Mid-November Check-In

November 18, 2020

Since I spent last week on a series of historical essays, I decided to spend this week in the present, writing software and reflecting on how the ideas we find in the history of the web can inform system design today.

One thing that gave me a lot of inspiration was the indieweb, and I felt very lucky to be able to attend the virtual IndieWebCamp East last weekend. Jack Jamieson describes the IndieWeb as "an international community of people who use personal websites as their primary online identity." Use of the term within the community can sometimes include anyone whose practices align with IndieWeb values--in that sense "IndieWeb" is a category in the same way as "artists" or "small businesses"-- a group defined by similarities in what they do, rather than actual social affiliation. The IndieWeb community has contributed some incredible resources to the web, many of them directly useful to people like me[1].

IndieWebCamp and my trip through the founding documents of the REST architectural style helped me rethink some of the design of this website. This blog (excluding the stream page) is what's called a static site--a site where all of the pages are stored on a server as individual files. This is specifically different than a web app, where much of the content--like a post feed or comment section--is stored in a database for web browsers to request separately from the page structure. Most of my experience has been with web apps, so my initial plan was to use this static site as a stepping-stone while I built out web app-y features like the stream page.

However, I noticed that both the IndieWeb and the REST architectural style suggest reasons to prefer a static site over a web app in my situation. REST principles suggest that each resource (a comment, a post, an image, etc) should have its own identifier[2] so that links to it will continue to work. Certain common features of web app design can interfere with this objective[3]. From the Indieweb side, the advantage of static-ish sites has to do with something called the Webmention protocol for commenting across sites. The way it works is this: when you find something you want to comment, you publish the comment on your site, and send a message to the other site telling it where to find your comment. That site then reads the comment from your site, and either publishes it or links to it. This is what I did to get a link to my IWC RSVP published on the IWC East landing page under the "Indie RSVPs" section. Webmentions work best when the server delivers each page to a browser exactly how it's meant to be shown to the person reading, rather than using JavaScript to generate the page on the browser.

These observations guided my decision to focus on enhancing this website as a static site instead of evolving it into a JavaScript-based web app. Luckily, almost all of what I've done so far remains useful-- the only thing I expect to rewrite is a small amount of the JavaScript on the Stream page, to make the stream more webmention-friendly. Most of my work until now has been on a set of cloud functions that store and organize my photos. These remain useful in their current forms.

Over the past few days I've written four small cloud functions to manage this website's next version as a static site that automatically updates whenever I save new work. My next tasks are to expand those functions so that they support everything currently on this site, migrate from the existing structure to the new structure, and continue to build new features. I hope to be able to do an in-depth look at the design I'm using within the next couple of posts.

  1. One of the IndieWeb's biggest contributions, for my money, is their participation in standards that describe how websites owned by different people and groups might interoperate. I've mentioned previously that one of the big competitive advantages enjoyed by for-profit social media systems is that they sidestep messy questions of trust. For instance, Facebook's login system provides pretty good guarantees that the name on a comment or a like reflects a specific entity, unlike a system where you can choose to submit whatever name you want for each comment. The IndieWeb has no such centralized nexus of trust except for the Domain Name System, but it faces similar challenges. Members of the IndieWeb have contributed several brilliant techniques for meeting these challenges, including a distrubuted identity system and a protocol for interacting between different websites. ↩︎

  2. URI, historically also called URL ↩︎

  3. I don't mean that web apps inherently violate REST principles--some, like Wordpress, can be configured in ways that adhere to the REST style. But the freedom that web apps give you to build in arbitrary ways brings with it cooresponding freedom to shoot yourself in the foot. Web apps that render HTML on the server, like Wordpress, tend to fall more naturally into REST patterns than ones that render HTML in the browser. This also applies to the subsequent discussion of web apps and the Webmention protocol--server-side rendering supports Webmentions about as easily as static sites. ↩︎