The Federated Web Should Be Easier Than It Sounds

Twitter’s suspension of journalist Guy Adams’ account earlier this week should further discussions that have been bubbling over the past couple weeks about the need for a more open alternative to Twitter. Although Twitter reinstated Adams’ account, the company’s actions show why such an alternative is important. It’s not about giving developers more API tools to play with. It’s about building more resilient systems for free speech online.

As Dave Winer has pointed out, most of the pieces are there already. And as was pointed out during the indie web panel at OS Bridge, we’ve had them since the early days of blogging. If you had your own domain name and kept good backups you could move from host to host and even to entirely different blogging systems (though you might mess up your permalinks). E-mail can work the same way, if you use your own domain name instead of your host’s. These are what some people call “federated systems.”

I’m interested in plans to build federated versions of the internet, including “darknets” like Freenet, Cryptosphere or wireless internet alternatives like Project Meshnet and the many many other project like it. But for those of us living in relatively free countries, just having an internet where everyone owns their own portable identity is good enough. Owning a domain name is a bit on the geeky side, but it’s not like asking people to learn to program or configure their own Linux servers. We can still rely on hosted services – as long as we can pack up and move out of them when the time comes.

What we need to build an open alternative to Twitter isn’t more standards. We already have Dave Winer’s microblog namespace for RSS, PubSubHubbub and Activity Streams. (Update:Oh, and I forgot oStatus.) What we need is a self-hostable, single user Twitter clone that can publish these formats (and optionally push to Twitter and other social networks). That was the idea that Winer was seemingly getting at last week with his own post on a Twitter alternative, but he focused more on all the tools that are out there for building something like this, and didn’t come out and say what it is we actually need. And that’s something that power users can get up and running relatively quickly without having to write it themselves and with the least amount of server fiddling possible. A WordPress of microblogs.

Sure we have StatusNet and other clones already. But these are designed for groups who want a private Twitter. I’m talking about is giving every user control of their feed by attaching it to their own domain name. One such thing exists already: PageCookery, but the site is in Chinese. Another option is to just run StatusNet and be the sole user on your server. There are also some WordPress microblog themes, but that seems like a clunky solution. It might be nice to see something that isn’t in PHP, but hey – PHP gets the job done and it’s easy for non-developers to get PHP apps running on commodity web hosting.

If it’s individual, how do you make it social? By using the same standards blogs did. You can use pingbacks and trackbacks for notifications. As someone (I can’t remember who) said on the indie web panel, blogrolls were the original social networks. There’s even a microstandard for establishing social links in blogrolls.

But one of the most important tools for all of this will be a way to actually read all the activity streams generated by these tools. This part will be the Google Reader of microblog/activity stream feeds. There’s already Winer’s River2, but it would be great if this could actually be built into microblogging tools. I think one of the reasons that services like Live Journal, Twitter and Tumblr took off is that you have your social stream and your means of contributing to it all in one place. This will be one of the hardest things to get right.

If this took off we’d eventually see hosted versions, the equivalent of Blogspot or Great – as long as you can pull in feeds hosted elsewhere, and use your own domain name for your identity.

Is it a pipe dream? Maybe. We’ve had open source, self-hostable tumblogs for years now but few have migrated to them from Tumblr or Posterous. And just being able to syndicate your personal microblog out to Twitter might not be enough – I like being able to post to Twitter from the same place that I read and reply to Twitter.

But I remember when the idea of everyone having their own web page seemed absurd. Now, as Ward Cunningham, inventor of the original wiki and a slick new federated wiki told me in an interview not too long ago, everyone on Facebook has their own web page. All I’m asking is that we take it a small step further. Before that we’ll need power user adoption. And developers committed to building the right tools.