Now even more IndieWebified

Liked Setting up WordPress for IndieWeb use by Chris AldrichChris Aldrich (BoffoSocko)
I spent some time this morning doing a dry run through setting up a suite of IndieWeb plugins on a fresh WordPress installation. Going off of a scant outline I talked for almost two hours describing IndieWeb functionality as I set it all up. Hopefully it will provide a useful guide to newcomers to t...

I just watched Chris Aldrich’s tutorial on how to configure a WordPress site for IndieWeb use. In other words, how to setup your WordPress site as pretty dynamic hub on the Web using a variety of IndieWeb technologies and plugins.

The tutorial runs to about two hours, but it was worth watching. It certainly helped me figure out how to make better use of the plugins I’d installed.

One aspect of this that really impresses me is the Post Kinds plugin. It’s become so much more useful to me. At the same time, it’s only really useful if I publish posts using the WP Admin dashboard on my site.

I’d love to be able to map selected Post Kinds to WordPress’ default post formats so I could take advantage of more Post Kinds when publishing posts from other WordPress interfaces (such as the mobile WordPress.com app).

Geeking out with IndieWeb and Micro.blog

Nathan mentioned me in a conversation recently that prompted me to revisit Micro.blog. I backed Micro.blog on Kickstarter initially, created my account when it launched, and then didn’t really return to it after initially testing it out.

I took another look today, and noticed that my blog posts have been shared to my Micro.blog feed automatically (I added my RSS feed, then forgot about it). I didn’t have a blog active over there, because I want to have this site as my primary blog.

Still, I poked around a little, and took some time to make more sense of what this Micro.blog thing is all about. Brent Simmons described how he sees Micro.blog fitting into the broader Web ecosystem nicely when he said the following:

Micro.blog is not an alternative silo: instead, it’s what you build when you believe that the web itself is the great social network.

This talk at the recent IndieWeb Summit also offered a nice overview of where Micro.blog is at the moment, and some of the challenges that lie ahead:

While I’m on the topic of IndieWeb, this “State of the IndieWeb” keynote is a great overview of what’s been going on in the IndieWeb community in the last year or so:

How can I do that?

On yet another related note, I came across Chris Aldrich’s reply to a tweet from one of my colleagues. The reply is interesting, in itself, but what I’m particularly curious about is how to create replies like this that publish to the source site, and populate the syndication link fields.

I’ve installed a series of IndieWeb plugins on my site, including –

  • Bridgy
  • IndieAuth
  • IndieWeb
  • Microformats 2
  • Micropub
  • Post Kinds
  • Symantic Linkbacks
  • Syndication Links
  • Web Actions
  • Webmention
  • Websub

The challenge, now, is figuring out how to use them to publish replies that cross-post, and so on. Installing the plugins is only part of the process. I’m pretty sure there’s a degree of configuration involved too to make it all work.

On the one hand, using these tools/extensions will transform your site from a “simple” blog into a pretty interactive, connected hub on the Web. On the other hand, this is not the sort of setup that mainstream users are going to want to configure.

This is where services like Micro.blog fit into the picture. It integrates a number of IndieWeb technologies to produce a pretty seamless experience.

I’m not sure what webmention badges are, but they sound interesting

Chris Aldrich mentioned something about using “webmention badges” on a project site:

This would have made it easier to send webmention-based badges which could have been done by creating a badge page on which he could have added simple links to all of the student pages that had earned them.

I’m not sure what these would look like, but the idea fascinates me. Also, this reminds me how little I seem to understand about how webmentions work.

The Mastodon in the room

I read Patrick Hogan’s post about Mastodon titled “Mastodon makes the internet feel like home again” last week. It prompted me to install a Mastodon app on my phone again, and take another look.

The Mastodon.social timeline
Find me on Mastodon, if you want

Like many people, I’m not exactly in love with Twitter lately (except when I am). I’ve been on the lookout for something better for years (remember Jaiku?). I really like the idea of a federated update/micro-blogging service, and Mastodon has all the features you’d want.

What about the network effect?

