The Indie Web: Who owns your identity?

Our online presence defines much of our identity both personally and professionally, especially for web workers. Now, I challenge you to think about how much of this personal identity you actually own and control. Do you have your own domain, or do you use something like Blogger or Tumblr? Do you manage your own software in a hosting account where you control all of the files? Do you use social networking tools, like Facebook and Twitter, as a key piece of your online identity? What would you do if any of these sites went down or your account was deleted for some reason, and how would that impact your identity? How much of your online identity is controlled by someone else? I spent most of the last weekend in June discussing these and other issues with a group of geeks in Portland, Oregon at IndieWebCamp organized by  Tantek ÇelikAaron Parecki and Amber Case.

The Indie Web movement is primarily about ownership and control over your identity. The difficulty is that many of the tools that we need to achieve the complete vision of data ownership just don’t exist yet, or they exist, but not in a way that is accessible to most people. During IndieWebCamp, we focused on discussing these current issues and starting to build some of the tools necessary to make the Indie Web a reality for regular people.

A few things to know:
  • The Indie Web is an emerging concept and a process that is taking time to evolve as we debate the right solutions.
  • There are varying degrees of how “indie” you want to be. For example, do you host your own servers in your garage or do you rely on a hosting provider?
  • There are many trade-offs to be made between how much time you want to spend on your identity and how much control you want to maintain over the long term. Your technical skills also play a role in how much you are willing or able to do.

Start now

Here are a few things that you can do now to gain better control over your own data:

  • Own your domain. The first step is to purchase and own your own domain name where you will build your online identity. If you aren’t ready to take the next step of hosting your own website software, you can start by redirecting your domain name to where you currently have your website.
  • Use your domain for email. While some take the extra step of hosting their own email server, I’m OK with having my email managed by Google (s goog), but using my domain. If Google decided to shut my email down for some reason, I can always spin it right back up with a different email provider because I control the domain name.
  • Host your own blog or website on that domain. Get some space on a server where you can install your own software and have control over your environment and ownership of your data. This has become much easier recently with one-click installs at many hosting providers where they can help install and upgrade your software if needed, so this doesn’t take as many technical skills to manage as it did a few years ago.

The future of the Indie Web

People are working now on tools that can take this a few steps further:
  • Keep copies. When you post to social networking sites, keep copies of those posts on your website or archive them in some way to reference later. You can get some of this functionality using APIs or tools like ThinkUp. This may act as a bridge while we finish implementing the tools to needed to fully realize the IndieWeb vision.
  • Syndicate to social networking sites. Ultimately, we want to be able to post everything to our website to have ownership of the original content while syndicating it out to other websites. The tools to do this are starting to emerge, but most are still work in progress and not ready for regular users to implement. Examples include the custom platform that Çelik has built to run his website and syndicate content to other services, and Will Norris’ Snowflake plugin that syndicates his short posts to Twitter. Both are good examples of the “post then syndicate” model, but neither are quite ready for regular users to deploy.
These are just a few of the many projects that aim to illustrate the Indie Web idea to get people thinking more about ownership and control of identity. It’s up to us to build the tools required to fully implement this vision.