This post is a (rather long) summary of my recent attempts to join the Indieweb movement, as viewed from the perspective of someone who, although far from stupid, doesn't have a great deal of experience with all things internet. The TL:DR version is "it wasn't easy, I had a lot of help, but I did it".
For a few years now I have been blogging from 10 Centuries, as it offered a very competitively priced and easy approach. Initially I made use of it by sending a private message from App.net, which was posted to my blog site. Then I subscribed and was able to use custom domains. Currently I have three blogs hosted on there: my main blog, my craft-related blog and one for the local choral society, for whom I am the accompanist. I don't intend on leaving the service, as it very much suits my needs. There's a really nice social side to the service, where I have made some good friends. Mostly we all "met" on the aforementioned App.net service. It was a good place to hang out and it piqued my interest in blogging and connecting with people on the internet. The owner of 10 Centuries, Jason Irwin, holds views very much in line with those of the Indieweb and is currently working on making his platform much more compatible with various indieweb components.
Over time, I became more aware of the "Indieweb". I followed conversations, picking up bits of information along the way - and also becoming more and more certain that this was all pretty meaningless to me. Talk of "APIs" and such like pretty much went straight over my head.
I heard about the Micro.Blog Kickstarter and decided to back it. Mostly because I was interested in the book; it's only recently that I have engaged with the blogging side of it - but I'm hooked!
I can't recall where I first came across it, most likely on either 10Centuries or Pnut. As might be expected, both of these sites comprise a fairly high number of what I would call "techy" people.
I wouldn't necessarily say that dissatisfaction with Twitter was the reason I joined App.net, as I'm not a particularly avid user, but I have always believed that, in life, you get what you pay for. I realised that I, like so many others, had been sucked in to the idea of the "free" internet, almost without noticing. So, I decided to pay for the services I enjoyed. I support a few podcasts that I listen to (not all of them, just the ones I value the most). I also support the writings of a few bloggers/authors. Granted, I'm in a position where I can afford to do so, which isn't the same for everyone. "Free" social interaction is very attractive for a lot of people. Who wants to pay for every place they use on the internet ? It becomes expensive after a while!
A lot of the time the conversations I watch are very much above my head and I spent some time just feeling that all this was completely beyond me, which irritated me, but also spurred me on - I don't like to be defeated! Then I realised I was trying to understand people who had been involved with all this for years, whose experience levels far outstripped my own. It also crossed my mind that we all start somewhere, and that, although I'm no concert pianist, I have never, ever, considered not playing the piano. So I thought maybe I should have a go. I also thought that this might prove a point, one way or another. If I could get somewhere, then that meant the whole Indieweb thing wasn't only for the geeks. I also hoped that, just perhaps, my experiences might help someone else.
In order to play around, I needed a site that I had full control of. Whilst 10Centuries genuinely promotes the view that I still own my data, the hosting itself is closed off - or was - in that I couldn't add any code to my site, for example. I knew this was something I would have to be able to do so it became necessary to look for hosting elsewhere.
I already had a domain I wanted to use, so that was ok. The first step into Indieweb is having a domain that is yours (ok, effectively you rent it from a registrar). The content on your domain is under your control. if you fail to renew, it goes, but that's under your control, not someone else's. In Indieweb terms your domain represents you on the web. Most hosting companies will offer a free domain, for at least the first year. I did, in fact, pick up a new domain with my hosting, but haven't used it yet. Getting your domain from your hosting provider does make things more simple. I didn't, and I didn't transfer mine from its current registrar either, as it's a .uk domain, which requires some additional steps (apparently).
Hosting and blogging platform
There are a lot of hosting companies out there to choose from, and people's requirements vary considerably. In my own research I came up with a few things that I required (or didn't require).
Options range from fully-hosted WordPress services, something I didn't really want, to a VPS set-up, which is completely DIY - also something I didn't want.
WordPress.org was an obvious contender for blogging platform I had read that it was reasonably well supported in the Indieweb community. Basically, it had to be something pretty user-friendly. I knew I had no intention of running my own servers and I knew I didn't want to have to configure anything much myself: way beyond my skill-set. There are a myriad of blogging platforms and WordPress isn't for everyone, but it seemed to me to be a decent starting point. It's not the only blogging software, not by a long chalk, but it's probably a relatively easy one to start with. Most of the large hosting companies offer some form of shared hosting, with what is termed a "1-click" installation of WordPress, at the very least. I had previously used WordPress.com, so I was a little familiar with the setup.
I discounted a VPS, partly on the grounds of cost, but also because I really didn't want to be responsible for all aspects of the software I had on there - way beyond my current skill-set.
I wanted someone who provided WhoIs privacy, simply so that I didn't have to add that to the cost, or potentially forget to renew it. When making comparison lists, it's very easy to find that some things just aren't mentioned and you have to dig down into some detail to find what you want.