The one feature that’s missing is the one factor that either boosts or kills any social service (again, remember Jaiku?) is the all important network effect. As Richard MacManus put it in his post titled “How social media fits into the Open Web” in AltPlatform.org (I can’t seem to load the site and provide a link):

I dip into Mastodon from time to time, but it just hasn’t managed to become part of my daily Web routine. Perhaps it will in future, but the old ‘network effects’ rule applies here: the value of a tool is ultimately in the strength of the community it builds.

This probably isn’t the platform I’d expect to see my friends on (and I don’t expect to). Still, if Mastodon is to be a viable alternative to Twitter for me, I’d want to be able to join communities that feature the people who I follow on Twitter. At the moment, I’m not sure most of them are even aware of Mastodon.

More importantly, what about my blog?

As interested as I am in a federated alternative to Twitter, what I really want is to be able to use my blog as my starting point for everything. Why can’t my personal site be the focal point of my presence on the web (at least one of my primary expressions of my self online)?

This takes me back to the work the IndieWeb community is doing to link all these sites together into a federated identity, and content network. How about extending that work to the point where I can use this blog as my identity that reaches into these federated networks?

This may be wishful thinking but I’d really like to see a future version of WordPress introduce this social connectivity that allows me to extend a unified personal presence to non-blog platforms.

On Mastodon, my identity is linked to the instance I am a part of. There, I am @pauljacobson@mastodon.social. I can use that identity to participate in other Mastodon instances (I think), so I have the beginnings of a distributed, social identity here. The challenge is that my nascent social identity is distinct from this site.

Update: I wrote too soon. Ryan Barrett pointed me to Bridgy Fed that seems to do what I was hoping I’d be able to do (pretty much). Barrett launched Bridgy Fed in October and it looks terrific:

Ryan Barrett's Bridgy Fed launch announcement.
Ryan Barrett’s Bridgy Fed launch announcement.

This is going to take a little time to configure but I’m looking forward to working through the process and connecting my site to the fediverse.

My Feedly wishlist

Richard MacManus wrote about the state of feed readers as he saw it in his AltPlatform.org post titled “The state of feed readers”. He mentioned a couple things in his Feedly wishlist that prompted me to think more about what I’d like to see added to Feedly.

Feedly – ye olde feed reader for the Information Age

If you haven’t heard of Feedly, it is a feed reader. Yup, those old fashioned services that use RSS to subscribe to new blog posts and other content available through RSS and then present it to you to read through at your leisure.

Many people have announced that RSS died with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard or any number of other “Web 2.0” services. They are wrong.

While feed readers may not be as popular as they once were[1], they remain one of the best ways to receive the updates you care most about.

I loved using Google Reader back in the day and I switched to Feedly when Google killed Reader off. I still don’t understand why Google did that. Thankfully Feedly stepped into the void that Reader left behind.

It’s where my stuff is

I really like using Feedly. I think I’ve been using it since about 2008. Twitter is useful for breaking news but when I want to go through the content that matters most to me, I generally go to Feedly.

Like MacManus, I am a Feedly Pro user and it’s been worth it. I probably couldn’t tell you what all the Pro features are but I’m happy with the end result so I keep renewing my subscription.

I was meandering through some dusty directories on my Mac recently and I came across a Feedly benefit that I completely forgot about. It turns out that Feedly has been backing up my OPML files[2] to Dropbox since 2014 (possibly when I started paying for Pro).

Feedly has a “read later” feature but I haven’t really used it all that much. I have preferred using Instapaper or Pocket for that.

I also realised that I forgot that Feedly has also been saving articles I marked to “read later” using its native tool as PDFs in my Dropbox folder. This is a pretty useful feature and it probably would have been even more useful if I remembered that I had enabled it!

A more recent Feedly feature is the ability to highlight text in feed items rendered in Feedly itself. This only really works when you subscribe to full feeds and doesn’t extend to pages that open from Feedly.

I love this feature in Instapaper which I started using as a research tool because I could highlight text as well as annotate it with comments. Feedly doesn’t go quite that far but it has real potential.

My Feedly wishlist

As much as I enjoy using Feedly, I’d love to see a few more features added. For one thing, I’d really like text highlights to be made portable somehow.

I can definitely see myself using Feedly as the research tool I thought Instapaper may become (for me at least) but I’d need to be able to do more with those notations. Here are a few ideas that, if implemented, would make Feedly so much more useful to me.

