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The history and future of the Indie Web Movement

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
22nd August 2013


Packed into a small conference room, this rag-tag band of software developers has an outsized digital pedigree, and they have a mission to match. They hope to jailbreak the internet. They call it the Indie Web movement, an effort to create a web that’s not so dependent on tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, Google — a web that belongs not to one individual or one company, but to everyone. “I don’t trust myself,” says Fitzpatrick. “And I don’t trust companies.” The movement grew out of an egalitarian online project launched by Fitzpatrick, before he made the move to Google. And over the past few years, it has roped in about 100 other coders from around the world. On any given day, you’ll find about 30 or 40 of them on an IRC chat channel, and each summer, they come together in the flesh for this two-day mini-conference, known as IndieWebCamp.

Klint Finley summarizes the history of the movement for an independent internet, and inthe full article, describes the efforts of the IndieWebCamp:

“”IndieWebCamp began in 2011, but the movement harkens back to the spirit of the early social web. Back in 2001, when Fitzpatrick open sourced the code for LiveJournal, giving anyone the power to run the blogging tool on their own computer servers.

This is a fundamental tenet of the Indie Web movement: You should always have the option of running a web service on machines that belong to you. These days it’s unusual, but in 2001, before social media was big business, it was a common courtesy.

The trick is to do this without cutting yourself off from the rest of the net. To do that, you need a way of trading data with other sites and services. So, in 2005, Fitzpatrick went a step further, letting people leave comments on multiple LiveJournal sites without creating a separate account on each one.

At the time, Six Apart, the social media company that owned LiveJournal, offered a service that could have provided this sort of “single sign-on” for all LiveJournal sites, but Fitzpatrick started from scratch. “I wanted a system that no company controlled,” he says. That’s another tenet of the Indie Web movement.

The result was OpenID, software that could provide a single sign-on for any site willing to use it. It was adopted not only by LiveJournal, but by Google, Yahoo, and others and arguably marked the beginning of of the modern Indie Web.

It only went so far, as companies like Facebook introduced their own single-sign-on tools. But others pushed new ideas along the same lines. There was Control Yourself, an open source Twitter alternative now known as StatusNet, and DiSo, short for Distributed Social Networking, another social network outside the clutches of a Twitter or a Facebook.

Çelik, one of the organizers of IndieWebCamp, joined the DiSo project in 2009. “I was frustrated with Twitter being down all the time,” he says.

By the end of 2010, the movement seemed on the verge of critical mass. As commercial operations shuttered older sites like Vox, Pownce, and Geocities, many called for a new way. Diaspora, an open source alternative to Facebook, raised more than $200,000 on Kickstarter, thanks to growing concerns about Facebook’s privacy policies. Google’s social network, Buzz, adopted many open standards meant to increase communication with other services. And many like-minded souls convened at a Federated Social Web Summit to discuss the future of this new take on social networking.

The future wasn’t as bright as many expected. Google soon shut down Buzz and replaced it with the less open Google+. And projects like Diaspora couldn’t attract the numbers they needed to compete with the Twitters and Facebooks. Diaspora had 600,000 users at its peak, according to Vice, while Facebook now boasts 669 million daily active users, according to its most recent earnings report.

Sadly, Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy killed himself in November 2011. Some blamed the stress of the project, though others insisted there was no connection. The site is still out there, but it has no hope of truly challenging Mark Zuckerberg and company, and the rest of the original Diaspora team is now working on Mark.io, a very different project.

‘We want to keep in touch with our friends. It’s not practical to go live alone on an island.’ — Tantek Çelik Çelik now believes it’s a mistake to try and replace sites like Twitter and Facebook, sites known in the Indie Web world as “silos,” because they keep your data from moving from place to place. “The silos don’t have to go away in order for us to be successful,” he says.

That’s the key difference between today’s IndieWebCamp philosophy and the thinking that swirled around the Federated Social Web Summit. Like most Indie Webbers, Çelik still uses sites like Twitter. “We want to keep in touch with our friends,” he says. “It’s not practical to go live alone on an island.”

In other words, the Indie Web movement has scaled back its ambitions and redefined success. Rather than trying to replace the silos, their aim is to build tools that let you not only house data on your own machines, but also share that data with other sites across the net. They call this POSSE, short for “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.” Will Norris’s WordPress plugin is a prime example.

The rub is that data syndication method doesn’t protect you from hacks or government surveillance programs that target commercial social networks. Anything you cross-post to Facebook or Twitter is still subject to their rules. But that’s the reality of the modern web.

Çelik admits that the Indie Web is very much a fringe movement. “Mass adoption has never been our focus,” he says. “It’s more about enabling people who are already interested.” He’d rather the Indie Webbers lead by example than hype projects that aren’t ready yet.”

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