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The IndieWeb: a kinder, better way of networking online

Social media’s overwhelming effects on our minds, our relationships, and our senses have become increasingly obvious over the last few years. More and more people who were taken in by the excitement of social networks as they were originally pitched—a kind of optimistic, anything goes part of the internet where we would have all of the world’s available information at our fingertips alongside our friends and family who live far away—are now disgruntled. But there’s no denying that social media filled a valuable gap in maturing the internet’s functions. As it became a bigger part of our lives, it makes sense that people would seek to duplicate their social lives, and perhaps enhance them in other ways.

A recent movement, the IndieWeb, has appeared, as various websites, networks, and groups have sprung up online that aim to concentrate power, control, and ownership of your data back into the hands of people who actually use the networks, not just the companies who own them. Rather than posting on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (two of which are actually Facebook’s companies), why not opt into a network which lets you publish on your own servers, without the advertising pressure?

In this version of the internet, people aren’t addicted to their social media feeds for instant gratification—or so the justification goes—but are using these networks to find out more about the world, talk to their friends, family and strangers, and are overall having a more pleasant experience than the one we’re used to on the internet.

Some examples include Mastodon, Peach and are.na, all of which function in completely different ways, but prioritise genuine interactions among members of communities, and an open-ended approach to becoming a member of those said communities. In part, this is possible because they’re crowdfunded by a group that cares about creating these spaces, and they’re often far smaller than large social networks like Twitter. They are not general networking sites, for example, and they’re not widely adopted enough to give you job opportunities or another career. These websites generally don’t use people’s data as their profit-making mechanism either, unlike the servers of massive social networks that are owned by the companies in question. Our regulatory mechanisms, as well as how we think about these questions politically haven’t really caught up with how much of our information is legally owned by massive companies, and how many rights they have to profit from it.

The idea of the IndieWeb is not a cohesive movement or an organisation led by one person; these operate away from large, commercial social networks and are often self-organised by a community that wants to cater better to itself. What the majority of IndieWeb platforms do have in common is a commitment to a better social media experience, one that isn’t marked by a lack of civility, and one which rejects the advertising-driven model of other social media networks.

Independent social networks fulfil a gap which most people will not have realised is missing. Gone are the pointless conversations that you end up getting dragged into on Twitter, where someone you don’t know misinterprets a tweet, and gone is the experience of going on Facebook and having really weird targeted advertising that feels a little creepy. For the most part, websites and apps that are part of the IndieWeb aim to bring back some of the better elements of using the internet with far less of the worrying elements that we’ve come to be accustomed to.

There are many reasons why this version of the internet is more appealing too. IndieWeb platforms don’t have that addictive sensibility (arguably, as of yet) that is integral to the motions of networks like Twitter and Instagram. Frankly, a lot of them aren’t (as of yet) large enough to get people a huge audience for what they’re saying, and they’re still relatively underground so it’s unlikely an employer could find you on there unless they were specifically looking. Some websites, such as are.na, are noticeably more abstract than others, (you create blocks and collections around themes or ideas), making the platform more suited for certain purposes than others.

The joy of using the IndieWeb comes in how relatively decentralised it is. While there may be a central team running a website, the idea is that every individual can control their own network, with many of these websites giving people the opportunity to control their own servers. For example, Mastodon lets you set up an instance, like a chronological timeline, by downloading the software. Then other people can do the same, and those instances join together to create a federation, where people can follow different topics across boards. People tend not to follow huge amounts of boards or themes, just a few specific ones that they can really engage with meaningfully. Unlike most websites and apps we use today, IndieWeb websites defy the attention economy as they aren’t necessarily designed to keep people on them for as long as possible in the way that social networks do because they don’t harvest your data to sell to third parties for profit.

Overwhelmingly, the majority of people who use the internet regularly seem to know that something is just not right; broken. Social media networks are only a symptom of the problem—so perhaps a kinder, better way of networking online is one way to help fix it. It might seem optimistic, but IndieWeb websites and apps are already out there online. The question is, are we willing to leave the likes, followers, and sensation of self-fulfillment to join the movement? Although saying ‘yes’ feels like the right decision, very few people are actually motivated enough to leave this glamorous online appearance for a simpler web and a simpler life.