Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Toward decentralization

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” — Richard P. Feynman

Social networks that chased scale often stumbled under their own weight, artificially held up through funding that wouldn’t last. The web is at its best when decentralized, with many smaller platforms and communities.

Small companies can provide personalized support because they know their customers. Small companies can manually curate the discovery experience because their content base is not overwhelming.

Scale is inherently at odds with decentralization. Our takeaway from past social networks should be to learn from the individual features they might have gotten right even within the larger failures.

As New York City was realizing what they had lost with Penn Station, there was a push to preserve similar historic buildings, iconic structures like Grand Central Station and the James A. Farley Building, which finished construction in 1914. People learned the lesson of letting Penn Station go. They did not want a repeat of watching majestic, once-in-a-lifetime architecture torn down.

The Farley building, across the street from Penn Station, later became a post office. And in what must be an ironic metaphor for Facebook taking up more and more attention on the web, in 2020 during the COVID pandemic the Farley building was leased as office space for Facebook.

Nothing stands still forever, unchanged. But technology can evolve without tearing everything down, instead preserving the good ideas that came before — ideas such as a more distributed, open web — just as these old buildings can be preserved even as they are reinvented with new shops or offices.

Early platforms like Pownce, Tumblr, Flickr, Google Reader, and each contributed their own innovation, emphasizing different features that would later influence social networks, blogging, and the formalized post types in the IndieWeb community that we’ll cover in Part 3. We can learn from those past experiments as we build modern tools.

There was a little something in each early platform that was right. Pownce and Tumblr had subdomains for users — instead of, leaning more on DNS for identity than Twitter and Facebook do. LiveJournal and MySpace had more personalization, even HTML tinkering.

MySpace allowed CSS in profile pages, letting users do almost anything with customizations like background colors, fonts, and new images. This potential for uniqueness became an important part of MySpace users expressing themselves.

Personalization and independence go hand in hand, whether it’s customizing a blog design or controlling your own domain name. It’s a theme that runs through the W3C’s Ethical Web Principles.

The principles are the work of the W3C Technical Architecture Group, formed to build high-level consensus around principles of the web. The ethics document is about giving individuals more control — that small developers should be able to build tools outside of large companies, and that small platforms are an important part of maintaining that balance of power.

We recognize that web technologies can be used by developers to manipulate people, complicate isolation and encourage addictive behaviors. We recognize these risks and seek to mitigate against them when creating these technologies and platforms. We will therefore favor a decentralized web architecture that minimizes single points of failure and single points of control. We will also build Web technologies for individual developers as well for developers at large companies and organizations.

By the time the W3C published this in 2021, it felt like a formalization of principles that many developers were already following. It put into words something we already want and are working toward.

We want smaller platforms again as was common in the height of Web 2.0. Back then it was more like a fabric of web tools, where one app might build on Flickr’s API, or another app might plug in missing features in early versions of Twitter like search or photo hosting. But with indie microblogging we want to go further, even more decentralized, where platforms fade away and all we have are our own blogs, woven together as a new foundation for the social web.

Next: Part 2: Foundation →