More useful highlights

I’d like to have the ability to capture text highlights into some sort of text file that preserves the context/source of the highlights (in other words, the article title, source and perhaps even highlight timestamps). IFTTT doesn’t have access to highlights so that isn’t an option at the moment.

It would also be great to be able to share highlighted text coherently and contextually through 3rd party services including to blogs, perhaps using IndieWeb tools.

Better sharing options

On a related note, imagine if Feedly baked IndieWeb functionality such as Micropub that enables users to share highlights or some other form of marked up content outside Feedly?

In particular, I’d really like to be able to share a highlight or even just a post I like directly to my blog on my phone.

I can already do something like this in my desktop browser. Sharing to WordPress from my browser invokes the WordPress “Press This” functionality, which is great.

At the same time, I find that I use my phone more than my laptop and given how many people use their smartphones as their primary computers, it makes sense for Feedly to make mobile a first class citizen.

Perhaps this could take the form of a pre-formatted share directly through the WordPress app or an intermediary step with a text file.

Feedly doesn’t even seem to offer an option to see my highlights in one place like Instapaper does.

Instapaper notes
Instapaper highlights and notes view.

I’m not sure what is possible, technically. At the same time, I’d like to be able to select something I have highlighted and share it on my blog with the contextual data about that highlighted text preserved, much like you can see in this screenshot of some of my Instapaper notes.

You could even take that further and enable other Feedly users to highlight that text and capture it into their own profiles almost like Amazon enables people to see what other readers have highlighted in Kindle books and add those highlights to their own collections.

Doing more with Feedly Boards

Feedly has something called “Boards” which are basically lists of articles you save to pre-defined lists. I’d really like to be able to share an RSS feed of my boards on my blog, for example.

Feedly board example
An example of a Feedly board.

Fortunately, I can use IFTTT to capture the articles I save. Still, I’d like to be able to create a sort of link roll based on my Feedly boards as an option from within Feedly.

I imagine I can do something similar to this through IFTTT but this is something that would probably work better as a native Feedly feature.

Just putting the thought out there

As I watch this IndieWeb thing gather steam, I’m hopeful that the ethos spreads not just throughout the online publishing world (aka the Blogosphere vx.0) but also to services like Feedly.

There is a lot to say for social media services. In many ways they have connected the online world in a way that Humanity hasn’t experienced. At the same time, we desperately need independent services like Feedly that empower us to consume the information we choose the way we prefer to do it.

My suggestions may not be even remotely on Feedly’s roadmap so I’m not expecting them to be implemented. At the same time, if they are, the result could be an even better service that we have at the moment.

Featured image credit: rawpixel.com


  1. Thinking back, I don’t think feed readers ever actually had mass appeal, just a dedicated core group of users who saw the value in customisable content streams.  ↩
  2. OPML stands for “Outline Processor Markup Language”. My OPML files are basically lists or indices of my RSS subscriptions. They are a great example of data portability in action because you can usually import OPML files into new feed readers and retain all your content sources.  ↩

The Open Web fosters opportunities

Emre Sokullu has a terrific post title “Why we should all care about the Open Web“. It’s probably aimed more at people who are curious or on the fence about the Open Web.

He deals with a couple core themes which are well worth reading about. Much of the Open Web’s value comes down to this statement for me:

Open web is equal to open data. And data fosters innovation and creates new opportunities.

The Open Web is not a hot topic for most people. It’s pretty esoteric and it will probably remain the domain of a pretty small group of people for years to come.

Still, it’s a drum worth beating.

As dismissive as many people are about maintaining a blog or site of their own (I have a half-written post about this somewhere), the time for indie sites isn’t over yet.

How to Indiewebify your site

Red flowers wrapped in a spider web

The IndieWeb movement has seemed pretty geeky to me since I first heard about it (probably from Kevin Marks). I haven’t been sure what to make of it but the more I learn about it the more it interests me.

I’ve already installed a couple IndieWeb plugins in this blog and I like the benefits I’ve seen.

Richard MacManus (I mentioned him and his AltPlatform.org blog a couple days ago) published the first part of his guide to IndieWebifying his blog and I just started reading it.

