Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Owning your content

It’s an important part of the mission for Micro.blog to take control back from closed, ad-supported social networks and instead embrace posting on our own blogs again. But what does “owning your content” really mean?

Owning your content isn’t just having a copy, whether that’s the original or an exported archive from another service. It’s more about owning the live version of your content on the web.

Twitter and Facebook are both powerful tools to help people organize. We were reminded of that in the first months of Trump’s presidency, as people worked online to coordinate protests, and in the final months of his presidency, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd. While these social networks are broken in significant ways, they’re not all bad. They bring people together and expand the reach of posts from our own web sites. That’s why many people embrace cross-posting.

Just as important is the free press. Not just big sites like the New York Times and Washington Post, but also small sites like yours and mine. There are both legal and technical aspects to preserving this right.

It’s not a good foundation to concentrate so much writing into one place like Twitter or Medium. Distributing writing across more web sites protects us if one massive site shuts down. It gives us flexibility to move to the next popular network if one emerges.

Both reporters and bloggers can break a story. Something too important to ignore. But to be taken seriously, it can’t be from an anonymous Twitter account that’s easy to cast doubt on. It has to come from someone accountable who has built a reputation by publishing good work and owning it.

Reputation is built with repetition. Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, reflected on his years of blogging at his own domain name:

One little blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work. This blog has been my sketchbook, my studio, my gallery, my storefront, and my salon. Absolutely everything good that has happened in my career can be traced back in some way to this blog. My books, my art shows, my speaking gigs, some of my best friendships—they all exist because I have my own little piece of turf on the Internet.

Owning your content by having a microblog at your own domain is empowering. Maybe you’re writing about creative projects. Maybe you’re writing about what you had for lunch. Maybe you’re photo-blogging an important trip. Maybe you’re posting from your iPhone at a protest outside the White House.

It doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s happening and worth writing about, it’s worth owning. Now more than ever.

Hosted domains and open source

But what does it mean at a technical level to own our content? Do we have to install WordPress or some home-grown blogging system for it to be considered true content ownership, where we have the source code and direct SFTP access to the server? No. If that’s our definition, then content ownership will be permanently reserved for programmers and technical folks who have hours to spend on server configuration.

People get lost in the weeds with running their own server, how to set up cross-posting to other social networks, where to post first, and what formats and protocols to use. But it’s actually much simpler than that.

I think in the tech world — and especially as programmers — we tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. We know too much about content ownership, most of it irrelevant for mainstream users.

If you want to control your content on the web, post it at your own personal domain name. That’s it. Everything else you want to do is icing on the cake.

Likewise, nothing else can be a replacement for that simple act of using your own domain name. You could write your own blog software with a custom database designed for ActivityPub and run it on a server in your basement. It doesn’t matter. Without the domain name, all you have is a pile of icing.

The IndieWeb has a generations chart to illustrate the path from early adopters to mainstream users:

  • Generation 1: Development leaders.
  • Generation 2: Journalists and bloggers.
  • Generation 3: Personal domains managed by 3rd parties.
  • Generation 4: People using social networks.

Each generation builds on the one before. It starts with “generation 1” for coders and technical users, then becomes more accessible through platforms that provide built-in features, and eventually with “generation 4” it’s just as easy as using a social network.

Eli Mellen highlighted this chart in a blog post about the need to bridge the gap between the technical aspects of IndieWeb tools and more approachable platforms. With Micro.blog specifically, the goal is “generation 4”, and I think we’re on track to get there.

I want blogging to be as easy as tweeting. Anything short of that isn’t good enough for Micro.blog. You’ll notice when you use Twitter that they never ask you to SFTP into twitter.com to configure your account. They don’t ask you to install anything.

More powerful software that you can endlessly customize will always have its place. It’s good to have a range of options, including open source to tinker with. That’s often where some of the best ideas start. But too often I see people get lost in the weeds of plugins and themes, lured in by the myth that you have to self-host with WordPress to be part of the IndieWeb.

Owning your content isn’t about portable software. It’s about portable URLs and data. It’s about domain names.

When you write and post photos at your own domain name, your content can outlive any one blogging platform. In all the years of blogging at manton.org, I’ve switched blogging platforms and hosting providers a few times. The posts and URLs can all be preserved through those changes because it’s my own domain name.

If you can’t use your own domain name, you can’t own it. Your content will be forever stuck at those silo URLs, beholden to the whims of the algorithmic timeline and shifting priorities of the executive team.

For hosted blogs on Micro.blog, we encourage everyone to map a custom domain to their content, and we throw in free HTTPS and preserve redirects for old posts on imported WordPress content. We let you register a new domain name right within Micro.blog, so there are no DNS records t configure.

The goal with Micro.blog is not to be a stop-gap hosting provider, with truly “serious” users eventually moving on to something else (although we make that easy). We want Micro.blog hosting to be the best platform for owning your content and participating in the Micro.blog and IndieWeb communities.

Next: Microformats →