IndieWeb and Webmentions

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The IndieWeb is a thing! They’ve got a conference coming up and everything. The New Yorker is even writing about it:

Proponents of the IndieWeb offer a fairly straightforward analysis of our current social-media crisis. They frame it in terms of a single question: Who owns the servers? The bulk of our online activity takes places on servers owned by a small number of massive companies. Servers cost money to run. If you’re using a company’s servers without paying for the privilege, then that company must be finding other ways to “extract value” from you.

As I understand it, the core concept is running your own website where you are completely in control, as opposed to publishing content you create on a third-party website. It doesn’t say don’t use third-party websites. It just says syndicate there if you want to, but make your own website the canonical source.

Don’t tweet, but instead write a short blog post and auto-post it to Twitter. Don’t blog on Medium, but instead write on your own blog and plop it over to Medium. Like that. In that way, you’re getting the value of those services without giving anything up.

I can tell you that running my own website has done nothing but good things for me and I’m not alone. Check out what Khoi Vinh says it’s done for him:

It’s hard to overstate how important my blog has been, but if I were to try to distill it down into one word, it would be: “amplifier.” Writing in general and the blog in particular has amplified everything that I’ve done in my career, effectively broadcasting my career in ways that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

I do the “have a website” part, but I don’t do all I could in the syndication department. I don’t cross-post to Medium or anywhere else. Would this site would be more successful if I did? I dunno, but with Hacker Noon leaving, freeCodeCamp having left, and Signal vs. Nose having left, I’m not particularly interested in experimenting there. That’s not apples-to-apples, though, because IndieWeb style dictates it would be syndicated to other places, like a re-post instead of the original — not a home for the originals. Still.

In the case of syndication, I’d worry a little that the SEO elsewhere would trump my own, and I’d be relying on a <link rel="canoncial"> which is something Medium apparently only supports, but via importing tools. (I didn’t see it while poking around the editor.) I guess that’s why you see those lines at the end of posts that say, “This article originally published on” all the time.

I’m often of two worlds. I like seeing numbers. It’s useful for me to know what people like and connect with, and as someone who has sponsorship partners, some knowledge of traffic and engagement is required. Yet I get the perspective of folks who don’t care about that. Om Malik writes about a renewed focus on his own blog:

My first decree was to eschew any and all analytics. I don’t want to be driven by “views,” or what Google deems worthy of rank. I write what pleases me, not some algorithm. Walking away from quantification of my creativity was an act of taking back control.

What I dwell on the most regarding syndication is the Twitter stuff. I look back at the analytics on this site at the end of every year and look at where the traffic came from — every year, Twitter is a teeny-weeny itty-bitty slice of the pie. Measuring traffic alone, that’s nowhere near the amount of effort we put into making the stuff we’re tweeting there. I always rationalize it to myself in other ways. I feel like Twitter is one of the major ways I stay updated with the industry and it’s a major source of ideas for articles.

But can’t I get all that without having Twitter be the isolated place where all that link-sharing and article commentary is done? Sure, I could and probably should do it IndieWeb-style. Then I talk myself out of it because it’s more technical debt, and I end up worrying that the style of a tweet is rather unique to tweets, and that it doesn’t translate into a blog post purely one-to-one.


There is this other IndieWeb “building block” (as Jeremey calls it) called webmentions. As far as I understand it, it’s a POST-based system. I write something with a URL that points at your site, a webmention POSTs to you to let you know that happened, and you do with it what you will — probably save it to a data store and display it on your site like a comment. That’s kinda rad for a couple of reasons:

  • Your post becomes the canonical home to a discussion around it. That way, if people are tweeting about it or writing responses anywhere, they aren’t lost, but rather all together.
  • It encourages other people to use their own website to respond to you. A social web, but everybody with their own homes that they own and control.

If you’re a WordPress person, perhaps this sounds a lot like Pingbacks? Indeed, they are. WordPress has long had “pingbacks” and “trackbacks” as a way to do essentially what I’ve just described. Jon Penland has a pretty good article comparing the three of them. Webmentions certainly seems like the simplest and best, and there is a plugin for them. I just might give it a shot. I have pingbacks and trackbacks turned off on the site right now because all it does is make the comment threads full of scraper site spam. Time will tell if webmentions end up abused in the same kind of way.

Webmentions are also this two-way street. You set up your site to accept these POSTs, which is straightforward enough — the most basic implementation could be a <form> you put on your own site — but then I would think being a good webmentions citizen would require you to be POSTing to other people’s site when you write about them. That’s a little trickier to pull off.

The plugin supports that, but like all things IndieWeb, I imagine most people are hand-rolling their sites. Remy has built a little service just for this. After publishing, you hit the service with the URL to what you wrote. It reads it (expecting a specific format), finds the links in what you’ve written, and hits those URLs with webmentions.

I guess that’s what’s so cool about all this IndieWeb stuff. Like a Progressive Web App, every step you take towards it is useful. The more people that do it, the better it gets for everyone, but it’s useful anyway.