Several months ago, I decided to start taking my "digital footprint" a little more seriously. Like most people these days, several parts of my job require me to be active online, and through the projects I work on, I am closely involved with web development and on the periphery of educational technology. I have also been immersed in the work being done around open educational resources and open pedagogy, which rely heavily on using new technology to enhance teaching and learning. The community (or "network") of open educators includes prolific bloggers and hackers: they use the open web to create, connect, tell stories, and share outside of the "silo" that is the Learning Management System (or the ubiquitous social networks essential to how we experience the web now).

Several of them are far more web savvy than I, including one instructor who is using Grav and GitHub to flip the LMS and put course content in an environment that benefits all students. Something about this undertaking intrigued me, so I decided to tinker around with my own Grav website, which ended up being a valuable learning experience.

  • I learned the basics of maintaining a flat-file CMS website, the basics of Markdown, the basics of deploying a website using FTP, and the basics of navigating GitHub to figure out how to "customize" my own project.
  • I learned that web design and development are always works in progress. You'll never be satisfied with the final product, nor will you know everything there is to know about how it works.
  • I learned that informal learning through the web is unpredictable and difficult to explain, but you end up knowing more than you did at the beginning of a project.
  • I also learned, once again, that failure is the among the most valuable teaching tools.

The last item resonates especially strongly now, after I decided that I was in over my head using Grav. Instead of going back to WordPress, I looked into Ghost, which has been described as "WordPress without the complexity." I decided that I needed a simple solution to inspire me to write more, and we'll see if the latter is fulfilled, but the simplicity of the Ghost interface feels refreshing to work with. I've realized that I can implement the principles of the "Indie web" without cutting my teeth on programming languages I'll probably never understand.

The Indie web and Reclaim Your Domain

The principles of IndieWebCamp are:

Your content is yours. When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users' data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.

You are better connected. Your articles and status messages can go to all services, not just one, allowing you to engage with everyone. Even replies and likes on other services can come back to your site so they’re all in one place.

You are in control. You can post anything you want, in any format you want, with no one monitoring you. In addition, you share simple readable links such as example.com/ideas. These links are permanent and will always work.

In other words, the Indie web is about committing yourself to a web that lets you Do-It-Yourself. I can trace my exposure to the "Indie web" back to the excellent Audrey Watters, who writes about the importance of these principles in the context of educational technology. She also is one of the creators of Reclaim Your Domain, a "movement" of sorts that encourages people to think more critically about the content they create online. Kin Lane, Audrey Watters, and Jim Groom present one's "digital identity" as an extension of the self: what you do online should reflect who you are and what you value. If you value freedom and privacy, and if you are deeply concerned with the corporatization of the web, then their approach should resonate with you as it did with me:

Defining Who We Are Online

We are spending a increasing amount of time online, using websites, applications, and this fast growing world is penetrating our physical worlds via our mobile phones, and a new breed of Internet connected devices. We have thousands of years of history in defining our physical domains, but what makes up our online domains, and do we actually have control over what is ours?

Your first impression might be that this seems reactionary. After all, hasn't Web 2.0 led to a more connected world, empowered people to freely publish their content, and allowed us to reach a broader audience? Of course! I couldn't imagine online communities without Twitter, and if blogging's revival ever comes to pass, it will surely be thanks to Medium. Instagram and Snapchat are here to stay. As simple tools for sharing photos and moments with your friends, they are unparalleled. We are only just beginning to see the immense potential of live video.

We use these platforms as utilities -- that is, they are simply part of how the world is, like electricity, water, and roads. And yet large swaths of the people who use these websites remain ignorant of their systemic and cultural flaws. Problems of this kind are more concerning to me than lack of features or poor user experience.

I'm not here to condemn social media. I'm active on almost all the same outlets you are, and I'll continue to be. I can only share my experience, and there are two things that concern me about our reliance on these platforms as outlets for our digital identities: advertising and the templated self.

The web, advertising, and me

Online services cost a lot of money to maintain, support, and develop. Even openly licensed and free products -- content, articles, software -- cost time and money to create and run, and there are several different models for doing so.

The corporate web, as I understand it, is largely funded by venture capital. If a product fails to generate enough attention, it disappears. Even the successful ones are vulnerable. Websites go offline all the time for any number of reasons, but "not making money" has to be near the top:

Site deaths are when sites go offline, taking content and permalinks with them, and breaking the web accordingly. Site deaths are one of the big reasons why you should own your own identity and content on the web.

This is a chronology of content hosting sites that have died, removing millions (billions?) of permalinks from the web. This is specifically for content hosting sites which permitted end-user posting. Not random sites nor pure "app" sites where there's no loss of user data. If a game site goes down and takes down play history/scores, or if Gmail went away those would both represent loss of user data (though no public permalinks).

How do websites have longevity, then? How to they fend off the inevitable?

The solution across most of the web, obviously, is advertising. The debate around using advertising and clicks to fund content is far too complex for me to wade into here, but needless to say it's problematic. Online publishing is beyond broken, but I'm not smart enough to fix it, nor do I have a solution for its underlying complexity and all the incentives that drive it.

But my digital footprint is my own problem to solve, and the least I can do to conduct myself in a way that's consistent with my values is to retain ownership and control over the content I create, and share it using the social and legal mechanisms that the web provides. When I use platforms created by companies whose primary motive is profit, I agree to their terms, which often complicates who owns and controls the content. It also means that I have little say in how "my" profile is used for advertising.

