Incremental progress

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of criticism about the IndieWeb movement based on the notion that everything that comes out of it is biased towards people with technology privilege; that it’s all well and good for people who know how to run a website to build their own thing, but that the vast majority of the Internet is made up of people who’d have nowhere to begin. And that it follows that the IndieWeb movement is inherently flawed.

I agree with the issues of tech privilege and access, but I disagree with the conclusions.

There are two major aspects to IndieWeb: making it possible for people to own their own data and Internet presence, and making the tools for this accessible. For the most part, the developers have, being developers, focused on the protocol side of things. There are so many amazing protocols which have come about from IndieWeb; in particular, Webmention and mf2 form the backbone of the communications aspects, and IndieAuth forms a fundamental identity component.

There is absolutely a lot more that needs to be done. While it’s getting easier for people to join in (via the IndieWeb WordPress plugin or hosted services like, it still requires a lot of people to want to overcome the technical hump of joining in, as well as the loss of network effect around the locked-in major social networks (notably Facebook and Twitter). There’s also still a distinct lack of availability of private posting; while I’ve focused on that for my own tooling, it’s not a core feature in any of the other IndieWeb publishing platforms that I know of, nor are there any reader mechanisms that yet support Ticket Auth. Plus, there’s also the overarching problem that IndieWeb more or less requires that people own their own domain name, which is also a major technical hurdle for people to overcome.

But none of this means that this work isn’t worth doing! Building new things takes a lot of incremental process, especially when it comes from hobbyists who are trying to do, in their spare time, what major multi-billion companies have built with huge amounts of investment capital. As a result, much of it is itch-scratch software; we build the stuff that we need in the immediate term, and don’t have the time, energy, or resources to build what makes things accessible.

To me, the ideal situation would be the commercial social networks embracing open interoperability standards, but I don’t see that coming any time soon. Sure, Jack has paid lip service to the idea but so far hasn’t actually shown any signs of actually wanting to participate in anything meaningful. There just isn’t money in this.

What I’d love to see more of is the easy-to-host blogging platforms like hosted WordPress, Medium, and Tumblr embrace these protocols; their power isn’t in being a locked-in Entire Social Experience platform so much as in being places where people can post online and interact with other Internet users. They have other monetization strategies that make more sense than requiring complete lock-in. What’s even better is that due to the nature of how IndieWeb protocols work, they don’t even need to add any specific platform support for the vast majority of protocols; they just need people to be able to add various bits of HTML markup to their page templates. (Which is already allowed in varying forms by Tumblr and WordPress, at least!)

Anyway. All this is to say that IndieWeb people are, as a whole, very much aware of our respective privilege and we all want to get to a point where anyone can join in with as little friction and technical know-how as possible. Users of IndieWeb platforms shouldn’t have to know anything about the different protocols in play; they should just be able to post, follow, and react and it should all Just Work. And there’s absolutely a long way to go from here, but that’s the sort of bridge we’re trying to build.

Much of the criticism I see comes from people who want to focus on one particular aspect, like how certain outspoken IndieWeb-adjacent people (who aren’t even part of IndieWeb and don’t want to be!) have exclusionary codes of conduct, or how some of the earliest IndieWebCamp gathering photos are filled primarily with cis white men. Diversity is absolutely a problem in tech, but IndieWeb folks are, from my experience, absolutely doing what they can to rectify that; bringing in people from all sorts of backgrounds, trying to boost the minority voices, and being supportive of everyone who is trying to make the world, or at least the Internet, a better place.

Another form of criticism seems to come from people who are concern trolling about how difficult it is to get in right now, and because “<Facebook|Google|Twitter> has won” there’s no point in even trying, privacy is dead, things are Just Too Hard. Or they might focus on the fact that we’re building things on simple HTML-based structures and then strawman that into “HTML frameworks are hard” or “building a webpage is hard” and like… that’s skipping several levels of what’s going on here. Yes, HTML as it has evolved in corporate web stacks is “hard,” but that doesn’t mean building HTML is hard, and just because we’re HTML-focused doesn’t mean people should have to touch HTML themselves in the first place. And we’re also focused on keeping it simple and not being locked into a single framework or distribution mechanism or whatever, and we’re absolutely avoiding things that require building things in terms of active JavaScript stuff.

Basically, while the criticism has a kernel of validity and possibly even comes from a good place, it always feels like it’s heavily distorted in bad-faith ways, from people who seem to have an agenda against trying to improve things. I don’t know if they’re actively trying to maintain the status quo, but their rhetoric does a really good job of it all the same.

It’s easier to criticize and tear down than to work to improve things.

Some analogies to consider:

  • Payments processing is hard. Therefore, nobody should try to build a new retail store; after all, Wal-Mart and Amazon exist already.
  • Designing a building is hard. Therefore, nobody should even think about making their own house, and instead they should just move into pre-existing apartment buildings.
  • Mass transit is less-than-perfect and electric cars don’t have infinite range; therefore everyone should own a gas-powered SUV and drive themselves everywhere.

I’d like to share this particularly good video by Tech Connections, about this tendency:

Yes, things currently aren’t perfect. But just because a solution isn’t perfect, or still has a ways to go, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking steps in the right direction. You can’t run a marathon in a single step.

Don’t get caught up in the Nirvana fallacy.


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