Does email come with the package - and do you even want it? I didn't, as I have email for my domain with Fastmail. Some companies include it, some charge extra for it; something to factor into calculations.
SSL isn't a great concern any more, as most hosting comes with a LetsEncrypt certificate, which is free. You'll have to pay for something with e-commerce, but baby steps…!
Do you have any geographical preferences for your hosting - and whether you do or not, does the company you choose have their servers in one location, or around the world? Privacy laws differ and, if that's important to you, then give it a lot of thought. I would have preferred to have UK/ROI hosting, but couldn't find something suitable (which isn't to say it doesn't exist, just that I either couldn't find it, or it didn't suit my requirements).
Look at what you are actually getting for the price - there are offers a-plenty, but what is the year 2 cost? Also, the cheap price may turn out to be too limiting for what you might want. There may be restrictions on the number of sites you can have, or the bandwidth you can use.
in the end I opted for Dreamhost - it had been recommended by a few people, it offered pretty much what I wanted and wasn't excessively expensive. Over $100 a year, though, although there are 2 & 3-year options which reduce the cost. As said earlier, I picked up a domain with them, which I hope to use. I thought it suited me, being a craft-obsessed, piano-playing person (it's crotchetcrochet.com). I do have some plans for it, in time… Yes, because I can't help myself, it's highly likely that I will try to get some kind of non-WordPress installation up and running, so I can play with it on that site. Glutton for punishment, me…
Configure domain with new provider
If you registered a domain with your host, then this will likely be done for you. I had to point my domain to Dreamhost's nameservers. Fortunately, both my registrar and Dreamhost have excellent how-to sites. A bit of reading and things were (relatively) fine.
I had some complications because of who my registrar is (Gandi) and because I didn't want to move my domain. I had to unhook my DNS from Cloudflare and then move them to Dreamhost. I then re-enabled Cloudflare under Dreamhost and had all sorts of problems. Possibly because I had redirects on my domains which route the bare domain to www, so that I can use a URL rather than a static IP. I think I ended up going round in circles thanks to some choices I made with my WordPress setup. But that's my problem at times - what seems quite obvious to some people isn't always to me.
Install blogging software
Most hosting providers offer a 1-click install of WordPress, which sets everything up for you pretty quickly. I didn't have to know about PHP or MySql as all that was set up for me. Otherwise I'd probably still be writing with crayons on paper (ok, with fountain pens on very nice paper, but still…).
When I said I wanted an SSL certificate, my hosting provider applied a certificate to the root domain. Currently, wildcard certificates don't seem to be available for free; I believe this has something to do with the auto-renewal process not working properly, but I'm not entirely sure. I did wonder if I would need to have a certificate for the www subdomain, too, but that wasn't an available option. Within the WordPress software some changes had to be made, as WordPress assumes that the page you will want to use is the "www" one. So I had to tell WordPress that my site is on the bare domain, but that just entailed putting the url in a couple of boxes in the Admin panel.
Configuring the blog
Choice of theme is important, obviously. It defines how your site will look, but also some themes will play more nicely with Indieweb principles than others. Generally the recommended WordPress ones are Independent Publisher, or SemPress. I opted for SemPress. Changed the page layout, altered some colours - all these things are easy enough to do. I only wanted a simple blog to contain my posts, which is why I set up WordPress on a the blog subdomain, leaving the main domain free for whatever I might choose to use it for.
Once I got to this point, I had a site up and running, but of course, it doesn't end there…
One thing I learned after I had made some changes is that when using a theme, it is good practice straight away to create a "child theme" to which you can make changes without having them overwritten by any theme updates. After a bit of encouragement from online friends, I consulted the relevant WordPress codex pages and seem to have succeeded. Yes, to do this, I needed to be able to SFTP into my site, and for that I use Filezilla, which is very easy to use. You will be allocated an SFTP username for your site when setting it up. It's just a secure way to download files, change them and upload them back. Not much more complicated than opening a document from a network drive really.
I wanted to make my site Indieweb-compliant, so I had more work to do. There is an Indieweb plugin for WordPress which handles a lot of the things needed. I installed that and set to work. The plugin makes it easy to set things up so that you can be "verified". The instructions are clear and once I had added my domain to my Twitter bio (oh the irony of having to use a silo'd site to verify my identity), that was done. I could also use my Github account, which I created in an over-optimistic moment of madness once. There's no code on there, nor is there likely to be any time soon!! I was mildly confused by the fact that very few sites seem to be able to be used for this verification process, to be honest.
I next enabled the following plugins:
I admit I don't really know what they all do, but that's something I will work on. I certainly don't understand how they do what they do and I don't know that I want to!
I have purchased a backup solution for my site, Updraft, which was very easy to set up and runs in the background. That cost around £50, but I have the option of running it unsupported in the future, or a reduced-cost renewal. I know it's only a diddy little WordPress site, but I'll likely renew - after all, most of my other data is backed up to a removable drive, two cloud sites and I also run an Arq backup from my main Windows box, as well as Time Machine backups on my Macbook. I do like a good backup.
