photo to Instagram and enough people report it or a moderator (if they have those) sees it and decides that this photo violates Instagram content terms of service for nudity. If they delete your photo or account, there’s literally nothing you can do about it. There’s no notice. There’s no export. There’s no “here’s your data, get out of here”. You have no recourse.

This happens all of the time on Instagram. People’s photos that may or may not have nudity. Maybe a photo of a painting or of a sculpture. Ancient Roman sculptures are often nude. A photo of an Ancient Roman often has nipples in it. Sometimes those photos get deleted.

Sometimes people aren’t nude or photos don’t have nudity in them. But enough people report it and the system kicks in and deletes it. And you have no recourse.

Meanwhile, copyright infringement, harassment, abuse, hate speech, all of that stuff goes unmoderated.

Terms of Service

Terms of Service get changed all of the time. I’ve lost track of all of the times that these sites have changed their terms of service. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t read them in the first place, let alone the updates, because their written by lawyers for lawyers.

There was a time on Facebook where there was basically a drag queen purge. Facebook decided to get quoteunquote serious about quoteunquote real names. What a quoteunquote real name is varies pretty wildly across the planet and Facebook is a global website at this point. Just the order of names and how people use them in different cultures, languages and countries varies wildly. Most drag queens got kicked off because they weren’t using their quoteunquote real name. And this can affect trans folks as well.

There was a woman who worked at Facebook and didn’t use the name that was on her birth certificate as her employee name (on her employee badge the whole time she worked there). When she left, she was later flagged as not using her quoteunquote real name and was kicked off of Facebook. For using the same name that was on her employee badge.

Privacy

Facebook changes its privacy policy all of the time too. Every time they do, there’s a whole swath of people who are like “oh shit, my mom can see my [whatever] posts now”. All of these posts that people thought were private or some degree of private are now public or some degree of public when the private policy changed.

A privacy policy is both a legal document and a technical implementation. So, all of us that build software affect the real world use of privacy policies. The lawyers that write the privacy policy also dictate that implementation.

Advertising / Monetization

I mentioned earlier that we are the product, we are not the customer. Facebook is an advertising company. Google is an advertising company. I don’t know of any way that I can give Facebook money as a customer other than to buy a promoted post or to buy a little ad in the sidebar. That makes me not a customer. It’s impossible for me to give them money.

The only thing that I can give them is my content and information about me and my behavior that is then sold to their customers.

If Facebook wants to run an advertisement for Sea World next to my post about the atrocities of Orcas in captivity, I can’t stop them. I have no influence on that.

If one of my posts is wildly popular, Facebook serves more views and therefore more ads and makes more money. I don’t see any part of that money.

The Algorithm

None of our feeds, none of our timelines are, in fact, timelines anymore. There used to be a way that you could temporarily switch your Facebook feed to be chronological instead of sorted by “cool” or “interestingness” (for some values of interesting). But it was never a permanent switch and it’s gone now.

Non-chronological feeds really break up conversations. Like when people do “tweet storms” on Twitter where they’re replying to themselves in order to make a point that’s longer than one tweet and Twitter shows you the “most interesting” tweet and it’s the 7th of 18 tweets, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

If someone you know or knew has died and they had a Facebook account and someone goes back to one of their old posts and likes it or comments on it, that might push it back up to the top of your feed in a way that’s unexpected and often unpleasant to see the ghosts of your life come back to haunt you in a way.

Identity

I’ve started calling them imperialist websites because they are colonizing the web. They propagate their URLs, not our URLs, by making us users on their URLs.

Twitter.com/username. Username.tumblr.com.

Anytime I want to give you my contact information on someone else’s silo, I also have to basically advertise for them. I have to spread their germ all over the place.

So, imagine I’m on Wordpress and I like using Wordpress right now, but some time in the future I decide that Tumblr is place I want to be. Wordpress actually has pretty good content export. You can take your content with you. But you can’t take your URLs.

Your username.wordpress.com will always be owned by Wordpress.com.

Tumblr, even if they wanted to, and I don’t think they do, can’t have subdomains resolve from wordpress.com. If you I move to Tumblr my URL will be username.tumblr.com.

