A user considers

We can have the web we want, but it won't be as easy as the web we don't want.

I really enjoyed reading Eli Mellen's post of a couple of days ago: Dear IndieWeb, it may be time to start considering the user, not just the technical spec.

It really struck a chord with me because I have so often felt exactly the same frustrations, but my moaning comes from a position of considerable ignorance. I am, after all, only a user, even though I am probably more able than most to do a little bit of tinkering. Eli knows the technology, and so has been able to figure out how to fix the "terrible, bordering on user-hostile, error messages" for himself. I had a lot of help figuring out the ones I came across, and others were just deal-breakers. For example, I never did discover how to persuade WithKnown to share my syndication targets with Quill, and as a result I often find myself replying in a silo without bothering to bring my reply home. And I'm OK with that. For now.

There's a strain of thought going around that the IndieWeb is deliberately exclusionary. I don't know why, and I've tried to counter that kind of message when I see it, but it is only the deliberately part that I feel I can counter. With a couple of little exceptions, I see no evidence that barriers are being erected intentionally. I just see that the people who create the building blocks sometimes forget to put themselves in a less-knowledgeable user's shoes. Once that has been pointed out, as Eli did, they're quick to fix things.

I have some sympathy with Peter Molnar's reply to Eli, where he points out that "people should care [about the technology] they should be at least be aware of what's happening when they press a publish button.1 They needn't have to be capable of doing it from scratch, but providing the tools only is not a goal I can align with."

As it happens, I have a very long history with what is now known as blogging, and perhaps because I went through the early stages of owning a domain, finding a host and a CMS and all that, I never really got into the silo scene. But I can quite see why the ease of the silos made them so attractive to so many people, and I am with Peter to the extent that people have only themselves to blame if they don't like what's being done with their data. With what we now know about how cavalier the big silos have been (and I bet there's more to come) I can't think why anyone would still want to be there, except to find a larger audience.

Is the IndieWeb ready for the people quitting Facebook? Probably not for most of them, although I am a bit optimistic that if they really are ready to leave, they are also ready to make a bit of an effort to do so. On the other hand, I honestly don't think the IndieWeb will ever be the kind of mass phenomenon that the big silos have become, and I'm OK with that too. For now.

I suppose what I really want to see is a return to the good old days of blogging, but better. The connectivity of the IndieWeb is its biggest selling point, for me, even if I'm not making full use of it yet myself. I see things going on with the development of new kinds of readers, for example, that thrill me, even though I know that if I were to try and use them now, I would be up against the difficulties Eli faced. I know I'd get good help surmounting those difficulties, but the truth is, I don't have the time or the chops. So I'll be patient (and work on my chops).

Here's a case in point. Yesterday, my current reader showed me that John Gordon, someone I knew and appreciated back in the days of ADN, had posted How to build a safe and sane social network. It's brief, fun and interesting, although I'm not myself sure that a 25:1 ratio of freeloaders to supporters would work. The bigger point, I think, is that he says nothing there about the underpinning technology. For me, that's the direction IndieWeb building blocks need to go.

ADN had a really interesting revenue-sharing model for the developers who built things that used the platform. Hosting companies have tried to offer one-click installs for various things. If someone were able to create a kind of umbrella that took your money, made IndieWeb tools available and shared your money with the people who built the tools you chose to use, I do believe that could provide a home for the people who want out from the silos, but do not want to decipher terrible, bordering on user-hostile, error messages, and in any case can't fix them.

Unfortunately, that will take more than enthusiasm and commitment. It will also take cash even to begin. Micro.blog pulled that off on the strength of a book, which still hasn't appeared. ADN did it on a promise too. I wonder if there's room for another iteration.

This might also be a good place to note that after drafting this article I listen ed to An Indieweb Podcast Episode 0, which seems to have been provoked by Eli's article. It was fun and informative and also -- a meta criticism if ever there was one -- sometimes failed, despite Chris Aldrich's valiant attempts, to make things accessible to anyone not already at least partly in the IndieWeb community. I suspect it might also have been a bit long and a bit meandering for anyone not already persuaded, but it was a great first attempt and can only get better. I hope it continues and stand ready to assist if needed.

  1. And note, of course, that part of the genius of some silos is that there isn't even a Publish button. 

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