IndieWebify.Me and the Knowledge Gap

Last week, a friend asked me what I thought of IndieWebify.Me, a movement intended to allow people to publish on the web without relying on the tools and storage of the giant corporations that currently control the majority of the social web. I’m the kind of person who gladly supports her local independent bookstores and farmers’ markets and food purveyors, links to instead of Amazon to buy books, and admires the ideals of Open Source Software. So, I’m biased towards an independent and open experience.

IndieWebCamp, the conference devoted to strengthening the Indie Web, describes the concept of the “Indie Web” thus: “We should all own the content we’re creating, rather than just posting to third-party content silos. Publish on your own domain, and syndicate out to silos. This is the basis of the ‘Indie Web’ movement.” You’d think I’d be all over a movement aimed at bringing back more of that feeling to the modern internet.

I’d love to be, but I can’t just yet. IndieWebify’s an ideal with some pretty serious barriers to implementation; key among them, the base level of knowledge necessary for the average citizen of the internet to “Indie Webify” themselves.

If you look at IndieWebify’s main page, there are three levels of “citizenship,” each with two steps to implementation. In theory, six steps don’t seem that challenging. Unfortunately, the reality is more like WordPress’ Famous Five Minute Install – it assumes familiarity with technical concepts that your mainstream Internet citizen lacks. I’m a reasonably tech-savvy person. I can write HTML and CSS and SQL and work with JavaScript and JQuery; I’ve maintained self-hosted websites for almost 15 years now. Steps 1 and 2 seem fairly straightforward – set up a domain name, then on the home page, add a few slightly enhanced links. Not too difficult. But Step 3 (the first step to publishing on the “Indie Web”) is more confusing: “Mark up your content with microformats2.”

Okay, clearly, I’ve got some reading to do, so I click through to learn about microformats2. The general idea isn’t too difficult for someone accustomed to writing HTML and CSS – microformats2 is a collection of standardized class names that should be applied to web content to help computers contextualize things like blog posts and comments. But this leads me to a lot of questions: Can I make my existing installation of WordPress automatically include the microformats2 markup when I write blog posts? (No.) Do I need to manually mark up my content every time I write a post? (Maybe, but that’s a long list of class names to memorize or be constantly referring to.) What is an h-card in this context? Why does it seem to represent multiple opposing standards? … and who do I know that knows how to use the existing “implementations” (which are actual code libraries to be imported and implemented, rather than more user-friendly plugins)?

Talk about jargon-filled! The amount of technobabble here depends on any users possessing a fairly high baseline of coding knowledge. Though I’m willing to click on the links to learn more, this process is nowhere near as quick and simple as joining an existing social site. And this is just step 3 of 6 – we haven’t even gotten to implementing the technology to have the federated (whoops, more technobabble) cross-site conversations that are the core that would allow for you to properly “own” and attribute all of your words to you in the context of your personal domain. Compare this to the existing Corporate Web options, like Facebook and Twitter and Google, where the only thing you need to know how to do is type the natural language words you want to share.

Even assuming you have the motivation to learn, this is not an easy proposition. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote of Twitter: “Ask a longtime user to tell you about their first experience with Twitter and they’ll probably lead with some variation of, “Somebody showed me how to use it…” The idea [is] that, unlike most social networks [today], you didn’t usually just discover and use Twitter – you are taught, or at least climb a fairly steep learning curve.” He then goes on to explain that this isn’t good enough anymore; that for Twitter to continue growing, they need to cater to the mainstream, and make it easier to understand. IndieWebify’s version of this is so far from that point of being accessible to the mainstream that even early adopters are barely on the horizon.

Noted tech evangelist Anil Dash has pointed out how this technical insularity burned the development of the Open Web in the past: “We took it as a self-evident and obvious goal that people would even want to participate in this medium, instead of doing the hard work necessary to make it a welcoming and rewarding place for the rest of the world. We favored obscure internecine battles about technical minutia over the hard, humbling work of engaging a billion people in connecting online, and setting the stage for the billions to come.” Right now, IndieWebify.Me feels like it’s a lot of technical minutia. Maybe that’s how it starts, but it needs to get beyond that for broader adoption.

So, if you’re one of the few who actually knows how to implement these new Open Web tools and want to see the Open Web succeed, what can you do to spread this? As I mentioned above, “somebody showed me how to use it” doesn’t scale, so new tools require accessible design and/or tutorials. The challenge is that IndieWebify.Me currently has a simplified set of instructions, but these still need to be translated further to the technical capabilities of the early adopters, not all of whom are programmers. In comparison, most new social apps and websites come with engaging tutorials that do not require learning a complex set of standards or platform protocols, or being tied to a dictionary of these terms. This is the opportunity for evangelists who are serious about the development of the Indie Web as a competitive and viable alternative: create tools that will let users add these capabilities to existing publishing platforms as easily as I installed Facebook and Twitter on my phone. Heck, WordPress itself is already Open Source. I’d love to be able to install a WordPress plugin that would IndieWebify this blog; there are some plugins out there for older microformats standards, but none fully supporting the microformats2 standard as far as I can tell. I don’t want to have to write my own CMS just to connect this blog to the Indie Web communications mechanisms.

Despite my idealism and my honest desire for an Open Web, I am concerned about IndieWebify’s ability to support this dream; it can’t be just a niche for techies. They need better outreach targeted to idealists like me whose desires outweigh their current coding capabilities, and they need to make the process itself much simpler. I hope the current model of IndieWebify is an intermediate step towards a simpler adoption pattern that will compete with Apple and Google from a usability perspective. In today’s computing world, usability has proven to be the ultimate judge of adoption as social tools such as Tumblr and WhatsApp have proven. By bridging the knowledge gap, the IndieWebify movement can go a long way towards building the next generation of the Open Web.

3 thoughts on “IndieWebify.Me and the Knowledge Gap

  1. thanks for the post!

    one minor correction: you definitely can make your existing WordPress include microformats2 markup automatically, by installing and using either the SemPress theme or the wordpress-uf2 plugin. more details on the WordPress wiki page.

    on the broader point, you’re totally right. we’re trying hard to make all this robust and accessible to non-technical people, but we agree that we’re nowhere near that yet, and we have lots of work left to do. come help us! :P

  2. Hi, Lynne. You raise some great points in this post. I am a self-proclaimed “indieweb enthusiast.” I have not been around the group too long, but one of the things I really like is that there seems to be a strong desire to make things easier and more accessible for everyone, not just technical people. There’s a long way to go, but I see small steps and am excited by them. is one example, allowing people to pull back comments and likes to their own site pretty easily.

    There is at least one WordPress theme, SemPress, that supports microformats2 out of the box. Of course, the barrier for indieweb to overcome there is that most people won’t want to switch their current theme. There is also a WordPress plugin for sending/receiving webmentions. Andy Sylvester made a good video about installing and using it:

    I’m definitely interested in helping bridge the knowledge gap, though, and helping people get on board easier. I will try to distill some of this on the IndieWebCamp wiki and might put some more attention towards a set of first steps for WordPress users. Thanks for the post drawing attention to this topic!

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