Silos, Webmentions and the Challenge of Owning Your Own Content

For pretty much as long as there have been social networks I have struggled with how to maintain my own content while simultaneously going where the audience is. Expecting people to come to you is a foolish endeavor.

It’s not that what I post is inherently valuable, it’s that it is mine and I would like to control it. So my default has been to post to my blog and then post versions to assorted networks. But unless you’re some sort of full time social media expert, that’s far too time consuming to be practical. Yes, in an ideal world each network gets its own hand crafted post, but really… I don’t have time for that.

So the fallback has been to use various hacks to push the content to Twitter or Facebook etc. But those are hacks and open to frequent failure. And it still left the problem of responses, there was no good way to aggregate responses from all these different places G+, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr… and on it goes.

For a while I just gave up on the blog comments completely and figured I’d see what I’d see, now, with Webmentions I’m trying a different tack which is to consolidate everything back to my blog again.

Social Networks Matter

I’m not a social person, I don’t actually like people, and mostly I write for my own satisfaction just to map out what I am thinking. I don’t then go looking for friends on social networks. I do, however, go looking for ideas, for thoughts, concepts, information.

You would not sit in your house and expect the people to continually come by just to tell you things, similarly it’s unreasonable to post only to your blog and expect the entire world to make a special visit. Content needs to be shareable and accessible. Where the reader is shouldn’t matter.

Social networks do that, the problem is they then contain the responses in a silo.

Owning Your Content Matters

It’s not about telling people where they have to read you, it’s about controlling what you get to say. If you post on Facebook or Twitter or Medium or anywhere else you are at the mercy of their terms and conditions. They can block you. They can delete your post or your whole profile. That is their right, but I don’t want to be limited like that.

They can also get shut down and then whatever you put on their, your photos, your reviews your random thoughts about toast, are locked away in their silo forever.

Publish Once, Syndicate Everywhere, Aggregate Responses

It’s a great concept and it, just about, works, but it’s clunky and spending the weekend implementing it shows just how far away from prime time it is.

The basic idea behind Webmentions is that you have a location on the web (a domain) which is designated as you, as the origin of your content. When you post to other sites, you simply include a link back to the original post and with a little bit of magic (it may not actually be magic) all the likes, favorites, replies and re-posts you receive can be added as comments to the right page on your blog.

In many ways it is the perfect solution, or it will be, maybe.

The problem is not the concept, it’s federated, decentralized and flexible, the problem is execution.

Indie Web Camp is a collection of technically minded people who believe quite strongly in owning your own content. Beyond that, they don’t really agree on very much. They do have a number of broad formats and protocols but there are numerous implementations at various stages of half-baked completion. They know this and acknowledge it on their website.

There’s no company behind them so no centralized direction. What’s good about that is you get a million different ideas shooting out in all directions. What’s bad is you get a million different ideas shooting out in all directions.

Some projects are well supported, others are just one guy. Some are frequently updated and some haven’t been touched in three years. It’s quite hard, until you go digging to figure out which is which.

And here we get to the heart of why Indie Web won’t catch on in its current form. It’s just too difficult. The documentation is sparse or incomplete, the implementations are often obscure and a lot of the time unless you find someone to talk to you’ll never figure out what you need to do.

I’m a person of allegedly above average intelligence with a documented above average education who has specialized in IT related things for the better part of 40 years and yet it took me two days of head scratching to fully implement Webmentions the way I wanted in Wordpress. And that was using their bundled plugin! There’s certainly no way I could expect anyone else in my family to use it.

This Needs to Work

I’m not going to go into detail about my specific implementation yet, not least because I’m not sure I fully understand it, but also because I’m still tweaking how I do things.

The thing is, this needs to work. We need to own our own content. We don’t want to go back to the days when a handful of newspaper owners controlled everything and that’s where we’re headed we just have the Social Network silos to rely on.

Community projects have broken through to the mainstream before, but it rarely happens without some level of corporate support and right now it’s not in Google or Facebook or Yahoo’s interest to back something like this.


Originally published at Eoghann Irving.