Pesky post titles
I added the rss feed for my site to my Micro.blog account, as I wanted my posts to show up there - after all, that was the whole point of the exercise, really.
My other blog sites are also fed across to my Micro.blog account. These appear as the title of the post, with a link back to the full article. Micro.blog treats posts without a title as status updates and this was what I wanted to send from my new WordPress blog. Assuming anything I wrote was shorter than the 280 character-limit and had no title, it would appear in Micro.blog in full, rather as a Tweet does in Twitter. Accordingly, I decided to use the post type "status" and not add a title. Unfortunately, the SemPress theme I chose forces a title - I have since found the code that does this. As a result, my posts were "Post number…" followed by a link back to the "post", which was mainly a short status update. Not what I wanted. Nobody is going to take the time to click on a link every time! I don't know how to override that bit of code in my theme, so a very kind soul (one of many in the wider Indieweb community) gave me a piece of code that I could use to remove the post title from the rss feed for any posts of the type "status". Now my WordPress default post type is set to "status" so that this just works. If want to write a long-form post, I will change that, either in MarsEdit, or in the admin panel, depending where I am writing from.
I enabled the Webmentions plugin and, I have to say, it just worked. Now when i post on my site, that post goes to Micro.blog and any replies appear on my site (as well as in the Micro.blog timeline). It's great to see conversations showing up on my blog! Initially I had to approve every single comment - although WordPress implies that it will verify subsequent comments, it doesn't work, at least not in the way I needed it to. After consultation with the Indieweb gurus in the Slack room, I had a couple of options: auto-approve all comments made via webmentions, as the risk of spam is almost negligible, or auto-approve comments for a person, after I have manually approved their first one. I elected for this option and added a piece of code that another kind Indieweb soul had written and shared.
I have used Bridgy to post to Facebook, but I have yet to figure out how to get it to post a photo as well. I tried some suggestions, but they didn't work. This goes on my to-do list. No doubt a simple solution, but I haven't found it yet. Partly because cross-posting hasn't really bothered me, but it is nice to have the option to post the odd photo to a couple of places in one go.
My set-up is very simple but, even so, it hasn't been without its issues. That said, I do have a site up and running. I'm not a coder, I'm borderline techy at best and yet, albeit with a lot of help, I have made it. I don't think it's any secret that the Indieweb isn't for everyone, yet. It requires some patience, a lot of learning and not a little determination. A far cry from the "create your account now" of the usual social media silos. I do think the bar to entry is getting lower though. There are some great people putting in significant amounts of effort so that us mere mortals have a chance of being in control of our content on the internet. All I can say is: have a go, it can be done. Have the courage to stick your hand up and ask for help, there are people who will gladly assist.
There is a cost barrier to the Indieweb, however, as it does rather require that you put your money where your mouth is!
Micro.blog does a good job of pulling together people's various existences on the web into a social stream where people can interact. It also provides a relatively low-cost, frictionless entry into owning your own content, in that it will provide hosting for you, as well as cross-posting to the dreaded duo of Facebook and Twitter.
Of course, the overarching issue with any of these social spaces is simply critical mass. Twitter and Facebook have that: most people are there so that's where most people go. It will take a lot for that to change, particularly for it to change in favour of one or two other social networking sites, so they in turn reach that critical mass. I don't really see it happening, to be honest. Most people really don't care enough. Which is fine, it's their choice. I doubt I will leave Facebook, as I can keep in touch with friends easily on there. I don't use it a great deal, however, other than to post the occasional amusing anecdote. I certainly don't live my life in public on there. For me, I'm quite happy for none of my Facebook friends to know about my other life, out here on the wider internet. I doubt many, if any, know that I have several blogs and have done any of the things I've been up to recently. And you know what, I'm quite happy with that.
At this point, I feel the need to acknowledge and thank some of the people who have helped me and encouraged me in my venture:-
- Jeremy Cherfas who is largely reponsible for encouraging me to attempt all this and has been a great moral support.
- Jason Irwin for running 10 Centuries, my favourite little corner of the internet, hosting three of my blog sites and thus affording me my first steps out into the Inter-world, being ever-patient and helpful, and for sharing photos of his gorgeous puppy, Nozomi.
- Colin Walker for the ability to remove pesky post titles, for a handy plugin which opens comments on my blog, as posting via XML-RPC doesn't.
- Chris Aldrich for advice in Micro.blog and Slack.
- Gregor Morrill for the wonderful comment-approval piece of code.
- Manton Reece, for creating Micro.blog.
No doubt I've forgotten people, but these are the main ones who have helped and encouraged me over the last 7 weeks - has it really only been 7 weeks?!
Oh, and I have pondered at length over where this post belongs. I should post it on the WordPress site, my new home. But my main blog is on 10C and I have decided that's where my longer posts will live.