Their paths are different too. Tumblr uses /posts/post-id. Wordpress uses /year/month/day/slug.

When we use other people’s silos, we are provided an identity by them from them that isn’t portable and is fairly fragile.

Longevity

You know how they say that “the web never forgets”?

Remember that woman who tweeted “going to Africa hope I don’t get AIDS”, got on a plane, landed, and her life was ruined. The web will never forget that. Every time she applies for a job and someone Googles her, that story will be the first several pages.

But it turns out that the web does forget a lot of things. Every time a site gets acquired and “sunsetted” or they run out money or they go out of business, that stuff often disappears and isn’t archived anywhere. Archive.org is certainly better than nothing, but it’s far from perfect. Especially any content that lived behind a password or inside of binary files, like Flash.

On the IndieWebCamp wiki, we have a whole page of past and pending site deaths. Sometimes sites will just up and disappear. Sometimes they give us a little bit of notice. Sometimes there’s an export tool. Sometimes there’s not.

Most people reading this will probably have an account at most or all of these sites: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Wordpress. Many also had accounts at Friendster, Tribe, MySpace, Delicious, Magnolia, Gowalla, Geocities. But no one has an account at any of those (on the second list) anymore. And all of the content that we created on those sites is gone.

All of those super emo feeling you posted to MySpace, they’re all gone. Some of the great web designers of our generation got started on Geocities. That stuff is gone forever. And sure, it was sparkling animated GIFs and neon colors. But that’s important history. Yahoo bought it, left it alone for a while, and then decided one day to turn it off.

There was an effort to archive it. There was once a massive torrent file floating around. But it’s not at geocities.com. It’s like that moment in Star Wars when Alderaan gets blown up by the Death Star. There was a bajillion voices were silenced all at once. Or at least, I think Obi-Wan says. A bajillion.

An Alternative

But there’s got to be a better way! Right?

The early days on the web were kind of indie web. There were no silos. There were no tools to make publishing easy. You created your own website. You uploaded your own files. You did your own thing. But it was kind of an exclusive club of nerds willing to deal with: DNS, hosting, FTP, CGI-BIN, permissions and HTML.

“Web 2.0”

In the mid-oughts, tools came along that lowered the bar considerably for publishing on the web: Live Journal, Blogger, Flickr, Twitter, Pownce, etc. Slowly more and more of us started abandoning our personal websites, publishing entirely on silos instead. For a time, we thought that was good because we believed that they had our best interests in mind. But fool me once, twice, thrice… when will we learn?

Human Rights

I believe that all humans have the right to access, view and read the web free of censorship and restriction. I don’t think that’s terribly unique. I think a lot of people share that idea.

But I believe that merely having access to something just makes us consumers. I think it’s important that we’re also producers or participants.

I believe that every human has the right to own and control a completely autonomous website for their lifetime. And one that will live on even after their death.

Indie Web

In a Nutshell

Own your: identity, domain, website, content, ui/ux, design, privacy and commerce.

No Hermits

I mean, you can be a hermit if you want. But you can still be a part of communities you care about.

POSSE

And you can do that using a technique we call “POSSE”. Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.

The reverse (though less preferred) is also possible. PESOS. Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate (on your) Own Site.

No Monoculture

The IndieWeb is not a singular codebase or technology. Builders scratch their own itches. People are using PHP, Node, Python, Go, Ruby. Jekyll and Wordpress. Heroku, self hosted, EC2, app engine. Static sites and database driven ones.

Dark Matter

My personal website is powered by some Ruby on Rails software that I’m building called Dark Matter. I call it that because, just like the universe is made of way more than the visible matter, the web is also made of way more than just a handful of imperialist silos.

The Now

I can publish several types of content: notes, articles, photos, events, videos, etc. Then I can syndicate them to Twitter with one click.

The Next

More syndication endpoints. More post types. An iOS app. And a lot more.

Halp?!

If you want to help me improve Dark Matter, I would very much love that. There’s lots to do in different areas. Something for everyone.