Here's what my Facebook profile looks like now:

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In the right column, two ads appear as "Sponsored" links. Needless to say, I do not get a cut from those ads, and I do not have a say over what goes there. I do not endorse the products or services that appear on my profile. (When Twitter users access my feed on their Twitter app, "promoted Tweets" appear in my feed that are at best a nuisance, and at worst a misrepresentation of me).

I am not here to tell Facebook or Twitter what they're doing right or wrong. Nonetheless, using Facebook makes me a participant in what Facebook and services like it are doing to the web. They are trying to remake it in their own image, which means that they're trying to keep you on Facebook for everything. As great as the product is, I'm concerned deeply that I'm handing over my data, content, and digital identity to a company whose main motive is profit.

It's within their rights, and completely acceptable, to profit from products and services they create. That's not the issue. The issue is with me: how do I want to express and curate my identity online? How do I want users to interact with my content? The web presence I want for myself should be on my terms, and I want the same for everyone else. These paragraphs from Kin Lane of Reclaim Your Domain resonated with me:

While I have my online brand to protect, and overall I have a heightened awareness around my online persona, this is something everyone should learn about. You may not have a valuable blog, online portfolio or other valuable online assets, but eventually you might. No matter who you are online, you should work to understand where your content, images, video and other assets you generate reside, and retain as much control over them as possible.

The business model of major companies like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Instagram and Youtube are all based upon you generating valuable content that people want to view, which then allows these companies to generate revenue by selling advertising or access to your (their) content. It is in their best interest to retain as much control over your content as they can.

Creating my own website, my own blog, and my own social platform via a instance of Known are all gestures toward reclaiming my digital identity.

From Grav to Ghost

When I first read about Grav, I was compelled by the possibilities. I had never worked with a flat-file CMS. Everything about the process seemed to be a learning opportunity, so I used some of my weekends to get a basic website up and running. The process excited me because I had to do a lot of searching and experimenting to get things to work.

I broke my website a lot, even when I was trying to do something simple. I wanted a space to write, but not a lot of writing happened there, as you can see from the remnants ported over to my new blog. I was teaching a course while trying to write more, and things were ramping up at work, so I made excuses to avoid it.

I can't count how many times I've tried to make my own writing more of a priority, but I've moved my blog over to Ghost, which provides me with an easy and simple way to write and publish on the web. There has never been a shortage of tools for me to use, but I'm excited by new things to tinker and play with, so here's hoping that I can set up and maintain something more permanent on this new blog. Blogging is dead, I know, but I'm not concerned about the sentiment. Writing is how we make sense of our lives and communicate with others. This is my space for it.

Notebooking with Known

"Writing a blog" has always seemed like somewhat of a chore to me. Writing this blog has taken three hours out of my weekend, and only a handful of people will probably read it, so I'm sure there are better things I could do with my time.

I'm aware that blogging doesn't have to be that much of a time sink, though. It's a flexible format. I could use this website for shorter blurbs and sharing media. To me, though, it's a conceptual problem: a blog interface is equipped for longer, self-contained writing. It's an old-fashioned notion, but one that has stayed with me, which is why this post is creeping up over 2000 words. I just can't help myself.

Obviously, the internet has evolved beyond long-form content, so platforms for sharing bite-sized media are now the norm. Twitter and Facebook are the obvious places for this. For years I maintained a Tumblr page, which also fulfilled this need to share diverse media in scraps and snippets: quotes, updates, songs, videos, images, links, conversations. If Twitter is micro-blogging, then Tumblr is short-form blogging with a focus on sharing ("reblogging") and community conversations.

But is Tumblr compatible with my wish to own and control my content? Not really. It's a service I signed up for, and when I did, I agreed to their terms (without actually reading them, of course). But its core user experience is perfect for what I need, which is a public "notebook" of sorts where I can record quick thoughts, quotes, bookmarked links, notes, and media for myself and others who want to follow along.

Enter Known. I first heard about Known through Audrey Watters, who discusses it as a platform that's compatible with the principles behind the Indie web and reclaiming your domain. I'll let her explain:

Known has become another key piece in my efforts to “reclaim my domain,” that is, to maintain control of my content and data, to “publish on my own site, syndicate everywhere.

Known enables you to create status updates, posts, check-ins, and the like on your own site and then syndicate those to other sites. Instead of creating a tweet via Twitter, for example, I do so via Known. (I write status updates that I don't push to Twitter too.) Instead of uploading a photo to Flickr, I do so via Known. I retain my own copy, but also, thanks to Bridgy, I can pull in the responses to my content as well – favorites, shares, comments, and so on.

I created a subdomain on trentgill.ca and installed my own Known instance. To me, it's not just another blogging platform. It syndicates well with Twitter and Facebook, allowing me to continue being active elsewhere while creating a personal archive that I own and control on my Known site. Syndication isn't new, of course, but I don't need a full-feature WordPress install with plugins to do what I want to do. I need a minimal user interface with a simple set of options and the ability to push that content to my Facebook profile or my Twitter feed.

Learning through the web

As I went through this process, I thought a lot about my personal history as a learner, both formal and informal. I thought about the thousands of hours I've spent reading, studying, researching, and writing about diverse topics. To go along with the essays I wrote, I have notebooks full of ideas, quotes, annotations, and examples that sit untouched. All that material was a personal archive of not only my learning but my identity.

I'm excited by educators who are working to give students a similar experience online. The web provides opportunities for everyone to become active creators and curators of their own digital footprint. As a culture and a society, it's time to think critically about the way we use and discuss technology. We tell ourselves how important it is to known how to code, but digital literacy must go deeper than that. We must create a web that fosters unique identities and creative expression. If that's what learning is meant to do, then perhaps we should use the web to do the same.