I’ve decided to re-design my personal website, richardmacmanus.com. My primary reason is to become a full-fledged member of the IndieWeb community. If I’m writing about Open Web technologies here on AltPlatform, then I ought to be eating my own dog food. Another reason is to discover – likely by trial and error – how to route around Walled Gardens like Facebook and Twitter, which host so much of our content these days. In other words, my goal is to make my personal website the hub for my Web presence. Finally, I want to re-discover blogging in 2017 – what it can do in this era, who’s doing interesting things and how, and what opportunities there might be for the Open Web to cross into the mainstream.

I clicked across to the IndiWebify.me site he linked to and I think I have a new personal project to complete this site’s IndieWebification. Exciting!

Online publishing will not die if Medium fails

Medium and the future of publishing

Dave Winer recently said, “If Medium were to fail a lot of history will go with it”. Kevin O’Keefe picked up on this and commented on Twitter that this would affect content published by the White House too.

I read both Winer’s and O’Keefe’s comments as suggestions that Medium is Too Big To Fail and that its hypothetical failure would be disastrous. If that were to be the case, it would say far more about the folly of investing so much of their work into a platform that its users had no meaningful control over.

Update (2017-01-10): O’Keefe made a similar point in his blog post titled “Medium lays off one-third of its employees“.

Taking a step back

Before I go on, here is a little context if you missed it. Last week, Ev Williams published a post titled “Renewing Medium’s focus” in which he explained Medium’s pivot away from various forms of advertising it had been experimenting with.

I agree with Medium’s assessment of the publishing landscape and that there is a definite need to find more sustainable and productive ways to earn revenue through online publishing:

Our vision, when we started in 2012, was ambitious: To build a platform that defined a new model for media on the internet. The problem, as we saw it, was that the incentives driving the creation and spread of content were not serving the people consuming it or creating it — or society as a whole. As I wrote at the time, “The current system causes increasing amounts of misinformation…and pressure to put out more content more cheaply — depth, originality, or quality be damned. It’s unsustainable and unsatisfying for producers and consumers alike….We need a new model.”

I also agree with Medium’s conclusions about the current state of online advertising as a dominant way for publishers to make money. It doesn’t leave the Web or their readers in a better place at all (even though it supports the basic model):

Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.

So what Medium decided to do is pivot away from advertising models to something else:

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

What that “new model” isn’t clear and I doubt Williams and his team have a clear idea of what that will be. Whatever they come up with is going to have a big impact on online publishing because there are a number of other major publishers asking similar questions. Online advertising as a primary means of earning money online is a downward spiral to fake news and clickbait because it is all about attention.

What if Medium fails?

Medium is the lovechild of a self-contained social platform and blogging. It has beautiful writing tools and is designed to be a wonderful reading and engagement platform.

It has grown remarkably and it’s no surprise that so many people have invested so much of their creativity and thoughtfulness in their articles published to their personal profiles (the Medium version of a blog). A number of publishers have also shifted their publications to Medium’s platform based, partly, on the promise of revenue shares from Medium. It seems these publishers were also caught by surprise by Medium’s pivot.

There is a huge challenge in investing so much in a single platform that you have no real control over. As Winer pointed out:

Through all the zigging, the thing that has remained constant at Medium is the high quality and usability of the software. But it’s possible for others to do what they do, to be as easy to use, without the uncertainty about its future as an archiving system.

It is still very early days (literally) and I think it is premature to worry much about the prospect of Medium failing to find a sustainable revenue model for itself and its writers and publishers. Still, it is something to think about because what happens to Medium could well mirror the broader online publishing industry in the sense that if Medium succeeds, it could revolutionise that industry.

Before Medium

What struck me this morning when I read O’Keefe’s tweet is that Medium didn’t create something new. Instead, it built on a distributed network of independent publications that sprung up 10 to 15 years ago. Back then, we called it the blogosphere and comprised a growing number of independent blogs that referenced each other using annotations called trackbacks. Back then, people followed each other using RSS readers (Dave Winer is one of the creators of the technologies that made that possible) and commented on each other’s blogs.

The blogosphere wasn’t as coherent as Medium. It wasn’t as well defined or connected and not everyone used the same software for their blogs. That meant interoperability challenges. It was very much a version 1.0 of independent publishing but it was wonderfully empowering because it gave people like me the ability to create a space to write and share.

The blogosphere was the first real version of the social Web that has since diversified and coalesced in terms of formats, platforms and media. More significantly, much of what Medium’s functionality existed long before Medium existed and exists alongside it today.

