By Klint Finley
One guy is wearing his Google Glass. Another showed up in an HTML5 t-shirt. And then there’s the dude who looks like the Mad Hatter, decked out in a top hat with an enormous white flower tucked into the brim.
At first, they look like any other gaggle of tech geeks. But then you notice that one of them is Ward Cunningham, the man who invented the wiki, the tech that underpins Wikipedia. And there’s Kevin Marks, the former vice president of web services at British Telecom. Oh, and don’t miss Brad Fitzpatrick, creator of the seminal blogging site LiveJournal and, more recently, a coder who works in the engine room of Google’s online empire.
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. They hack. They demonstrate. They discuss. They strive to create a new set of tools that can give you greater control over the stuff you post to the net — the photos, the status updates, the blog posts, the comments. “The Indie Web is a community of folks interested in owning their own content — and identity — online,” says Tantek Çelik, another developer at the heart of the movement.
They ask questions like: What happens if Yahoo freezes your online account, loses your data, or goes out of business? What happens if you decide to move all your Facebook photos to another site? What if you want to reply to someone on Twitter using Google+? And then they build software that answers these questions.
At this year’s camp, Fitzpatrick and fellow Googler Brett Slatkin showed off Camlistore, an open source alternative to cloud storage services like Google Drive. The aim is to give people software that works like Google Drive — that gives you instant access to your files from any machine — but that doesn’t lock you into the Google way of doing things, and that always plays nicely with other services across the web.
That may seem like an odd undertaking for two people employed by Google. But this is how many Googlers think, harboring the unshakably idealistic view that the needs of the web as a whole are more important even than those of the web company they work for.
The Indie Web movement isn’t about sticking it to Google or Facebook or Twitter. It’s about creating a web that behaves like a single entity. After Fitzpatrick and Slatkin uncloaked their creation, a third Googler, Will Norris, showed off a WordPress plugin that lets you instantly grab posts from the open source blog platform and move them onto Google+, the search giant’s social network.
Many people who work for Google, Facebook and Twitter, Norris says, “live the Indie Web.”
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 Makr.io, a very different project.
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.
In many ways, the Indie Web projects aren’t ready yet. Just ask Shanley Kane, a tech product manager in San Francisco. “I used to maintain my own blog using an open source blogging framework,” she says. “But ultimately, I’m blogging to write and to share what I’ve written. Maintaining my own implementation, trying to keep the design current on my own, dealing with things when they broke, and hosting it myself was a distraction from that goal.”
Kane ditched her open source blog and moved to Medium, an online publishing service created by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. “While I have the privilege of having had some programming and design training, most of the people in the world don’t have access to those skills,” she says. “One of the most compelling aspects of mainstream publishing platforms like Twitter is that they lower the bar to publishing online.”
But people like Çelik envision a world where open source software lowers the bar just as easily. They see a pocket-sized web server pre-loaded with all the Indie Web applications you could possibly need.
At this year’s camp, Jack Senechal, Augustin Bralley, and Harlan Wood took a first step in that direction in building a 1 terabyte file server that can fit in the palm of your hand. They cobbled it together using a Raspberry Pi, a portable hard drive, and the Camlistore software built by Fitzpatrick and Slatkin. Even with help from Fitzpatrick and Slatkin, they didn’t quite get it working by the end of camp, but that’s only appropriate. The movement is unfinished.