Old Web, New Web, Indie Web

If you have to decide on the order of creative freedom vs data ownership, what order do you choose?

When you set your mind to search for something explicit, the internet becomes an incredible place: from the tiny, "recommended for you" world of algorithms claiming to know you better, than yourself, you're suddenly in uncharted territories of thoughts of others.

There were times, long ago, when this was normal. For example, there were specific websites built only to contain links to other sites - 'portals' - or communities that connected sites to the eachother - webrings -, so it was easy to suddenly drop of your known internet.

This is much harder today, particularly because some of those recommendation engines (think of youtube, netflix, and so on - even ebay (!!!) recently) are not bad at all. There's only one, tiny issue: they tend to limit whatever they recommend more and more, only showing you a glimpse of what is available on their service, let alone on the internet.

Usually this phenomenon is called a "recommendation bubble", and to get out of it, one needs to deliberately seek beyond it. This isn't trivial though: there are known unknowns (when there's a question on an exam you know you should have learnt, but you didn't) and unknown unknowns (things you'd never before heard of). If we don't know what to look for, which is the vast majority of the internet itself for anyone, the search engines become useless. That is why links to other sites were and are so utterly important: to be able to explore. There is the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on Google, which once took a friend of mine to a Flash version of the 'Tunak Tunak' song when he searched for "Cthulhu" eons ago, so using that button can sometimes be fun, I'll give Google that.

In the past weeks I've found myself staring at websites designed in early 90s Geocities style, particularly at web manifestos: why their site exists, and why it was better in the good ol' days, and how can it be similar today123. Surprisingly enough, there were similar manifestos from before the web2.0 craze of the early 2000s4, but most of them now seems to be lost to decay5.

Most of these manifestos are new, written in the 2020s by people who had experienced the 90s web. They all have some overlapping thoughts, such as: the web should stay weird, whacky, whimsical, (why do all these words start with a w?), personal websites are important, the creative freedom one's own site gives is wonderful, and that social media is becoming monotonous and lifeless.

There are also a lot of people longing for something they believe is lost:

I miss the useless web. I miss your grandpa’s blog. I miss weird web art projects that trolled me. I miss fan pages for things like hippos. I wish I didn’t feel like the web was collapsing into just a few sites plus a thousand resumes. Sarah Drasner Jul 1, 2018

They are only partially correct. Much of the old content is still there, but because they are not HTTPS, or haven't been updated in years, decades sometimes, Google de-prioritizes, or even purges them from the search options. Google, sadly, has no obligations to remembering6.

These days there are wonderously easy to use tools to make websites - although some of them are better7, than others - so why isn't everyone making their own page?

Some early social networks, such as MySpace, allowed profile customization at a very deep level, which is actually enough for many people to make a small self-representation on the net. I was recently pointed at modern, but similar examples8, showing how many are happy with simply a profile they can completely design. They are not after a whole website, they are after a way to be creative.

In 2019, Flash was killed off, and Vice published an article: "Flash Is Responsible for the Internet's Most Creative Era"9. There is no overstatement in that title; the Flash era was absolutely incredible. It didn't just give us geniously designed websites (I vividly remember the site of Cuvée des Trolls, a beer, with a built in minigame), meme citadels10, unforgettable minigames, no; it also gave us things like Happy Tree Friends11. Flash had it's problems (many of them to be honest), but it indeed gave an unprecedented flexibility to be original, and many used it to expand the possibilites of the web, to go beyond text and websites.

Coming to this realisation I got into some arguments discussions on the IndieWeb chats12 about ordering the IndieWeb principles13. There are multiple elements on the list of IndieWeb priorities, but no matter how many times I read it, the one I believe to be the most important - "have fun" - is down at the bottom, like a bit of an afterthought.

The IndieWeb wiki14 is a disturbingly messy, but staggeringly deep site, with a crazy amount of collected reference, knowledge, and tooling around the IndieWeb Movement. It is important to realise that the IndieWeb - as in indieweb.org - is not the same as that manifesto from 199715 called "the indie web". The former is a community, a movement, made up of people believing and following those principles, whereas the latter is the old Internet, The World Wide Web: a haphazardly entangled mess of individual websites.

As time passes, not truly owning a digital creative work, including a website, can quickly become a problem. There are many documented cases where usernames, handles, subdomains were taken over by the host16, and even more cases of hosting providers, silos, etc going under17. One must have the option to move and save their content to avoid losing it, hence the need for your own domain name, which can be repointed to another place, if needed.

The rest of the IndieWeb ideas, in my opinion, are completely optional. For example, marking up HTML with microformats18 is only useful if someone wants their content machine-parseable for other IndieWeb sites (or search engines that still respect microformats v1). This is the reason why there aren't clear guides: this is not a step-by-step thing. The owner of a website needs to decide what functionality they want to participate in, and for those functionalities, the guides are much clearer.

However... many people leaving social media might want to leave it and it's features - likes, comments, etc - for good, and are looking for their own place, their own home on the internet. In many cases this is a creative, visual call. There is no need to first register a domain name to start filling this desire: jump on a place like Neocities19 and start creating - and I firmly believe this is the most important step: the will, and action, to create.

It might be time for IndieWeb to rethink principles and priorities. The current list might appeal to developers, or people deeply emerged in utilizing social media silos, looking to ease their workflow, or their fears of losing their content, but it doesn't necessarily talk to the ones looking to satisfy the call of creativity, or those disillusioned of social media itself.

PS: I asked my wife, Nora, to proof-read this entry. At the beginning, her immediate answer to the question in the summary was: "of course data ownership has priority!". After reading it through I I asked her to revisit the question, and she told me that if she sells a painting - she has been practising Chinese brush painting for many years now20 -, she loses that painting, yet that loss will make her happy, and so maybe, the possibility of creativity is indeed higher on the list of priorities.

  1. https://flamedfury.com/manifesto/↩︎

  2. https://sadgrl.online/newoldweb/manifesto_full.html↩︎

  3. https://neustadt.fr/essays/the-small-web/↩︎

  4. https://web.archive.org/web/20010805195949/http://www.uzine.net/article63.html↩︎

  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/the-internet-is-a-collective-hallucination/619320/↩︎

  6. https://medium.com/message/never-trust-a-corporation-to-do-a-librarys-job-f58db4673351↩︎

  7. https://pinegrow.com/↩︎

  8. https://twitter.com/search?q=carrd.co↩︎

  9. https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3awk7/flash-is-responsible-for-the-internets-most-creative-era↩︎

  10. https://z0r.de/↩︎

  11. https://mondomedia.com/channel/HappyTreeFriends↩︎

  12. https://indieweb.org/discuss↩︎

  13. https://indieweb.org/principles↩︎

  14. https://indieweb.org↩︎

  15. https://web.archive.org/web/20010805195949/http://www.uzine.net/article63.html↩︎

  16. https://indieweb.org/why#Avoiding_problems↩︎

  17. http://wiki.archiveteam.org/index.php/Deathwatch↩︎

  18. http://microformats.org/wiki/Main_Page↩︎

  19. https://neocities.org/↩︎

  20. https://instagram.com/liulangmao_art/↩︎