User Experience and the IndieWeb

6 min read

Those of you who have been following me on this site and on Twitter for the last few years know that I've been a proponent of the IndieWeb and its ideals, and would like to see a return to the open web.

Earlier today, I published a series of tweets about my desire for better, more unfied experiences for people who want to actively participate in the IndieWeb:

I received some great replies from fellow members of the IndieWeb community, including some links to interesting building blocks that people have been working on for years:

Ryan Barrett also shared his thoughts on the topic way back in 2015, with many great ideas.

Building Blocks vs. Unified Experiences

Tools like Granary, Indigenous, and InkStone are great pieces of the puzzle, as are open source CMS's like Known and WordPress with support for Micropub, Webmention, and other IndieWeb building blocks. But, the reason that silos like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are popular is that they provide a convenient, easy, and attractive unified experience for content consumption, content creation, and interactions. In order to be successful, and drive mass adoption, the IndieWeb must provide a user experience on par with silos on all three of these fronts.

I think that Manton Reece's Micro.blog project is another good start on attacking the problem, and may get us closer than we've ever been before, which is why I pushed my employer to back the project. But, again, its likely not enough on its own.

Between RSS and Atom, Webmention, and Micropub, the building blocks are there to create such an experience in a decentralized way, with participants in the network owning their own domains, websites, and data, pulling in content from a variety of sources via feeds, and creating posts, reactions, and interactions to their own sites with notifications to other participant sites.

My Vision for a Unified Experience

Today, most people's experience of the web is through algorithmically generated, ad-supported timelines like Twitter and Facebook. Frequently, its on mobile devices in the native app clients for these silos, rather than through a web browser. That's really a shame.

These algorithmically curated timelines are filling the gap that feed readers and aggregators like Google Reader left open. Web browsers have also ceded ground to silos, focusing purely on navigation, tab management, and search, rather than thinking about the bigger picture.

The ideal solution to this problem would be a native application for desktop operating systems and mobile platforms that places user experience at the forefront, and provides:

  • Content consumption for both the open web, through RSS/Atom, and silos like Twitter and Facebook in separate tabs or timelines.

  • Content creation for both the open web, through Micropub, and silos like Twitter and Facebook via syndication or their APIs.

  • Rich interactions for both the open web, through Webmention, and silos like Twitter and Facebook via their APIs.

Back in the early days of Twitter and the iOS App Store, John Gruber wrote about Twitter clients as pioneers of user experience. He was absolutely right! Twitter's (then) open-ish API enabled indie software companies like The Iconfactory, Atebits, and others to innovate and create incredible user experiences. In fact, the early work of The Iconfactory in Twitterific led to the hashtag, @-mention, and other patterns to take hold. The concept of "pull to refresh" was born out of this storm of innovation. Then, as it tried to figure out how to monetize its VC-backed platform, Twitter closed up its APIs, cutting off this innovation.

A unified experience for the rebirth of the open web is a massive market opportunity. The building blocks are there. History has shown that these kinds of experiences can become massively popular and drive innovation.

Opportunity for Who?

This opportunity begs the question: who will build this unified experience? Well, this time, the building blocks are truly open, so anyone can participate. All of those amazing indie developers who were creating Twitter clients back in 2007-2012 could absolutely dust off their code, and pick up where they left off.

That said, I think that browser vendors are in the best possible position to create these experiences, as this is all about driving people to the open web, and consuming it inside of web browsers. I firmly believe that innovation in web browsers has been stagnant for years, with the focus mostly being on search, navigation, rendering, and tabbed browsing, while the ultimate user experience has remained fundamentally the same.

Because of its values and origins, Mozilla is perfectly suited to the problem, and needs to reinvent itself after years of declining market share for Firefox. Mozilla has spent years on distractions like phone operating systems, and a client for enabling publishing, interaction, and content discovery and consumption on the open web, free from silos, is a great opportunity to get back to its roots.

How Can I Help?

For my part, I'm going to continue to advocate for the IndieWeb, support the members of the community that are making the future possible, and work with my employer, DreamHost, to help enable people to own their own digital identity with open platforms like WordPress.

How can you help? Well, that's a blog post for another day.