Over time, WordPress surpassed Blogger (another of Williams’ and his colleagues’ creations) as the dominant publishing platform and it remains the leader of the pack with 27% of the Web using WordPress.

Closer to what we really need

As popular as WordPress is, it isn’t always as easy to use as Medium. It has evolved over time and it has its share of dials and buttons to tweak if you want to take advantage of more complex features. I don’t agree with Frederic Filloux who painted a troubling picture of WordPress in his post “A New Model for Medium” where he said:

First, for elegant text-based publishing, there is a need for a simple, easy-to-use, well-designed platform such as Medium. WordPress was supposed to deliver just that, but it took a geeky turn, saturating its ecosystem with scores of third-party plugins — more than 48,000 at last count — whose quality can charitably be called uneven. Most WordPress sites end up using dozens of plug-ins, each one bound to create its own set of problems: slow page-loads, crashes, random behaviors or update cycles that don’t match WP’s platform agenda. Unless you have sizable tech resources at your disposal, WordPress is a nightmare.

For starters, if all you want is to create a space and start writing, WordPress.com is a great place to start. Setting up is probably a little more involved than Medium because you have more choices when it comes to theming and other customisations. Medium is simpler, sure, and a compelling option for many. Still, discounting WordPress so handily is misguided.

Something I have noticed about open-source software is that it can be messy when compared to closed-source products. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that open-source software aims to be more inclusive and permissive. WordPress is a little messy by comparison with Medium, although the design isn’t terrible (at least, not from my layperson’s perspective).

The reason why it is important not to lose sight of this is precisely the concern that Medium’s shift has aroused and its challenges beg the recurring question: where should you publish your work?

As much as I like Medium, I am still a big advocate for publishing to your own space on the Web, even if you then syndicate elsewhere (including to Medium). You may not even control your site’s fate completely but you usually have more say over its future than a wholly hosted space. As Winer put it:

In the meantime, all the content that continues to pour into Medium is at risk due to the missing business model. And this is where I part with Filloux. I wonder why he only discusses Medium’s interest and the interest of its shareholders. What about his interest and that of other people who use Medium as their publishing platform? Is this the best way?

I argue that it’s not. That what we need is a better designed WordPress, or an open source Medium. Or something new that is inspired by Medium’s smooth UI, and WordPress’s open source heritage.

Where to now?

For now, Medium users can keep using Medium to publish their work. I still find great, thought-provoking articles there. If you are concerned about Medium’s future and the risk of losing your content, you can always export it and keep backups.

I prefer to write my articles locally first before I publish to my blogs. Once I’ve published to my blogs, I’ll syndicate to my social media profiles and, now and then, to Medium too. Medium is actually pretty good for this because it incorporates rel=canonical links that point back to your original blog post if you import your articles into your Medium profile. At least, this way, you preserve your work in your primary publication and if Medium goes away, you still have it all.

And if it all comes to naught and Medium shuts down one day, WordPress and others like them will continue to thrive. The IndieWeb movement is doing some great work to build on the early blogosphere technologies and link all of our blogs with our social profiles and to each other. Yes, it is geeky but I think it represents another bright future for publishing.

Back to Kevin O’Keefe

I started this post with the intention of responding more meaningfully to O’Keefe’s reply to me and, as you can see, it grew a little.

His last point here about people not returning to archives is a fair point although it isn’t the real issue here. The important thing is that there should be archives for people to return to if they decide to.

If, say, the White House exports its articles and archives them on a self-hosted site (which is very possible given how the White House will approach Presidential transitions), that content will be accessible through search and by browsing the site directly.

On the other hand, if Medium/Twitter/Facebook/Other fails and takes all the hosted content down into digital oblivion with it, you will have to rely on initiatives such as the Internet Archive to capture your material and store it for posterity.

I’m holding thumbs for Medium more because I want to see if they can come up with a new revenue model for online publications. The ad supported model works fine for now but it’s taking us down a path I don’t like all that much. As M. G. Siegler put it in his post titled “Long Medium“:

At some point, there will be a fundamental recalibration of the publishing model. Medium can be the catalyst for this, especially now with such a strong base in place.

Image credit: Marco Djallo